Sunday, February 20, 2011

Too hard?

IS JPII too hard?

This is a question that was asked of me recently—and to some extent, like the definition of “beauty,” the answer is in the eye of the beholder. “Hard” is a subjective term that varies by individual. But let’s try to break this down some and look at objective data to address the question.

Too hard for whom? Students in our honors program? Students in our standard program? Seniors? Juniors? Sophomores? Freshman?

One way to investigate the question is to measure the expectations we place on you for homework. In early January I asked you to participate in a homework survey in which you estimated how much homework you did. We received 203 responses, with a good cross section from each grade level. My thanks to all of you who took the time to do the survey.

Let’s look at the results together (See chart by clicking here.)

On average, the typical JPII student did just over 120 minutes/night of homework. Freshman did the least, about 100 minutes, whereas juniors did the most, just over 144 minutes/night. It will probably be no surprise to you that girls at JPII worked longer per night than boys, an average of 130 minutes to 112 minutes. We wanted to measure the differences in expectation between students in the honors/AP programs and those in the standard programs, and although the honors program students worked a bit longer, the differences are not as pronounced as you might have guessed: Seniors in AP work 16 minutes longer than seniors in non-AP, juniors work 23 minutes longer, sophomores 25 minutes, and freshman 11 minutes longer. If you’re mostly all A’s, you work harder than your classmates, but that’s not terribly surprising: Senior A students work 13 minutes longer than the average honors kid and 29 minutes longer than the average standard program, junior A students work 165 minutes/night, 12 minutes longer than other honors students and 35 minutes longer than other junior standard core students, whereas A sophomores work 11 minutes longer than other honors and 36 minutes longer than standard track sophomores. Freshman A students actually work less hard than honors students generally and only 5 minutes more than students in the standard program.

My general sense in reading through each of these surveys is that you took it seriously and your answers reflect your honest estimates of you time. If there is any bias, it’s probably that you slightly over-estimated your time on task, as it would be common to take some breaks in a 3-hour study period, and on some days, coming home from a basketball game, for example, your regular study time is disrupted. In discussing this data with Mrs. Phillips, our Dean of Studies, we believe these numbers are about where they should be for a school that is serious about preparing students for college. Yes, there are days when you must do much more than what these averages show, and yes, some of you work much longer on average than your classmates, but AS an average, they’re about right. Going back to our fundamental question, “Is JPII too hard?” the homework survey seems to suggest “no.”

Another way to get objective data on this issue is to look at grading. Are JPII teachers too demanding in what they expect for an A or a B? What does the data show from the first semester? The average grade for guy at JPII was 84.5 and the average grade for a woman was 86. What’s interesting is those averages held across the grade levels—there was not much difference between a freshman and a senior in terms of grades. That means the average grade for both was just above 85, or a solid B. If we go by letter grades, the approximate ratio of A's to B's to C's to F's in the first semester was 10:10:5:1 , for a 3.1 average grade. In other words, there were about the same number of A's as there were B's, half as many C's and a tenth as many F's. Since those were first semester F’s and we only record yearly averages on transcripts, we expect the small number of F's to diminish even further between now and then. For a school which accepts a broad range of students, both the numerical average of 85 and the letter grade average of 3.1 suggest we're about where we should be in terms of difficulty.

Still, I am aware that these are averages and some of you work much harder than the averages suggest. Let’s take a moment to talk about that.

First, are you trying to do too much? Maybe the homework amount is OK, but when you’re trying to wedge it in between sports, extra-curriculars, service, work, friendships, it may just be that there’s not enough time in the day to do all those things well. When I look at what some of you are doing, I get tired just thinking about it. One sign of maturity is to learn how to say “no” or “enough.” What can you cut out?

Second, are you using your teachers in a pro-active way? Instead of going home and beating your brains in and wasting an hour doing so, why not go see the teacher after school? Some of you talk as if tutorials are punishment, but properly understood, they’re gifts of our teachers to help you. Unless you’re part of a required tutorial, you don’t have to stay the whole time—just go by and see your teacher about a certain problem or type problem you’re struggling with. EVERY teacher on this faculty will be delighted to help you. Just as an observation as I watch the hallways after school: not enough of you are using your teachers as a resource!

Third, are you using good study skills? I am a firm believer in working "smarter, not harder" whenever we can. There have been all kinds of studies on this, so here's a quick summary:

• Do the hard stuff first, the homework you least like to do.
• Study in a quiet place, without TV, cell phones, music or anything else likely to cause you to lose attention on what you’re doing.
• Review your notes each day for about 10-15 minutes. But of course that begs the question: Are you keeping good notes? When a teacher gives you notes for a chapter, he or she is practically telling you what is going to be on the next test. Something doesn't make sense? Ask the teacher the next day! Teachers love those kind of questions!
• When you read, take notes as you read. Both of my degrees are in liberal arts, which meant I had to read a lot of non-fiction books for class. Like many of you, I sometimes had a hard time concentrating on what I was reading, until I began to force myself to write down the main point of a page before I moved to the next page. That does 4 good things: keeps your mind from wandering, forces you to understand what you're reading, helps you remember it, and gives you something easy to study later.

Last comment: Let’s always remember that a teacher’s job is to always make you stretch a little further than you think you can stretch. It’s like a track coach with high jumpers: every time he or she clears the bar, the coach’s job is to move the bar a little higher and start training to get to that next level. In the end, they want you to jump as high as you’re able, or in high school terms, have as many opportunities as possible.

So is JPII “hard?” I hope so, to some extent. Nothing comes cheaply and easily and your futures are too important to waste away giving out A’s like they were candy. But is it too hard? No, the objective evidence suggests that's not the case.

Work hard. Study hard. And then let God worry about the rest. May God bless all of you this week.

No comments: