Higher Education Part 1: of Homework and Exams

Show of hands, who likes endless homework and cryptic exams?

No takers? Thought not. No one likes those things. They waste time and just make you wish crappy jobs paid better so you could stick with them. And yet, it seems just about every teacher at four-year colleges thinks this is the best way to teach. Why though? It’s not like it makes life any easier on them, they (or TAs) have still got to grade them after all. Huge waste for everyone.

It’s not even like there aren’t alternatives. I’ve been in classes with no (formal) exams whatsoever. Sure, those classes make up for it by having papers due almost every week, but they’re usually decent papers which allow the students to actually show they understand the subject matter. And, averaging 1500 words, they’re short enough not to be annoying. The relaxed time-scale of writing a paper in your bed, or a coffee shop, or on the road, or in a ditch, or in a courthouse helps even poor students get better grades too, since they have a chance to actually think about what they’re doing! I’ve seen plenty of smart people get really low scores on timed exams, but I’ve never seen those people turn in a bad paper.

Is it just because that’s how a lot of professors were trained, and how things were when they were learning too? Is that actually a good reason? “It’s that way because it’s always been that way!” By that logic, America’s Founding Fathers should have just kept things the way they were and let the British continue to rule them. In the same way, slaves should have stayed where they were, and women should never have got the right to vote, and the Earth should have stayed flat. Clearly tradition is not a sufficient reason for continuation.

Homework ought to help you engage with in-class material and learn, not just stuff to keep you busy until the next class. The way it’s done now is more like a system for managing the youth. Keep ’em occupied so they don’t cause too much trouble for the adults. Is that useful? Yes, when we’re talking about children who will do all sorts of dumb stuff for no reason other than to be a bother. It’s not very helpful when we’re talking about people who are nineteen and up trying to learn real skills so they can get a decent job and avoid starving on the streets.

In a lot of community colleges and vocational schools, they seem to understand this. The work is focused and reasonable, and any “busywork” is actually valuable practice for difficult concepts. The professors actually respect student time and give real opportunities to show what you know. They also avoid basing so much of the final grade on exam scores. Sometimes you miss an exam, or maybe you’re a bad test-taker. Either way, a class where half the grade is the final is a great way tank your GPA.

Yes, I know it’s the responsibility of the student to make sure they schedule correctly and learn how to work with the testing system. That’s actually my problem though. Every class I’m in, it seems like my classmates spend more time trying to figure out how to game the system than they do trying to actually learn the material. Is that what employers really want? People who have PHDs in doing the bare minimum?

I believe there needs to be a change in the way daily classwork is structured. Students ought not be penalized for not being good at a system which doesn’t even reflect the way businesses and people operate in the real world. No one is going to ask, “How exactly does one correct a error in the way allowance for bad debts was recorded?”, and then insist you answer it then and there without looking it up in a book or online. They’ll ask you to do some actual task, like check their books, and expect you to do it by some date. The academic environment, such has it is today, needs to find some way to reflect the reality for which they are preparing students, or those students will be woefully inadequate when the time comes to do actual work.


Thanks for reading! This is the first in a series of rants I’m doing about higher education in the US. Throughout the series, I talk about the system of higher education, and opportunities I see for improvement. I don’t know exactly what the subjects will be yet, but I do have some ideas. Stay tuned!

6 Replies to “Higher Education Part 1: of Homework and Exams”

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