Homework and time expectations — high school vs. college

Athletes who go from high school to college sports never find it hard to understand that college work is harder than high school; but somehow students who make the same jump often don’t encounter the same understanding. Right Wing Nation has this article about the differences in expectations for homework between high school and college:

According to a study published by the Chronicle of Higher Education, 48% of faculty members expect students to do six or more hours of homework every week, while only 17% of secondary school teachers expected that much work. Fifty-five percent of secondary school teachers expected only three to five hours of homework a week, and a full 28% — that’s over a quarter — expected no homework to two hours of homework a week. […]

May I humbly suggest that parents who think their kids get too much homework are, to say the least, misguided? Tell me, parents, what are your kids going to do when they get to the university, and are suddenly required to work outside of class for the first time in their lives? If you’re going to call me at the end of the semester and inform me that little Johnny should have gotten an A even if he didn’t do the work for the class, you’re in for a reality check if you think I care what you think.

Fortunately, I have never had a parent call me with that specific complaint — most of the parents of our students are the type who don’t put up with slacking — but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if I did. The current high school culture tends to push students in the direction of doing as much as possible, and when they get to college and try to do the same amount of stuff, they find it doesn’t fit.

The typical student taking, say, a 16-credit hour course load will be spending 16 hours a week in class and then another 32 studying outside the classroom. That 48-hour total is not only reasonable within the context of a normal life, it also mirrors exactly the kind of work commitment the student will have once s/he is out of college and in the workforce. Fitting it in is merely a matter of time management and getting one’s priorities straight. Which means it’s really only about priorities. Students who realize that they are, first and foremost, students — whose top priority is learning as much as one can in the limited amount of time they have in college — won’t have a problem fitting their lives around that 50-or-so hour block of time. The rest will find it impossible because the allure of everything that is not school will just be too great. You can read more about that in this earlier post.

In the case of students who must work 40+ hours per week in order to pay for college and everything else, I would say that these students need to count the cost before starting college. If spending 50+ hours per week, every week, on schoolwork simply cannot coexist with your life, then you really ought to consider putting off college until you’re in a financial situation that allows it. (However, I suspect a lot of students who “have” to work are merely trying to attain a lifestyle that is beyond their means, and a four-year personal moratorium on luxury items might go a long way in easing both the time and financial costs of college.)

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Filed under Education, High school, Higher ed, Life in academia, Student culture, Teaching

5 responses to “Homework and time expectations — high school vs. college

  1. This may seem out of character for me, but I’m going to play devil’s advocate on this one ;). Specifically, I’m going to challenge your standard of a “normal life” with respect to the number of hours spent in labor/career pursuits. You allude to a standard somewhere around 48-50 hours per week, and I frankly think that standard is both synthetic (as in imposed upon us by economic forces, and not natural) and unhealthy, particularly with respect to family life. I work about 50 hours a week now, and as it is I feel like I barely see my kids during the work week. I think I should be working fewer hours, not more, and I think our nation as a whole could benefit from a reduced-load work ethic. If we all spent more time with our spouses and kids, or even more time doing physical exercise, we’d be much better off as a culture. (Of course, if we spend that extra 8 hours a week watching TV, we’re screwed for different reasons…)

    But back to the point of the challenge: why do you think it is appropriate to demand from students (and model for students) a 48-50 hour work week? The fact that you and I both pull such hours isn’t a good enough response: why do you think it should be normative? What about the essence of human fulfillment do you think requires such a work load, vs., say, a 35 hour week (the standard in much of Europe)?

  2. Better off? Look to Europe. They’re hardly better off.

    “But back to the point of the challenge: why do you think it is appropriate to demand from students (and model for students) a 48-50 hour work week?”

    Because they’re in college. They have obligations, and either the meet their obligations, or they fail.

  3. In a free-market system, economic forces ARE natural. The length of a work week is not imposed by the government but settled upon by market forces as the balance between productivity and profitability on the one hand, and worker morale on the other, that works for the optimum (not necessarily perfect) level for both labor and management.

    If a person gets a job that requires him to work 70 hours a week, that person has the freedom to choose how he will balance his priorities and personal values. A person can choose that kind of job because it’s better than being unemployed; or because they are getting killer salary and benefits and perhaps are single; or whatever. Or, that person can choose not to take the job or even to enter another profession. (Or in my personal case, figure out how to work more efficiently so that 45 hours a week is enough to get my stuff done.) Either way, nobody forces a person to take or not take a certain job or work a certain number of hours per week. It’s a choice that each person makes when rationally weighing their options and values. And therefore not in the purview of a government to say one way or the other how it should be.

    Second, I’m not saying anything about whether the 40-hour work week “should” be anything. I’m not proposing that it “should” be normative; I’m saying that it *is* based on how things really are. And to communicate otherwise to students is to set them up for a big steaming mug of culture shock when they graduate. (I feel the same way about early morning classes — students should take them now, because it’s not too many good jobs that let you start at 11:00 AM.)

    I think we’d all like more time with family, and I think if I only worked 20 hrs/week I’d still want more time.

  4. virusdoc

    Robert: I’m still convinced that we have some calling to model a lifestyle of resistance of the way things “really are” when the ways things are violates the way they should or ought to be. And the number of hours worked, particularly in my field, is clearly in excess of what is healthy, both by faculty and grad students. I made a commitment as a grad student not to work more hours than was healthy (in anticipation of future family responsibilities) and I was largely able to get through grad school working an average 40 hour week, with some notable seasonal exceptions (like writing my dissertation). This is still my standard, and I feel an obligation to model it for my students. I’ve seen too many marriages in science fall apart due to obsessive work schedules on the part of one or both spouses, and I’ve seen many parents have distant relationships with their kids for the same reasons. I suspect this is true in most professional fields.

    We have the opportunity, at least to some degree, to determine how great the time obligations we place on our students are. This may be more true for our grad students than for our undergrads. But it is my goal to help my students to be healthy, fulfilled humans first, and successful scientists second. Economic forces must be acknowledged, but they don’t have to win the debate. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I start my own lab and get to decide what type of work hours to adopt myself, and by extension what I will expect of my students.

  5. Liz

    Robert, two striking differences between high school and college are:

    (1) high school kids typically take more classes, more subjects, than college students

    (2) high school kids typically are in the classroom more hours per week than college students.

    Thus, a different balance between classroom time and outside-of-class workload.

    Right now my youngest is a senior in high school. She’s on campus about 34 hours per week, and in class for nearly 30 (not counting extras like play rehearsal). Last year was the most gruelling: US History, US Literature, 4th year Spanish, Chemistry, Statistics, Moral Philosophy (she’s in Catholic school) and studio art.

    If each of her instructors last year had expected her to do 6 hours of out-of-class work each week, the out of class work alone would have been 42 hours of work a week.

    The University of California is the big gorilla in our neck of the woods. The a-g requirements:

    Two years of history, 3 recommended
    Four years of English
    Three years of math, 4 recommended
    Two years of laboratory science, three recommended
    Two years of foreign language, three recommended
    One year visual/performing arts, two recommended
    One year of “elective”

    My daughter’s high school graduation requirements are rather more rigorous than the a-g requirements, as 8 semesters of social sciences (history + other courses such as psychology) are required, plus 7 semesters of theology, plus two semesters of physical education, plus 100 hours per year of community service.

    The requirements work out to carrying seven classes per semester. I cannot remember ever having a 7-class courseload in college.

    Last year, her workload averaged about 1.5/1 ratio for class time to homework time (1.5 hours of class time = 1 hour of out-of-class work). So she was clocking about 50 hours a week of school work (in class and out).

    Then there’s the 40 minutes of commute time between home and school (20 minutes each way).

    Then there’s the 10-15 hours of athletic practice/training per week (the sports she participates in aren’t counted toward the two-semester graduation requirement).

    What unsophisticated students don’t “get” is that fewer classroom hours at the college level translates into more independent, out-of-class work.

    I think my daughter is prepared.