Monday, August 8, 2011

Minimize Homework

My philosophy is to give students no greater a homework assignment than is really necessary. If you assign too much work, you run the risk that your students will not do any of it. Besides, a lot of law school reading is boring and difficult to read. Short assignments increase the odds that your students will spend time on the assignment. I rarely assign more than one or two cases per 50 minute class.

In the K-12 world, there has long been a heated discussion on the appropriate amount of homework. Having watched my diligent children slog their way through enormous amounts, I have no allegiance to those teachers who believe that piling on the work improves the quality of the education.

Some of the issues in that debate apply to law school as well. (I recognize  that in some respects, law school differs from K-12.) Here is an article from Columbia University Teachers College “Teachers College Record”: Homework as Superstition by Cathy Vatterrott. Here is an excerpt:

These over-the-top reactions [to calls for less homework] reveal a faction paralyzed by fear—that changing anything about homework will:

lower our standardized test scores. 

ruin our children’s sense of responsibility, leaving them morally bankrupt, unmotivated and unproductive. 

make our children “soft” and doom them to a future of laziness and underachievement. 

seal our country’s fate as a second class nation.

 But none of these unrealistic fears are supported by evidence. These beliefs that are impediments to homework reform are superstitions. They share many traits with other common superstitions. Homework superstitions are beliefs not based on reason or knowledge. Some evidence contrary to the superstitious beliefs about homework is as follows:

 Fifteen years of meta-analyses of research indicate the limitations of K-12 homework to influence achievement (Cooper, 1994, 2001, 2007).

 In a comparison of 50 countries, the research shows that the highest achieving countries actually do less homework than lower achieving countries (Baker & LeTendre, 2005).

 There is no research to support that homework promotes responsibility or discipline in children (Kohn, 2006).


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And when they see the homework when they get to the firm or the judge's chambers, uh oh. Somehow it seems, and this is anecdotal, that the complaints about workload from newly hired law school graduates tend to correlate with prior experience. Trying to run a marathon after having never run more than 5k is quite a shock to the system. It can be done, but on the client's dime? The amount of K-12 homework has become excessive in many instances, but the amount of work being asked of law students has been declining steadily for several decades. It's tough to conclude that they're getting into as good intellectual shape as they would be if they were putting in 3 hours outside of class for every hour in class (as happens in some courses but not all courses). As for doing no work if the assignment is "too long," what will they do with the 50 DVDs full of documents, with completion expected in one week?

Posted by: Jim Maule | Aug 9, 2011 2:42:56 PM

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