Homework and testing are controversial aspects of education. Many people feel that the classroom should be treated like a job site, with work only done under appropriate oversight and supervision to ensure fairness and effectiveness. Others feel that testing, with weeks or months of rigorous material condensed into intense and complex assessments, does little but fill students with stress. Critics feel that homework and testing do not adequately reveal student aptitude or help students learn more.
A look at the pros and cons of these two longstanding educational pillars:
Homework is advantageous in that it requires students to learn self-motivation and self-discipline. While most students can perform under the watchful gaze of a teacher, it takes diligence to perform when nobody is constantly overseeing or giving verbal reminders. Homework gives students the opportunity to learn how to motivate themselves. It also allows students the ability to use their own creativity in completing tasks, discovering which educational resources they prefer most. At its most successful, homework can teach students how to innovate and improvise, learning how to successfully complete a task without constant oversight from a teacher.
Another benefit from homework is that it keeps students’ minds working even after the final school bell of the day has rung. A bout of evening homework, even if brief, may be help keep learned knowledge fresh in students’ minds until the next morning. Without homework, a constant bombardment of evening television, texting, and Internet surfing may almost completely erase a student’s entire day’s worth of learning! Homework may serve as an invaluable “knowledge refresher” that cements the day’s lessons and aids in information retention.
However, homework is not without disadvantages. A key “con” of homework is the fact that, without teacher oversight, assignments can be rampantly plagiarized by unethical students. Not only does this reinforce unethical behavior and allows students to become more skilled at perpetrating it, but no real knowledge of the subject matter is attained. Instead of helping students learn, homework is sometimes accused of simply helping students learn how to cheat and manipulate. A few students do the work and are manipulated or encouraged by their peers into sending the work around via Internet, allowing everyone else to copy. At its worst, homework may only increase bullying and peer manipulation by encouraging more popular or aggressive students to seek out the help of more academically-oriented classmates, using promises or veiled threats to get copies of the completed assignments.
Even if this worst-case-scenario does not occur, homework can be agony for teachers due to low completion rates. While some advanced classes may do well with homework, other classes will fare poorly. Few papers will be turned in, leaving the teacher in the awkward position of figuring out what to do: Get everyone else zeroes? Allow everyone more time to complete the work? Disregard the entire assignment? Simply put, many students do not want to do homework and can think of a myriad of excuses for showing up empty-handed the next day, putting teachers to the test.
A final disadvantage of homework, and perhaps the most significant, is the fact that students have unequal resources at home. Some students have the homework-completing advantages of attentive parents, private tutors, high-speed Internet access, knowledgeable older siblings, and even hard-copies of educational books. Other students have none of these advantages. Some may even have little or no time to complete homework because they must work after-school jobs out of economic necessity. Should students who must work long hours after school be penalized for not being able to complete homework?
Testing, particularly standardized testing, comes with its own advantages and disadvantages.
A prime advantage of testing is that it serves as a useful assessment tool of learning and effort. Free from all the day-to-day minutiae, did the student learn the material? A test, particularly a written test, helps reveal in an efficient manner how well a student has come to understand a subject. Without tests, students may simply be engaging in “window dressing” and only putting on a show of effort, not really caring to learn or remember. Forcing students to test over the subject material enhances learning by requiring students to study and prepare for the test.
A second advantage of testing, particularly standardized testing, is that it is a great equalizer. All students in a classroom, rich and poor, have the same amount of time to complete the same test. Unlike projects or other assignments where wealthy students can use their parents’ resources to develop impressive work and presentations, earning unfairly high grades compared to their less-wealthy classmates, tests are far more fair.
Finally, tests are realistic to real-life expectations. In the real world people are expected to bring all their knowledge, skill, and expertise to bear at certain times on certain tasks and are judged accordingly. If students are not tested they will not learn how to “buckle down” and prepare to give their all. Despite critics claiming that tests are too high-stress, how are students supposed to become adult professionals if they are unprepared for high-stress assessments and judgments of their performance? Tests, for better or worse, are good preparation for the rigors of the real world.
However, tests have important downsides as well, primarily in terms of affecting final grades. What if a student bombs a major test at the end of a grading period? Sometimes extenuating circumstances occur and a student is unprepared for a test, resulting in his or her average grade dropping substantially. Many people feel that big tests that can drop averages by a letter grade (or more) are inherently unfair and generate far more stress than actual learning.
In terms of standardized testing, tests can be disadvantageous if they force teachers to abandon natural, organic, exploratory and engaging teaching and devolve toward “teaching to the test” in which all instruction becomes rote, dry, simplistic, and utterly focused on mastering a single test. Critics claim that high-stakes testing, where resources are allocated based on students’ performance, harms learning by reducing it to “kill-and-drill” memorization. Instead of learning and exploring, students are simply memorizing and repeating, gaining no context or appreciation for the material.