Surveys monitor amount of homework


By Anna Etra

Every year, at the end of each quarter, a form is distributed to every student in grades nine through twelve in every course. The form is 8.5 inches by 3 inches, with one line running across the top: “On average, how many hours per week do you spend on homework?” Under the question, there are three choices: less than three hours per week, about three hours per week and more than three hours per week. The survey is meant to be easy and anonymous, Deborah Dowling, Director of Studies said. Each teacher passes out and collects these forms after giving students about a minute of class time to think about it. That is the end of the process for students when it comes to homework surveys.

For teachers, there is at least one more form they must fill out. For each class he or she teaches, a teacher must add up the amount of students in each category and submit it to Dowling. The data is then entered into a spreadsheet.

In most classes, the information is stored away because the majority of the students put less than or equal to about three hours, the number designated acceptable by the workload committee as a fair amount.

However, if more than fifty percent of the students in a course or in a specific teacher’s class indicate that they are spending more than three hours per week on their homework, the homework load for the class is given a “red flag,” according to Dowling, and the class is further looked into.

For every course or teacher with a class who has a red flag, Dowling speaks to the person in charge of it, either the teacher or the department chair. The teacher speaks to the students about the results, and there is almost always a change in the students’ responses for the next quarter. The other option is that the students in a red flag class could have “gamed the system,” Dowling said. In that case, once a teacher starts discussing in detail the reasons why students might be spending over three hours on homework, and the teacher chooses to give the students an extensive survey about their homework habits, students usually confess falsifying their answers.

The current system has been in place for just over two years. At the beginning, there were many courses and teachers that came back with results leading to red flags. Each time after that, the number of red flags reduced. At the end of the second semester last year, 99 percent of teachers and 99 percent of courses came back with an acceptable result for the amount of homework.

Although teachers feel that homework load evaluation system is helpful, students disagree. “I don’t feel that the homework surveys make a big difference in my overall homework load,” Sophie Turner ’12 said.

Ten years ago, David Hinden chaired the Workload Committee, a group consisting of over 30 teachers, parents and students. The idea for such a committee came up in Faculty Academic Committee meeting. The committee worked together to formally define the maximum amount of homework permitted for each class and decide if the limit should be applied to AP classes. The number decided upon was, on average, three hours per subject per week.

As a result, every six years, the Workload Committee reconvenes to distribute an extensive workload survey. The distribution corresponds to the halfway point of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges accreditation cycle. The result of the first survey was that students got more homework than they could possibly ever do.

Before Dowling developed the current system to survey each quarter, Kent Nealis, a mathematics teacher in charge of FAC, monitored homework. The department chairs would directe the teachers (by department and specific class) to ask students how much time they were spending per week doing homework.

This informal survey was ineffective because by the time the answers came back up through the bureaucracy, “all of the results were in different forms, some of it was missing, and it really was not effective in terms of getting the information in an understandable way and making a change,” Dowling said.

Because students at Harvard-Westlake take so many courses, “teachers are not allowed to give the amount of homework that will give students the best learning experience,” Dowling said, “but rather what would be the most efficient way to learn.”

At first there was concern that teachers would not be able to finish AP curriculums before May but this proved to be false, Dowling said.