With final exams again upon us, students across the country seem more stressed than ever, even as study after study has found they’re spending far less time on schoolwork than students once did.
The details of our latest national debate about rigor are well-known by now: in a story that made national news, 82 of 350 students in a New York University organic chemistry class last spring signed a petition claiming the class was too hard. NYU officials offered to review the students’ grades, allowed them to withdraw from the course retroactively and refused to renew the professor’s contract.
The professor, a distinguished chemist, argued that student performance started to decline 10 years ago and “fell off a cliff” during the pandemic, with “30 percent attendance in the lecture, silent students, empty office hours and plummeting grades on ever-easier exams.” He decried “a strong consensus among teachers that we continue to ask less and less of our students."
Some saw the NYU incident as part of a national “collapse in merit standards,” driven by a desire to placate “under-educated, easily offended and entitled” students. Others denounced the use of gateway courses to “weed out” less prepared students from difficult majors and demanded that colleges and universities do more to help them manage workload-related stress.
As educators, our job is to meet students where they are, without sacrificing standards. That requires renewed efforts to foster a culture of learning that prioritizes academic work over other pursuits and ensures that students have access to adequate support services.
Understandably, discussion of the NYU incident focused on the toll the pandemic has taken on students’ emotional and physical health.
But assumptions about the relationship between workload and stress predate the pandemic by decades. A review of that history can help us reassess that relationship.
It’s clear that the pandemic and remote learning have taken a serious educational toll. National tests show a sharp drop in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math skills, and substantial learning loss is evident at all levels, especially among the most vulnerable students. In higher education, many faculty report a decline in student focus and study skills, as well as patterns of poor attendance, late assignments and low grades.
At the height of the pandemic, many faculty relaxed their expectations for the quantity and quality of student work. This may have been an appropriate response to a public health emergency, but it came at a time when students were already doing roughly 40 percent less homework than they did 60 years ago.
In 1961, students spent about 24 hours a week studying outside class, a number that had fallen to about 14 hours in 2003. Between 2004 and 2017, the proportion of first-year students who spent more than 15 hours a week studying or otherwise preparing for class increased from 34 to 45 percent, but that still meant more than half of students spent 15 or fewer hours a week studying outside class. During the same period, college grades rose steadily, with A’s, now the most common grade, awarded three times as often as in the 1960s, despite the absence of a corresponding increase in standardized test scores.
Despite grade inflation and the decline of time spent on homework, student-reported stress has soared. Colleges and universities have experienced “massive” increases in demand for mental health services, a trend exacerbated by but predating the pandemic. In addition to expanding counseling and other student support services, colleges and universities added “wellness days” to the calendar, urged faculty to refrain from assigning work over holiday breaks and in many cases further reduced the amount of homework assigned.
The commonplace assumption is that all stress is harmful. But when “stress is seen as a challenge rather than a threat,” research has found it can help “students score higher on tests, procrastinate less, stay enrolled in classes, and respond to academic challenges in a healthier way.” Moreover, more time spent on academic work translates into higher retention and graduation rates.
As educators, we should be asking how much homework is too much, and whether some kinds of homework are better than others. Is homework demonstrably related to articulated learning goals? Are assignments integrated into classroom presentations, discussions and exams? Do assignments encourage active learning? Does it matter if assignments are team-based?
This discussion should be informed by an understanding, at each college and in each discipline, of how much homework is assigned now, how homework expectations have changed over time and why. We know, for example, that architecture majors get more homework than marketing majors, and that students at small liberal arts colleges tend to study more than peers at large institutions. However, the pedagogical justifications for such differences are less clear.
Similarly, explanations for why students study less now than in the past range from a need to earn money with outside employment to greater immersion in nonacademic campus pastimes to pressures on adjunct faculty to assign less work. Understanding what’s actually driving the decline will help us understand how best to respond.
Finally, we should be candid with students and their parents about how much homework is expected, its relationship to stress and the value to students of a rigorous academic experience. Ultimately, we want students to set their own priorities, manage their time and engage in conversations with educational professionals about how to strike the right balance between academic work and personal well-being.