My little sister recently went back to on-campus school after having her first week back from Christmas holidays online. Seeing her return to Microsoft Teams gave me flashbacks from the start of the pandemic when schools – along with everything else – closed down, and the negative impact this had on the education system. I can recall the stressful times when my mom and I attempted to assist my then 5-year-old sister to focus during class and complete the activities her teacher had given out; we felt like we were suddenly given the task of teaching her the content of her syllabus, while we did not have the tools to teach and she did not see us as teachers.
We knew that several parents with young children were having similar problems: their children did not see them as a “teacher” or they struggled juggling their remote job with educating their child. After several weeks, however, we began to relax when it came to completing work and we would do what we could with my sister before it became overwhelming. We now see that most of the stress was futile – she is now halfway through Year 2 and doing perfectly fine. Consequently, I began to think about my own experiences with homework and school schedule and to question whether the benefits of home assignments balance out the negative effects on a student’s health.
During my last 3 years of high school as I prepared for my IGCSE’s and A-Levels, I was constantly piled with work designed to assist in my self-studying. After spending seven hours at school and arriving home at 17h, I would spend my night completing past papers, taking notes and revising the content taught in class in order to absorb all the details. It was a stressful daily process that took up most of my time. I managed to continue exercising simply because I eventually prioritised it over my homework, but my sleep schedule suffered greatly and I had to give up several of my hobbies. In the end, the pressure placed upon us lifted when we discovered that our predicted grades would suffice due to the inability of taking exams as a result of the pandemic.
Nevertheless, the demanding schoolwork did have its positive aspects. I was able to understand what kind of learner I am and adapt my studying into more effective methods. Unfortunately for me, my preferred method of learning was one of repetition, where I would rewrite my notes for the content to sink in. We also had free periods during the school day which I would use to complete part of my revision, so I could work on past papers at home. Now, I was lucky enough to have had wonderful teachers who were incredibly supportive and knowledgeable and could simplify the challenging topics. My friends were also in the middle of this stressful situation, so we could support each other. My phone still has a few photos of Maths notes we would share, even though I thought I had deleted them all after high school ended. My high school class also focused largely on completing extracurriculars (Duke of Edinburgh Awards, learning an instrument, following a dance path, etc.) but most of us were rather anxious when it came to exams as we felt the pressure of needing to excel in everything.
In Brazil, students spend their last three years of secondary school preparing for the ENEM1, which is an exam all students have to take at the end of high school to get accepted into university. It consists of fourteen subjects2 and the exam is split into two days, each consisting of roughly five hours worth of multiple-choice questions and one essay. The latter weighs massively on your overall grade; if you are unsuccessful in the essay, you do not pass the exam. It is scored out of 1000, and the overall score determines which subjects you can enrol in at university. If you wish to change your course after registration, you must either apply for a transfer, which is extremely difficult, or retake the ENEM.
I reached out to some of my friends, Guilherme and Maria Luiza3, who took the ENEM and asked them about their experience studying for the exam. Here is what they have told me:
- Guilherme explained that it was a traumatising experience. He had class from early in the morning until the afternoon followed by extra classes such as essay writing workshops. His school days would range from morning until 19h or 22h. Afterwards, he would study until 2h and wake up at 6h for school. The intensity of the last year of prep was so overwhelming that he was unable to continue exercising. Instead, he attempted to squeeze a 15-minute running session into his daily routine. However, the sacrifices are worth doing well on the ENEM, and they had some parties organised throughout the year that made it more bearable. Guilherme now studies law, which is one of the hardest courses to be accepted in.
- Maria Luiza (Malu) explained she attended school in the morning and in the afternoon she had classes with university students to assist them in mathematics, languages, humanities and sciences. Additionally, she attended weekly essay writing workshops. Thus, thrice a week she had classes from morning until night, which was extremely tiring. The other two weekdays were used for revising and completing other activities for exam prep. Like Guilherme, she did not have the time nor the energy to practice physical activity as her studies took up a large portion of her time, and a full 8h of sleep was rare to come by. There is a lot of pressure on passing the ENEM to enter university, but there is a lack of assistance when it comes to selecting which course would suit them best. Malu now studies science and technology.
This whole situation raised the question of whether homework is actually worthwhile: does it promote effective learning and is there a correlation between the amount of homework completed and how well students do at school? Of course, I understand that it is helpful when it comes to consolidating the material learnt in class and applying their knowledge, but until what point is it constructive before it becomes damaging to a student’s health?
Homework does have its benefits: it has been proven that completing homework does help with tests and exam practice and it encourages independent learning. With young children, it reduces screen time and gets parents involved in their school work. When done productively, homework also helps with developing essential time management skills. I’m sure you have heard of the “10-minute rule” that many schools adopted: for every grade they advance, an increase of 10 minutes worth of homework is added. Thus, in a student’s last year, they would have a total of 120 minutes worth of homework. However, research has disproven the effectiveness of this method; it simply showed a correlation between a student’s commitment to school based on whether they completed their assigned work. Moreover, if your school experience was anything like mine, you know that the daily amount of homework was never 120 minutes. Just one Maths past paper takes about two hours, and during exam season we received at least five papers per subject. The pressure to complete as many exam questions as possible and the desire to excel in the exams caused me to spend several hours completing past papers while simultaneously worrying that I was never actually absorbing the content.
Furthermore, research done at Indiana University provided evidence that although students who complete their homework have higher scores in standardised state testing, their course grades did not differ greatly from those who did not complete their work; the latter students were simply more familiar with the types of questions that would appear in their exams. Thus, it shows that the standard type of homework the majority of students receive does not greatly influence how much information students retain, it simply helps them recognise the patterns present in exam questions so they can repeat the methods they memorise in class. Personally, I can vouch for this fact. After completing literal piles of A-Level past papers, I was able to recognise the patterns present in the questions, apply the formulas I had memorised and essentially get the correct answer.
I decided to research some different school systems and have found that Finland has one of the best education systems in the world. I discovered that children there have much more freedom than those in other countries, with little to no homework assigned to students. Here is a summary of my findings:
- In Finland, secondary school students receive an average of 3 hours worth of after school learning, while in America students spend roughly 6 hours completing their homework. Despite their reduced study time, Finnish students have some of the best global scores in maths and sciences.
- Elementary school children have about 3 to 4 classes per day, with several breaks in between classes.
- The teacher to student ratio is 1:12 in Finland, whereas in America it is 1:24. The smaller classes allow teachers to give individual attention to students, and for the first 6 years of school, the teachers focus largely on learning each child’s individual needs.
- Finns have about 75 minutes of recess daily, whereas American schools offer an average of 27 minutes.
- Students’ only standardised exam is taken when they are 16, whilst in America, students will have taken 10 standardised tests before entering high school.
- There are no advanced classes or classes for students with special needs in Finland. Meanwhile, my middle school in America had 5 different levels just for maths.
- 93% of students graduate high school in Finland, compared to 78% in Canada and 75% in America.
Although all of these facts are quite interesting to consider, the most important one that I found is that teachers in Finland are immensely appreciated. A job in teaching is one of the most sought after positions in Finland. It requires a Masters degree in teaching and only about 10% of those who apply actually get into the teaching programme. Furthermore, being a teacher in Finland has an equivalent status to being a lawyer or a doctor. I must admit that this was a pleasant discovery; after all, in order to teach, you must be knowledgeable and have the tools and skills required for educating constructively. Additionally, considering how teachers are disrespected and humiliated in several other countries by impolite students or overreacting parents, it is good to know that teachers in Finland are recognised for their incredibly important role in the development of children. Essentially, they spend a large amount of time with their students and do have an influence on their lives.
I do believe that some pressure should be applied to older students when it comes to learning and schoolwork, but I do not believe that they should sacrifice their health in order to achieve high exam grades. Essentially, the majority of exams evaluate how well you can recall information rather than how much you have actually learnt. Educational systems like that of Finland prove that the combination of productive education, less school work, increased teacher-student interaction and more free time to pursue hobbies leads to higher exam grades. Further, allowing students to have the time to partake in extracurriculars is extremely beneficial in today’s societies, as many career paths now focus on life experience rather than exam results. It can be argued that unless you wish to pursue a career that requires promptly recalling a large amount of detailed information – such as medicine and law – taking the time to seek other experiences can be extremely beneficial, especially at a young age. Although I agree that homework is an essential part of learning, it should have effective developmental and educational purposes, not deteriorate a student’s mental health. Personally, I enjoyed and developed many more skills from the non-academic activities (Duke of Edinburgh Awards, volunteering with younger years, scuba diving, school government, amongst others) my high school provided. Ultimately, society should aim to raise well-rounded students that are prepared for the world around them with suitable life skills, rather than encouraging learning topics by heart.
Written by Laiana Farias
1 Exame National do Ensino Médio (National Exam for Secondary School)
2 Mathematics, Portuguese, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, History, Geography, Sociology, Philosophy, Literature, Essay writing, Physical Education, Arts and a foreign language (English or Spanish)
3 Both my friends have consented to sharing their experience on this article