Make Work Homework

A few years ago my son who is now in middle school got some vocabulary homework for English. It was a pretty long list of words. He was supposed to write the meaning of each word and then use it in a sentence. And then, get this, draw or download a picture from the internet that illustrates the word. The homework took thrice as long as it would have without the illustrations.

Now if you think about it, if the child has learnt to use the word in a sentence, there is little value in an illustration. Especially, since most of the words pertained to intangible things like “blatant”. If it were an art class I can still see some value in an exercise where students reflect and then draw a picture depicting “blatant”. But not for 50 such words and not for an English class.

There is a phrase for this kind of work. Its called “Make Work”. Basically teachers are giving homework just to make up the 3 hours or whatever of homework they need to give per day. Like many issues, there is economics behind Make Work Homework.

Public schools and most private schools in the US have a student-teacher ratio that has gotten higher and higher over time. Obviously, there are cost reasons for this. The primary driver of cost efficiencies in a school is the average number of students in a class.

A teacher spends time on preparing for class, grading homework and other small activities. The time required for preparing for class does not vary by the number of students in class. It also goes down with experience. But grading homework varies directly with the number of students. And it can add up to quite a lot of work. If the teacher is hard pressed for time, she can’t reduce the amount of homework given to students. But she can give the kind of homework that takes less time to check. The example I cite above is exactly that kind of homework – with asymmetric workloads for student and teacher.

I believe this is the root cause of Make Work Homework. It takes a lot of time for the student to draw an illustration and very little to eyeball it while grading. This asymmetry works in favor of the teacher. She can give the prescribed amount of homework and still keep her grading workload low.

This is not to say that anything requiring an illustration is Make Work. Not at all. Sometimes it is absolutely necessary. Visual learning can be very powerful. And sometimes it can be justified with the argument that children learn in different ways and at different paces. What may seem like gratuitous drawing and coloring to one student may be essential reinforcement of what is being taught in class for another student.

But a lot of what passes as homework for our children, is the product of a teacher trying to reduce his workload.

1 Comment

  1. A Tandon says:

    "Busy Work" is what my high-schooler daughter calls it. Mediocre and bad teachers even assign such work during class to keep students busy, and her best teachers (AP ones usually) stay away from such tactics. In my experience, this is more common in US public schools that private schools, even though private school in my area have similar or more students per class.

    The effect is worse when busy work is assigned in class, as it actually wastes time that could be used for learning.


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