Teaching Thursday: A College Class Without Homework

Next semester, I’m taking my 150-180 student introductory level Western Civilization class and reorganizing it for an enrollment of around 40 students. I’ve blogged about my Western Civilization class in the past and how I used the university’s new-at-the-time Scale-Up classroom to guide groups of students to produce a textbook. 

The revised version of this class will meet once a week at night for 2.5 hours. As I’ve started to think about how to change my syllabus, I got to thinking about how to balance in class and outside of class writing and reading assignments. For an introductory level class, there is a fine line between assignments and expectations. It’s easy to expect the class to complete small assignments and reading on a weekly basis, but harder to expect them to complete – in a thoughtful way – longer writing assignments (over, say, 2 or 3 pages) and longer reading assignments (over, say, 20 pages) regularly. 

There are quite a few (and relatively predictable) reasons for this. First, students in an introductory level class have a wide range of aptitudes, skills, and tolerances. What is a barely manageable pile of reading for one student is a quick read for another. The same goes for writing. More than that, out students at UND hail from a range circumstances. For some students, school and even a lowly 100-level class is the main focus of their attention. For others, school competes with work, family, and other complicating factors. Students also have competing priorities on campus. A 100-level class has a tendency to slide to the bottom of their priority list after more demanding (and frankly important) classes in their majors. As a result, attention to this class competes with their other studies. This is compounded by students’ tendency to take more than a “full load” of 15 or so credits. 

There’s an old adage that for every credit, expect 2 hours of work per week. This means for a 15 credit semester, a student should expect about 30 hours of outside of class work, plus the 2.5 hours or so of class time for each 3-credit class. This usually amounts to another 10 or so hours per week. While 40 hours per week doesn’t sound like much, that assumes a student is only taking 5, 3-credit classes. Some of our students take 6, which would add another 8 hours to that total and this does not count labs and more demanding courses that require more than the 6 hours per week of work. This also doesn’t factor in time for employment, family commitments, and other non-academic university activities, from sports to clubs, internships, and other social and educational opportunities. 

I still have bitter-sweet memories of my college days. I spent too much time hunkered down in the library attempting (and mostly failing) to learn ancient languages, to master historical narratives, to understand challenging texts, and to write thoughtful papers. I’m not too proud to admit that grade inflation at a small, liberal arts university helped me convert those hours of work into reasonable grades. If I was graded on what I learned or what I understood of Greek or Biblical Hebrew, the works of Chinua Achebe, the History of Canada, or differential equations, I’d have barely managed a “B” average (and even that some of my professors would have disputed!). Fortunately for me, the modern system helped a student like me by rewarding work as much as learning.

On the one hand, this system is good because it levels the playing field a bit between those with strong aptitudes for various subjects, better pre-college preparation, or more experience in college and those who are willing to grunt it out and do all the work in the hope for future rewards. On the other hand, this system is designed to benefit students who, like me, only worked 10 or 15 hours per week outside of class, had few social or family complications, and was relatively healthy physically and mentally. More than that, the habits that I formed in this system were not all healthy. Even today, I am not well-rounded, often believe work can replace ideas, and achieve whatever modest success that I have because my life has been mercifully free from family or social complications, physical or mental health issues, or other stressors which might make it harder for me to allow work to consume me. In other words, the rewards I received in college for an unhealthy devotion to academic work have enabled and encouraged my current lifestyle and career.

Thinking about these things brought me back to the idea of a college class – particularly at the introductory level –  without home work. As I have blogged about in the past, my Scale-Up class had genuinely remarkable levels of student engagement. Not only did students come to class every week (and attendance has always been a problem in my introductory level classes), but they participated, often enthusiastically, in the individual and group activities. More than that, it appears that this approach produced decent quality work. I’m fairly convinced that the level of engagement in this class and the improved attendance would compensate for at least some of the conventional expectation that students read, write, and prepare outside of class.

Introductory level history course primarily attract non-majors looking to complete various requirements. These students tend to be more likely to struggle to find time or interest outside of the classroom to finish readings or focus on writing. Prioritizing classroom time, attendance, and engagement, would help concentrate the work in the class into a scheduled, supervised and crafted block of time. The hope is that not only would the instructor be better able to observe and work with students as they focus on assignments and projects, but students would have greater access to the instructor and fellow students if they struggle. Moreover, this might even short circuit the tendency for students who are struggling outside of class to skip classes because they haven’t read, completed assignments, or are otherwise unprepared. 

The hope is that a class without homework will not result in less work, at least for students who struggle the most with conflicting demands and priorities leading them to give introductory level courses less sustained and serious attention, but in better work and ultimately more learning. 

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