At midnight during exam week, teenagers should be nestled all snug in their beds, but many are up late cramming. Late night studying happens not only during exam week, but also on nights before tests and project deadlines. Sadly, many students interpret commands to “try your best” as demands to cheat sleep. Cheating sleep then reduces students’ learning efficiency, and reductions in learning efficiency require the cheating of more sleep.
As teachers and administrators, we tell students that sleep is important, and that health comes before homework. We grant extensions when necessary. We refer students to learning specialists for help managing time and to counselors for help managing stress. We wonder why students continue to experience stress and cheat sleep despite our best efforts. What is missing from our efforts? Curricular time studies are missing.
Many schools conduct homework surveys. Although the survey results help schools identify students who spend unhealthy amounts of time on homework, the surveys suffer from limitations. The surveys cover limited time periods. The surveys do not account for differences between exercises designed to take a set amount of time and project-based homework designed to allow students’ passions to dictate time on task. Teachers might reduce homework loads during survey times. Not all students spend their reported homework time free of distractions such as text messages, younger siblings, and social networking sites. The largest limitation of homework surveys involves timing—the surveys diagnose problems after the fact. The surveys do not prevent unhealthy demands upon students’ time.
Curricular time studies, by contrast, provide positive, proactive approaches to avoiding unhealthy homework loads. Educators can examine curricula in advance of implementation and estimate exactly how much time the curricula will require from students for all homework tasks, including reading, writing, researching, project-creating, and studying.
The first time I conducted a curricular time study, the results were astonishing. The school limited homework assignments to twenty minutes per subject per school night and prohibited homework assignments over holidays, three-day weekends, and special event nights. I estimated that the school allowed teachers to assign a total of forty hours of homework per school year for each core academic subject.
Next, I estimated the number of words in each of the four novels in the English curriculum I was studying, and I estimated the average reading speed of students at that grade level. I assumed that each student would need one hour to study for each test and one hour to write each paper required by the curriculum. I did not factor in any student homework time for learning vocabulary or grammar. I assumed the bare minimum of homework time necessary to support the curriculum. The English Department teachers were astonished to learn that the curriculum required a minimum of eighty hours of homework—twice the forty hours of homework that the school allowed the teachers to assign.
The curriculum/homework discrepancy appears not only in English courses. How many science teachers have despaired when expected to teach a textbook of 1000+ pages? How much homework time is required to support a science curriculum that attempts to cover the material in a textbook that large? Assuming 165 class days in the school year, students will need to learn six of those content-heavy pages every school day with no exceptions made for laboratory days, review days, exams, field trips, or early dismissals for sports purposes.
In some schools, the demands of the International Baccalaureate program exceed the demands of other curricula offered by the school. The IBO’s International Education Research Database (http://research.ibo.org/) does not include any curricular time studies of the International Baccalaureate program. The entire IB program, including its TOK, extended essay, and CAS components, requires substantial time from students’ lives. The demands on IB students’ time increase in schools where teachers feel pressures from parents, administrators, governing bodies, and others to improve the school’s average IB, AP, and SAT results. When a student struggles with a learning disability, or when a student’s mother tongue does not match the school’s language of instruction, the IB program demands even more from the student.
Although no articles in the IBO’s International Education Research Database directly address the issue of how much time the IB curriculum requires from students, four articles included in the database touch upon the issue. One study found, “students in an IB program perceive significantly more stress than a sample of 168 of their general education peers” (Suldo, 2008). Another study used factor analysis to found, “The primary source of stress experienced by IB students was related to academic requirements” (Suldo, 2009).
A recent dissertation from George Mason University included a literature review of multiple unpublished studies of students involved in IB programs (Daly, 2012). In one study, “37% of student respondents considered the IB diploma program to be detrimental to their well-being” (Daly, 2012, p. 92). Another study reported parents’ opinions that “the program is too much work that interferes with their children’s social lives” (Daly, 2012, p. 97). A study in Texas found “the difficulty of the [IB] program for some students and the amount of student work required was another critical issue addressed by more than half the schools” (Sillisano, 2010).
Clearly, more research is needed both on the school level regarding the time demands of school-created curricula, and on larger levels regarding the time demands of externally-created curricula including the IB and other externally assessed programs. Excess time demands affect not just student health and well-being, but also affect employment relations and public relations. When mismatches occur, teachers are forced choose between following the curricula or following the homework limits. Schools risk receiving parent and student complaints about lack of advertised academic rigor, excessive homework demands, or both.
Caring for students requires a proactive approach to studying the time demands that curricula place on student lives. Curricula time studies should consider not just the academic time demands, but also the demands of school sponsored sports, arts, community service, and college counseling programs.
Wenda Sheard, J.D., Ph.D. is a trustee of Potential Plus UK (www.potentialplusuk.org), past president of Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted (www.sengifted.org), and dorm parent and teacher at TASIS England.
Daly, K. (2012). An exploration of Virginia law on recognition, university officials, and perceptions of the International Baccalaureate diploma program. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). George Mason University. Fairfax, Virginia, USA.
Shaunessy, E. and Suldo, S. (2010). Strategies used by intellectually gifted students to cope with stress during their participation in a high school International Baccalaureate program. Gifted Child Quarterly, 54(2), 127-137.
Shaunessy, E., Suldo, S. M., Hardesty, R. B. and Shaffer, E. J. (2006). School functioning and psychological well-being of International Baccalaureate and general education students: a preliminary examination. Journal of Secondary Gifted Education, 17(2), 76-89.
Sillisano, J. R. et. al. (2010). Evaluation of International Baccalaureate programmes in Texas schools. State of Texas Education Research Center. College Station, Texas.
Suldo, S. M., Shaunessy, E. and Hardesty, R. (2008). Relationships among stress, coping, and mental health in high-achieving high school students. Psychology in the Schools, 45(4), 273-290.
Suldo, S. M., Shaunessy, E., Thalji, A., Michalowski, J. and Shaffer, E. (2009). Sources of stress for students in high school college preparatory and general education programs: group differences and associations with adjustment. Adolescence, 44(176), 925-949.
Acknowledgement: This article was first published in the Summer 2013 edition of International School Magazine under the title “How Much Homework? Curricular Time Studies: Wenda Sheard Recommends an Aid to Student Well-Being.” I thank ECIS for encouraging me to write the article and for publishing the article.
Photos: All photos by Wenda Sheard, Summer 2013.