Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Why do students want more homework?

International faculty member, CMU-Pittsburgh

When I began teaching in the U.S., I didn’t assign homework. Instead, I graded students exclusively on a midterm and final. But upon receiving a blistering set of course evaluations after my first semester, I discovered that students here want me to give homework. This caught me by surprise. In my home country college students aren’t generally assigned homework. There are exercises they can do on their own, but it’s up to them whether or how they do them, and their work is not graded. Everything is focused on the final exam, and students prepare for it as they see fit; they work independently and don’t expect or get feedback. To me, the U.S. students’ insistence on homework seemed, well, childish. However, I talked with several American colleagues and they see the issue quite differently. It’s the instructor’s responsibility to provide practice opportunities, they told me, not the students’ responsibility to find their own. Moreover, they said that a midterm and final alone do not provide students with sufficient feedback on their progress. They agreed with my students that more homework is in order.

It still seems odd to me to assign homework to college students, but my colleagues have helped me understand the U.S. system better. Now I assign more homework. While I sometimes wish students here were as independent as students in my home country, I see the value of early feedback and I respect my students for wanting to practice the skills they are learning. There are pros and cons to both educational systems, I think, and neither is perfect. But this is where I am, these are the students I have, and I’ve come to appreciate them the way they are.

Other strategies

  • Identify the skills and knowledge students need to possess to perform well on high-stakes assessments (e.g., midterm and final exams.) Then develop shorter, lower-stakes exercises that will give students practice developing these skills. Create homework that provides this practice.
  • If you don’t know how much homework is reasonable, ask your colleagues how much homework they generally assign and of what type. Talk to a number of colleagues to assess the range of practices in your department. Also ask your colleagues how much weight they give to homework relative to higher-stakes assessments like exams and final projects. Use this information as a benchmark to develop your own homework practices.
  • To accurately assess the time it will take students to complete assigned homework, ask a TA to complete your assignments and tell you how much time it takes. Then double or triple that time for undergraduates.
  • Consider giving students in-class practice opportunities, such as small-group problem solving. This can accomplish some of the same goals as homework.
  • If you opt not to assign homework – or even if you do – direct students to resources (e.g., on-line question banks, chapter quizzes) with practice problems they can do on their own.
  • If you’d like students to seek out their own practice opportunities or applications of course principles, make this a homework assignment, e.g., “Identify three real world problems that this statistical method could help you solve, and explain how you’d go about solving them.”

For help brainstorming or adapting strategies to your own teaching context, contact the Eberly Center in Pittsburgh, the Eberly Center in Qatar, or the Intercultural Communication Center in Pittsburgh.