Tuesday, September 4, 2012


Ask any student (and any teacher), and they'll tell you that home work is a four letter word.

A couple of weeks ago I said that summer was over... and you know what that means. It is time to go back to school. And with school comes... homework. The image is ominous - workbooks with questions that must be answered... papers that must be written... projects that must be completed... all-nighters that must be pulled... it is understandable how students can wonder if there is a good way out of it.

When I was in college, people would frequently ask some question about an academic subject on an online forum. Sometimes, they would be smart and ask a vague question... but all too often, they would post something that was very specific. It was pretty easy to pick out these homework questions, and sometimes someone else in the class would try to guide the person to answering it themselves. Increasingly, we saw TAs from the class responding to the question with "come see me during office hours tomorrow".

It used to bother me at the time - people weren't learning the skills they would need to solve the problem themselves. They were learning to find the answer to the question already solved for them. Unless they then took the time to look at the answer - they wouldn't understand it. I found this happening more and more amongst computer programmers - people would try to solve a problem by finding a "cookbook" method that already solved it. This makes sense in some ways - why try to solve the problem twice? But it feels like it increasingly developed programmers who weren't able to solve problems or understand why their programs worked... or didn't. It vexes me when I see questions on help forums asking for specific examples to solve a problem, without the ability to understand references to documentation, and I worry a lot when I begin to see myself using cookbook solutions.

In life, being able to examine problems and find solutions, instead of turning to a book of solutions, is important. Not least of which so we are able to evaluate which solutions (from a book) are best for our situation at that moment. We don't need to know everything. We do need to be able to evaluate the worth of anything. These are lessons that aren't easily taught... and may come out in the strangest places. Consider, for example, the scenario where a desperate student asked for a summary of a summer reading book... and was gently urged by the author to actually read the book. Would it have been as valuable if the author had just given him the summary? (Update: Looks like the post was deleted, so you may need to check out this article about the event or possibly this one, with the full text of the question and reply.)

But we know that students aren't the only ones that dislike homework... teachers aren't exactly big fans of it either. They have to grade the homework, after all! (I'm sure there are piles of students out there who are willing to skip doing their homework so teachers don't have to grade them.) But teachers may end up taking shortcuts when grading as well... or shortcuts when asking questions that make their own lives easier. In the recent Harvard cheating scandal, some critics are pointing out that the take-home exam that students are accused of answering together required examples from the course material instead of broader analysis. Although this made it easier for the teacher to grade (there were specific things the teacher, or a grader, could look for), it also meant that the students all had a limited set of key words and phrases they knew they needed to include.

But school is here... a time, we hope, for learning and growing. And part of that learning and growing is taking on the homework.

Unfortunately (and fortunately) the homework never really ends.

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