The end of homework in higher education

The president of France pledges to ban homework.

Trent M. Kays

Last week, the president of France, François Hollande, pledged to abolish homework as part of his education reforms. Arguing that homework is a burden on an already overworked youth, Hollande suggested more is at play in this educational struggle  than  schoolwork at home. Some students are at an advantage over other students because some can get help with their homework from parents. Unfortunately, this is not a privilege afforded every child, and as such, it creates an expanding chasm between those who succeed and those who fail.

Hollande, a socialist, articulated his thoughts clearly: “An education program is, by definition, a societal program. Work should be done at school rather than at home.” This work would put students on a more even playing field, as all students would then have the same access to their teachers and school resources. This move is a dramatic one, though certainly not unheard of.

Recently, a high school in Germany abolished homework to give their students a break, and an elementary school in Maryland banned homework as well. Despite these small acts, Hollande is the first elected leader of a nation to pledge the abolition of homework. This move seems to be gaining momentum, yet the majority of educational institutions still favor homework.

The belief in homework is one that has always eluded me. As a student, I never gained as much from homework as I did from in-class interaction. Even the idea of homework seems antiquated and almost romantic. In many ways, the image of a lone student toiling away late into the night to finish reams of homework assignments doesn’t seem right. Learning is best done in a collaborative environment, where ideas can be bandied about. Is there not something to better occupy a student’s time?

While Hollande’s move is laudable, it doesn’t include higher education. Perhaps it is because Hollande has less control of higher education in his country than public education. Or maybe he doesn’t want to deal with the demands and outcries of pompous professors. Whatever the case, I’m starting to enjoy the idea of banning homework in higher education. This doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be work; it just means there wouldn’t be schoolwork for students at home.

Why is banning homework in higher education a good thing? Despite my progressive teaching style, I still must contend with many of my colleagues who still require students to do some work at home. The main reason seems to be inadequate class meeting time. There  simply isn’t enough time during class to go over content and allow time for students to work. But, herein lies the solution: Class content and class work shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.

What if the work students did in class was through the content they were exploring? Seems like a simplistic idea, or an idea that should be common sense. But I assure you it is not. There are still too many teachers in higher education who just stand at the front of the class and talk. That’s it. Little engagement and little interaction are available to students. Indeed, this is the way higher education has been done since its inception. The knowledge-holding teachers fill the knowledge-lacking students’ empty heads.

Much like everything that is a bureaucracy, higher education is slow to change. Really, it’s even slow to think about how slow it is to change. So, I doubt homework will be abolished throughout higher education any time soon.

As a teacher, I don’t want homework to be abolished so I will have less to grade. In truth, I abhor grading. I think the current model of grading employed by most universities counters active and engaged learning. I think grades inhibit students more than help them achieve success. I believe in abolishing homework because I care about my students. The work will remain; it’ll merely be contained within a supportive learning space.

Any student who has taken one of my courses knows we do plenty of in-class work. We write, we think critically, we explore topics and we have fun. We work — and I think that’s an important distinction. We work, meaning, I work alongside my students and they alongside me. I do the in-class work with them. I write with them. I help them, and they help me.

This is what learning should look like. No teacher knows everything, though some certainly act like they do. I don’t need to hide behind homework to help my students.  Many  students get homework back without any explanation as to the grade they received. It feels like some teachers hide behind homework so they don’t have to be confronted by their students.

I don’t want students to do classwork outside of class because they have to. I want them to do it because they want to. I can teach students how to research, how to cite and the basics of writing. This isn’t enough, though. I want to explore, succeed and fail with my students all in the same class meeting. I want them to go home and think about their long-term semester writing. I want them to read and ponder what they’ll write for my course.

It’s hard to negotiate time between content and work in a fixed class meeting. However, we should try. Our students deserve our effort, and we deserve their effort. Time is precious, and it shouldn’t be spent buried under a mountain of homework.