The dog ate my homework

by Sarah Firisen

So let's talk about college. Or to be more specific, let's have a look at how prepared our children are go to college. And I'm not talking about their academic readiness, though clearly many, many words could be devoted to that. I'm talking about their work habits.

ScreenHunter_09 Oct. 24 10.16My 11-year old daughter, Anya, just entered middle school. If you're even an occasional reader, you'll know that my children go to a small, independent progressive school – the Robert C. Parker school. A conscious, intentional part of both the run-up to middle school in 5th grade and of 6th and 7th grade is to teach the children how to engage in independent study. The purpose of homework, which Anya didn't really get in any meaningful, regular way up until 5th grade, is less about what she learns, and more about how she learns to study. It's about learning to be organized enough that she makes sure she leaves class with all the information she needs to work at home; that she brings the right books and papers with her; that she learns how to prioritize the workload she has – start with the homework due tomorrow, not the work due in three days.

By public school standards, Anya's homework load is still light; if she doesn't procrastinate too much, she can usually easily get it done in an hour a night, and there are still nights when she doesn't have any. Anya, rather like her mother, isn't the most organized or tidy person; there have been some real struggles as she learns to make sure she has her school bag packed with the right materials at the end of the day. And then, she has to remember to take her homework back into school the next morning. But, week by week, she's making progress.

I remember when I was in school in London; it was a private school, but a large rather formal establishment, far removed from the philosophy of my children's school. When we forgot our homework or hadn't done it, we would have to wait outside the teachers' lounge (we weren't allowed to knock on the door) until another teacher walked by. We would then have to catch her eye (it was a girls' school and 99.99% of the teachers were female), and then plead “Mrs Jones, Mrs Jones, can you ask Mrs Smith to come out?) If we were lucky, Mrs Jones would see Mrs Smith and remember to tell her. I sometimes spent entire mid-morning breaks waiting outside of that teachers' lounge.

When Mrs Smith finally came out, I had to do my best to sound convincing and sympathetic in my excuses for why my homework wasn't being handed in that day. Despite the not insignificant school fees my parents paid to send me there, I don't remember anyone actually taking the time to help me develop better, more organized, more efficient working habits. Instead, I would be told off because my work wasn't done.

Anya gets called out on her work habits as well; her teachers have contacted me to tell me that her homework hasn't been done, or hasn't been done to the level they know she's capable of. But, we then work together, the teachers, Anya, myself and my husband, to try to come up with better strategies to help her get back on track. These strategies include making a point of praising her, at school and home, when she does exhibit the work habits we're all trying to inculcate in her.

I'm bringing this up because of a column by Gail Collins in the New York Times this week that talks about the work habits of college kids. It quotes a well-known study, Academically Adrift, that “followed 3,000 students on 29 campuses and determined that after two years, 45 percent showed no significant gain in learning — and even after four years, 36 percent showed little change.” The study goes on to find that, “that 36 percent of the students are studying five or fewer hours a week and get a 3.16 grade average.”

These are some pretty scary statistics, particularly when you consider how much these students and/or their parents are paying for college these days, ” This year, the total amount of outstanding student loans will pass the $1 trillion threshold for the first time”. Beyond the cost, let's not forget how badly, as a country, we need thisgeneration and the ones behind them to be raising their game and leaving college with significant skills. Collins goes on to quote the author of the study, Richard Arum, who points out that current work habits aren't going to cut it in a global economy. In this new world of increasing Chinese dominance (to say nothing of India and beyond), the US can't afford these kinds of work habits in such a significant percentage of its graduating college students.

And these work habits can't be newly acquired for the most part; these young adult have probably gone through their elementary, middle and high school years being taught, as I was, that the actual subject matter was the sole point of the homework rather than also a way to work on independent study, work habits and organizational skills. It turns out that how children learn is as important as what they learn. My children's school spends a lot of time working with the children to help them become invested, self-motivated learners. What we hear back from alumni is that this kind of learning environment makes a huge difference when they move onto high school and then college and find themselves increasingly free to make decisions about how, when and where they study.

College should be a place for self-discovery, developing maturity and fun. But we need it to be more if our graduates are to compete effectively in the new global economy. And if they don't have the right work habits in college to support this, perhaps we should think about making changes far earlier in their lives.