TITLE: I'll Do Homework, But Only for a Grade
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: February 22, 2010 6:56 PM
In the locker room one morning last week, I overheard
two students talking about their course work. One of
the guys eventually got himself pretty worked up
while talking about one professor, who apparently
gives tough exams, and exclaimed, "We worked two and
a half hours on that homework, and he didn't even
Yesterday, I was sitting with my daughters while they
did some school work. One of them casually commented,
"We all stopped putting too much effort into Teacher
Smith's homework when we figured out s/he never grades
I know my daughter's situation up close and so know
what she means. She tends to go well beyond the call
of duty on her assignments, in large part because she
is in search of a perfect grade. With time an
exceedingly scarce and valuable resource, she faces
an optimization problem. It turns out she can put in
less effort on her homework than she ordinarily does
and still do fine on her test. With no prospect of a
higher grade from putting more time into the assignment
to pull her along, she is willing to economize a bit
and spend her time elsewhere.
Maybe that's just what the college student meant when
I overheard him that morning. Perhaps he is actually
overinvesting in his homework relative to its value
for learning, because he seeks a higher grade on the
homework component of the course. That's not the
impression I got from my unintentional eavesdropping,
though. I left the locker room thinking that he sees
value in doing the homework only if it is graded, only
if it contributes to his course grade.
This is the impression too many college students give
their instructors. If it doesn't "count", why do it?
Maybe I was like that in college, too. I know that
grades were important to me, and as double-major trying
to graduate in four years after spending much of my
freshman year majoring in something else, I was taking
a heavy class load. Time was at premium. Who has time
or energy to do things that don't count?
Even if I did not understand then, I know now that the
of how I learned. Without lots of practice writing
code, we don't even learn the surface details of our
language, such as syntax and idiom, let alone reach
a deep understanding of solving problems. In the
more practical terms expressed by the student in the
locker room, without lots of practice, most every
exam will seem too long, look to be difficult, and
seem to be graded harshly. That prof of his has
found a way to get the student to invest time in
learning. What a gift!
We cannot let the professor off the hook, though.
If s/he tells the class that the assignment will be
graded, or even simply gives students the impression
that it "counts for something", then not to grade
the assignment is a deception. Such a tactic is
justified only in exceptional circumstances, and
not only moral grounds. As Teacher Smith has surely
learned by now, students are smart enough not to
fall for a lie too many times before they direct
their energies elsewhere.
In general, though, homework is a gift: a chance to
learn under controlled conditions. I'm pretty sure
that students don't see it this way. This reminds
me a conversation I had with my colleague
a couple of weeks ago. We were discussing the relative
abundance and paucity of a grateful attitude among
faculty in general. He recalled that, in his study of
the martial arts, he had encountered two words for
"thank you". One, suki, from the Japanese
martial arts, means to see events in our lives as
opportunity or gift. Another, sugohasameeda,
comes from Korean Tae Kwon Do and is used to say,
"Thank you for the workout".
Suki and sugohasameeda are related. One expresses
suki when things do not go the way we wish, such as
when we have a flat tire or when a work assignment
doesn't match or desires. One expresses sugohasameeda
in gratitude to one's teacher for the challenging
and painful work that make us grow, such as workouts
that demand our all. I see elements of both in the
homework we are assigned. Sugohasameeda seems to
be spot-on with homework, yet suki comes into play,
too, in cases such as the instructor going counter
to our expectations and not grading an assignment.
I do not find myself in the role of student as much
these days, but I can see so many ways that I can
improve my own sense of gratefulness. I seem to
live sugohasameeda more naturally these days, though
incompletely. I am far too often lacking in suki.
My daily life would be more peaceful and whole if
I could recognize the opportunity to grow through
undesired events with gratitude.
One final recollection. Soon after taking my current
job, I met an older gentleman who had worked in a
factory for 30+ years. He asked where I worked, and
when I said, "I teach at the university", he said,
"That beats workin' for a livin'". My first reaction
was akin to amused indignation. He obviously didn't
know anything about what my job was like.
Later I realized that there was a yin to that yang.
I am grateful to have a career in which I can do so
many cool things, explore ideas whenever they call to
me, and work with students who learn and help me to
learn -- to do things I love every day. So, yeah,
I guess my job does beat "workin' for a livin'".
I just wish more students would take their homework
My colleague Mark also managed to connect his ideas
about gratitude from the martial arts to the
of the Christian Bible. The green pastures to which
it famously refers are not about having everything
exactly as I want it, but seeing all things as they
are -- as gift, as opportunity, as suki. I continue
to learn from him.