When I started out as an SAT tutor almost 20 years ago, I worked for one of the big chain companies, and I learned something that very few tutors will admit: since students almost never apply themselves to test prep homework, it’s almost always a complete waste of time and energy. When homework gets done—if it gets done—there’s actually very little A) that I can tell from their performance and B) that the students get from the experience. This is because almost no one does the homework in a way that replicates the conditions of the test. Some do a rush job in the 10 minutes before the lesson. Others make a halfhearted attempt while watching TV or intermittently scrolling through Instagram. Even the most dedicated students shoot themselves in the foot by going WAY over the time limits because they “don’t want to get a bad grade.” It’s the dirty little secret of the tutoring industry that no one else wants to admit: homework is for the parents. Parents expect it—and they’re the customers after all, not the students—so no one ever stops to ask if homework is actually a useful pedagogical tool.
For this reason, I stopped assigning homework altogether and it’s been the best choice I’ve ever made as an educator. By not demanding that students self motivate on their own time, I avoid the frustration and demoralization that comes with halfheartedly doing something that is simultaneously hard and boring. Of course students get frustrated doing SAT homework! Standardized testing is designed to take place inside a strict infrastructure—proctors, ticking clocks and silent classrooms—which forces them to take the questions seriously. If students don’t apply the attention that these tests require, the questions go from challenging to impossible. Now, just imagine how your confidence would plummet if, week after week, you went through an unpleasant exercise that just reinforced how stupid, pointless and tedious standardized testing is. That negative mental state basically guarantees a lower score, so why do all the other test prep programs insist on doing something so ineffective?
By dispensing with homework, I get a huge amount of credit with my students, which translates to a stronger rapport, the #1 tool in any educator’s arsenal. Eliminating homework also prevents the burnout that so often occurs 3/4ths of the way through these sorts of programs. Instead, by giving up a very limited pedagogical tool, I am able to pull out of my students a much more dedicated, serious and engaged performance. They appreciate that all I’m asking for are the two hours of the lesson, so they work harder and stay focused longer, and that’s worth a whole lot more academically than 15 pages of homework done by the light of a TV screen.