Easy Way Out

For Tim* ’16, doing homework for his Intro to Calculus Honors class has little to do with finding solutions to problems. In fact, for most problems, he never even reaches a solution.

“As long as you have stuff on the page, you get checked off,” Tim said.

Toward the beginning of the year, Tim figured out that his homework grade was more dependent on the amount of writing on the page than on his actual work. Pressured by homework from other classes, Tim developed his current method of doing math homework.

“Usually, I’ll do the beginning of the problem and never finish it, because that’s more writing on the page,” Tim said. “I don’t think it has a huge impact, and I have more important homework, like history reading.”

However, even his new method of completing math homework was not enough to get him through his heavy workload. Tim was having difficulty with “The Great Gatsby,” the book he was reading for English class, and he soon saw that he would need more time in order to perform better in English III Honors. He needed an alternative method of reading English assignments.

Tim had not resorted to using SparkNotes, an online resource that provides information about classic literature texts for students, but faced with the choice of watching his English grade drop or using outside resources to aid his English reading, which is strictly prohibited by the Honor Code, Tim plans to use SparkNotes to prepare for his next reading quiz.

“I just don’t remember any of the characters in ‘Gatsby’ or what happens,” Tim said. “There’s something about the book that just doesn’t connect for me, so in order to do well, since I don’t have time to keep rereading because it’s so dense, I have to use SparkNotes.”

Tim is not the only student who deals with his heavy homework load by taking shortcuts or neglecting assignments entirely.

In his sophomore year, Jack* ’16 read his history homework diligently every day.

As a junior, however, he often skips the AP US History reading entirely and has rarely glanced at the supplementary books, written by historians Howard Zinn and Richard Hofstadter.

“A lot of the time, when there’s a big thing in Zinn or Hofstadter, I’ll do the hub readings and just glance at the Zinn, because I have physics homework to do that’s graded and really matters,” Jack said. “I don’t think [history homework] matters, considering that we go over the reading in class anyway.”

History teacher Eric Zwemer does not feel that students should necessarily read every word of their history homework.

“Different kinds of reading assignments should be read differently,” Zwemer said.

However, he does encourage that students at least read the textbook every night to better understand the material.

“In class, if you haven’t done the reading, then you’re coming in cold, and whatever is said in that class is all you’re going to get,” Zwemer said.

Chris Darden ’16 said that he almost never references the answers before doing math homework, but at times he feels that the homework won’t help him learn.

“The best way to learn the material is to cement it in your brain, but when it’s 2 in the morning and you still have math homework, no matter what you do, you’re still not going to remember it,” Darden said.

In English classes, some students use resources such as SparkNotes or “nibble more around the edges” of their reading assignments, English Department Head Larry Weber said.

Weber said that most students seem to read assignments thoroughly.

However, Weber said that the number of students who reference SparkNotes and similar literary guides is “more than we like to think,” and there is no substitute to carefully reading.

“You have to think of what you might miss if you were never to read a great work of literature,” Weber said. “The actual works, if you read a humble variety of them, invite you to build a knowledge base of what it can mean to live a human life.  SparkNotes versions seem empty alternatives.”

Some foreign language students also find ways to lighten their homework load in language classes.

Latin teacher Derek Wilairat said homework is crucial to developing key translation techniques in a foreign language.

“In learning any language, I feel that there’s a lot of vocabulary to learn,” Wilairat said. “There’s grammar. All these things take practice. Homework is a way for students to get key practice learning vocabulary, building their skills, improving their translation skills in the case of Latin.”

However, Wilairat believes that many students copy translations from the internet or fake annotations for homework checks.

“In Latin, the key thing is to build your vocabulary, build your skills, and become a better translator, and the way to do that is through practice,” Wilairat said. “So while copying a translation from online may give you something to present for the homework check, it accomplishes absolutely nothing in terms of your long-term goal of becoming better at Latin.”

Similar methods of taking homework shortcuts are also used in non-core classes such as computer science. In some classes, for example, students are required to submit code online, and many copy others’ code or even share their solutions on social media sites such as Facebook.

Sam* ’17 uses other students’ code for computer science labs because he feels that he needs the time he could spend writing code to study for other subjects.

“Computer science is in that prime spot before history and math, so I often have to study for those classes in computer science, and I might not have time to do the labs,” Sam said.

Although students find homework shortcuts in a variety of classes, some feel that these homework shortcuts make learning the material more difficult. Ethan Gruman ’15 said that, although his physics teacher gives students homework solutions, he very rarely looks at the solutions before he independently works on the problem.

“I always try to solve a problem on my own before seeking help,” Gruman said. “I find doing the homework thoroughly without help first is helpful, so you get more practice and so you understand what you don’t get right away so you can work on it.”

Ultimately, however, Tim is satisfied with taking shortcuts that, in his opinion, are necessary for him to achieve the grades he wants.

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