Insights from our Use of Time Survey

How much homework does the average Renbrook Upper Schooler have? Depending on who you ask, you may hear that it’s way too much or not enough. We generally hear from parents when their students are struggling to get through their assignments, staying up late, and exhibiting high levels of stress. On the other hand, in parent conferences, we often hear that students are managing their homework just fine, or that they sometimes have no homework – which can make both parent and teacher a little uneasy. All of these conversations about homework rely on anecdotal evidence, however, and they don’t necessarily tell the whole story.

To answer this question more definitively for parents and teachers, we asked students to report on their use of time from January 24 to February 8. Over this two-week period, we collected almost 8,600 data points, which gave us a window into our students’ activities from their morning alarm to bedtime. We asked about time spent on homework, but also investigated how much work was completed in study hall and what activities the students had after 4 p.m. Because the data was self-reported, meaning that the students filled in the answers themselves, we know that some information may have been exaggerated, questions misunderstood, or answers difficult to interpret. Actually, some students tried to clarify their responses by adding more information: “This was for the whole weekend,” or “This day was unusual because my mom was late so I had more time in after school study hall.” Nevertheless, over 8000 data points is a sufficient number to draw several meaningful conclusions.

When students were asked to tally the amount of homework they had by subject, the average worked out to a reasonable 20 minutes per subject. There were slight variations: a little more math and a little less science, but the amounts were consistent. More surprisingly, the average amount of homework completed in study hall was 48 minutes, which included work in after school or double study halls (a feature of the winter term because of the squash and skiing schedule). A more meaningful number for work completed in study hall was the median: 25 minutes. This number reflects that half the student body did less than 25 minutes and half did more. Many individual surveys reported no homework finished in study hall, which again reflects the days when students have no study hall (certain days for squash, skiing, or away games), or when students used study halls for extra help or activities like Yearbook. When we think about homework load, the school usually imagines that students can finish an assignment in at least one subject during their afternoon study hall.

Looking at the amount of homework after 4 p.m., which is what concerns parents the most, we learned that students have assignments lasting 0-60 minutes 51% of the time. Assignments lasted 65-100 minutes 28% of the time, and 120-135 minutes 16% of the time. The lengthiest assignment times reported above that occurred 5% of the time, with the highest reported time of four and half hours. As might be expected, the lower homework amounts were most often reported by sixth graders, while our eighth graders reported the highest amounts. Student comments on these amounts provided insight, as well. “It’s not the amount of homework, it’s the quizzes, tests and papers,” one student noted. These bottlenecks often occur around interim and end of term, when teachers assess completed units or collect major papers. We maintain a test calendar to avoid more than two tests in a given day, but a test, quiz, and paper due all on the same day can seem overwhelming, especially if a student tries to do all the studying and writing the day before the due date.

We also know that students can feel pinched by after school activities, the largest of which were Renbrook games or non-Renbrook sports. Musical rehearsals, music lessons, dance, and religious education followed (in that order) as the largest consumers of student time. Our students value these experiences, and we support them, but they can push back bedtimes for the oldest students, who told us that they were up past midnight at times. The bedtimes broke down in the following way. Almost 20% of the time, students went to bed between 9-10 p.m. Around 40% of the time, students reported going to bed between 10-11 p.m. A whopping 32% of these middle schoolers reported going to bed between 11-12 p.m., which is way too late. Since the reporting included weekend days, the average might be slightly skewed towards late nights, but something else is contributing to this issue. If students have an average of 100 minutes of homework and get about 25 minutes done in study hall, they should have no more than an hour and 15 minutes once they settle down to work at home. The bedtime data was perhaps the most significant piece of information that came out of the survey.

The conclusions we can draw from all of this brings us back to where we started. Sometimes students have big homework nights, and sometimes they can take it easy. The pressure some of our students feel comes from the way the homework (or preparing for tests, quizzes, and papers) falls in any given week. The solution is for students, with assistance from their teachers and advisors, to plan their time in advance and look for potential conflicts, particularly if they have after school activities to manage. Classroom teachers are attentive to student requests for extensions on papers and rescheduling tests to avoid pile-ups. Learning to advocate for themselves is one of the key skills that students develop during their middle school years, and we believe that the close relationships in our community help to make teachers approachable. Many negotiations result in a lighter load. Sometimes, though, teachers point out how long they have had to write a paper or work on a project. Middle school is when most students learn that they cannot wait until the last minute to complete work.

Parents can play a role here, as well. Sunday night is a great time to look at the weeks ahead with your family. If students can make a habit of looking at two weeks at a time, they can begin to identify the pressure points, and parents can help them figure out strategies to lessen their impact. While advisors do this at school, especially when our schedule is going to change, the family calendar meeting is the only way parents can understand their students’ schedule. Parent will learn when to urge their children to talk to their teachers about scheduling problems and know when to contact advisors to help manage unavoidable conflicts. The “assignment center” on myRenbrook offers an “active” view that shows all assignments that are ongoing, while the “due” view lists what is due the next day.  Both views can help students self pace longer term assignments.

Parents can also play a role in modeling and enforcing good “sleep hygiene” during the middle and high school years.   When children are young, many families have bedtime rituals that are designed to help children transition into rest. In many homes, such rituals are replaced over time with late soccer practices or music lessons that push homework start time ever later. No one performs well without down time, so we don’t expect that a student will complete his or her homework and fall instantly to sleep. But it’s worth looking into what our children are doing with that downtime. Tending to social media, playing video games, and watching hilarious YouTube videos may not be the best way to relax and self-calm. We also know that too much time on their devices stokes children’s anxiety, even as it feels addictively necessary, and students who sleep with phones nearby have reduced sleep quality. Too much homework will make students unhappy and exhausted, so if late nights slaving over assignments is a pattern, we need to discuss the causes with you and make a plan. Let’s partner up to make sure that we model and guide our children to find balance between work and play, responsibility and restorative practices as we teach our students learn to use their time wisely and well.

Kara Ashley, Julie Schlossinger, and Beverly Fitzsousa will be hosting a parent coffee in September with more information about what we learned from the homework survey and how to help students navigate their many commitments.
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