Assignments

Assignments

In most academic subjects, the task that should occupy most of your time is reading. Notable exceptions are math and music, which are best learned by practicing – that is, by putting your skills to work solving math problems or performing actual music.

It is a good use of time, and often is necessary, to read a passage or a chapter two or three times. Never think that you’re wasting time by rereading something worthwhile; it solidifies your knowledge and often brings out details that you didn’t notice before.

If you’re studying independently, you shouldn’t feel obligated to do some kind of written work – a quiz, test, or essay – for each chapter or unit in your course of study. Schools do more of this than is really needed, because graded assignments serve to motivate students and to amass evidence that real work and learning occurred (even if it didn’t). The best time for tests and essays is when you believe you have mastered a large body of material – e.g. the first semester of Algebra 1, or the catechism on the sacraments. If you can show that you still remember it and can use it to solve problems or to defend an opinion, this proves that you’ve accomplished something meaningful and durable. That is truly the goal of your schooling: to develop and retain knowledge and skills that will help you throughout your adult life.

Standard Assignments

These are good assignments that are suitable for any lesson:

  • Speaking out loud, summarize and explain what you learned. If someone is available to listen to you and ask questions, that’s an extra bonus.
  • Work through a set of problems or exercises in which you apply a skill, e.g. solving algebraic equations, balancing chemical reactions. This is most practical in math and in physical science.
  • If your book has end-of-chapter short answer questions, answer them out loud, not in writing.

These assignments are good because they facilitate learning. You want to avoid wasting time with assignments that merely prove your knowledge, especially if nobody will know or care about your results.

To be clear, I am departing from the typical school program by recommending against frequent essay-writing, and in favor of frequent oral composition (speaking out loud). Speaking is an important skill that is almost entirely neglected in schools. It can be practiced much more quickly and easily than writing, so it is more practical and efficient at developing verbal composition skills – the same skills that are used in writing.

Writing Assignments

Essay writing is a key skill to be developed in high school. Instruction on how to write well belongs in the English curriculum. While an essay can be written about any subject, its natural place is in the humanities (language, history, social science).

If as a homeschooler you are in charge of your own curriculum, I suggest that you assign yourself one short essay (500 words) each week and one major writing project (3000+ words) each semester. That’s just a rough guideline, not a strict rule. The idea is to continually practice your writing, which is necessary to develop skills, without letting it infringe on the time you need for more important tasks such as reading and problem-solving. It takes most people (including me) a lot of time and energy to write well – to collect data, to think out a conclusion, to develop and organize an argument, to polish up the rough draft to make it clear, concise, and rhetorically pleasing.

Another possibility is to devote a maximum of one hour a day to writing projects. The key is not let them take over your workday, as they can easily do.

Grades

Only one grade should really matter: your final grade for each course. And that grade should be earned when the student is ready, not when the teacher is ready. Ideally it should come from a final exam that is fair and comprehensive.

In math and in the physical sciences, a written final exam can easily test all the knowledge and skills in a particular course. In the humanities, that’s not practical. In my opinion, the best way to give a final grade is a three-step process. First, a major essay (5000 words), either expository or persuasive. Second, an extensive written exam, testing knowledge of facts; short answer is best, multiple choice is ok. After passing the written exam, the third step is an oral exam, that is, an in-person interview with someone who knows the material quite well, to further test the student’s understanding. The interviewer gives a grade for the oral examination, and the final grade is the average of the three grades: essay, written exam, oral exam, all of which must be passing.

If the student fails the essay, or if he’s not happy with his grade, he can revise and resubmit it, or write a new essay.

If the student fails the written exam, or if he’s not happy with his grade, he can continue studying for at least one month, then retake the exam to try for a better result.

Likewise with the oral exam, again with a waiting period of one month. The interviewer should give detailed comments about the areas in which the student needs to improve.

Over the last 15 years, I have observed mainstream high schools steadily move away from final exams that are rigorous, comprehensive, and heavily weighted. They’ve compromised the grading system by giving too much weight to homework and quiz grades, giving out test study guides that are the same as the test with the numbers changed, making the tests way too easy, making the final exam not comprehensive, and/or dropping the lowest test grade. This results in major grade inflation, but its real purpose and its more important effect is to allow students to pass who would have majorly failed a real final exam. Sadly, this problem is practically unfixable in schools because so many students who should have failed didn’t, year after year, so it’s impossible to move them all to the level where they actually belong. It’s not practical to send most of the 11th graders back to algebra 1 (oops, I mean common core math 1), so those students are doomed to keep studying things that are beyond their level, pretending to learn them, until by force of time spent they meet the graduation requirements.

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