Jeremy Côté

A Survey Of Homework Strategies

If you take a look at any given class, you find that there are a variety of strategies employed by the students. In a way, it’s the perfect Darwinian battlefield: those with the best homework strategies end up doing well and move on to the next course. Some strategies are better than others, and this really shows up in any class. Even if your class is small (say, about ten people), you will find that students don’t all study and do homework in the same way.

There are at least several broad categories of homework strategies. Here are what they look like in a nutshell. See which one looks familiar to you.

The Early Bird

This is a rare species of student (I find myself among them). When a new homework assignment is given, the early bird tends to begin immediately, eager to complete it as soon as possible. To them, this makes the most sense. After all, by being done early, there won’t be anything to worry about later on. This also prevents errors, because one can then review the assignment before handing it in and make the necessary adjustments.

For the most part, the early bird sees themselves as the smartest in terms of strategy. Furthermore, they can’t even comprehend how other students don’t tackle their new homework immediately. This just seems crazy to them.

Unfortunately, the early bird strategy does have some downsides. First, their eagerness to begin a new homework assignment often means they try to tackle questions before the necessary material has been taught in class. This can lead to frustration and an overall less smooth experience in doing the homework, but the early bird accepts this as the price to pay for getting the work out of the way.

Second, if homework doesn’t come out on a regular and predictable schedule, assignments can “pile up” over the span of a few days and end up creating a mountain of work. The early bird then gets stress out by the deluge of homework, whereas the other students are comfortable with it.

The Last-Minute Dash

The person who employs the last-minute dash on a regular basis tends to be someone who doesn’t like their future selves. If they can, they push their obligations to their future selves, content in the knowledge that they will figure it out later. The students who follow this kind of strategy often seem to display a curious confidence that the early birds can’t understand. Despite people being skeptical of them, they wave off the concerns. After all, they’ve (almost) always gotten their homework done on time, so there’s no reason to worry.

The last-minute dash strategy begins with, well, not much. When homework is assigned, there isn’t really an acknowledgement. It’s only when the deadline creeps up that these students begin to think about starting. The most common time: the evening before, in a mad dash to the finish line.

This strategy may work for some, but it’s this author’s opinion that most of the students employing this strategy are deluding themselves. One advantage of this strategy is that, since they wait until the very last moment to do their homework, they can ask questions from their peers. Their peers will be able to help since they already finished the homework, whereas someone like the early bird can’t ask others for help (no one else has done the homework). Obviously, this depends on how good the student’s relationships are with the early birds. Therefore, this type of student makes sure they are on good standing with everyone else!

The Steady March

Many fall into this category. Students using this strategy aren’t as keen as the early birds, but they also realize that good work doesn’t always come the night before a deadline. As such, they work on their homework in a steady manner, making sure they have enough time spread out to get it all done.

The main advantage of this strategy is that it follows the material shown in class. The early bird may have to figure out things on their own, but the steady marcher can learn the material in class and then translate it to the assignment. This strategy tends to be the best for those who like using the knowledge they learn in class to do the assignment (versus learning some of the concepts on their own).

The steady march may be boring, but it’s a tried and true strategy that works for every class.

The Technologically-Aided Cakewalk

Finally, there are those that get their assignments done in a straightforward manner and don’t really “need” a strategy. The word “need” is in quotation marks because these students end up consulting the answers online for their homework. Instead of taking the time to struggle and figure out the best way to solve a problem, they jump straight to the solutions, make sure they understand them, and then copy them down.

This strategy is unarguably efficient in the short term. When all you have to do is copy the solutions and see if they can make sense to you, the difficult (and long) part of the homework is removed: the time spent coming up with the right approach. Sure, the answers might make sense, but students often forget how difficult it is to come up with those answers on their own without help.

As such, this strategy is generally frowned upon. I think there is an argument to be made about consulting the solutions, but not in this form. These students are deciding to shortcut their way to a good external result (their grade), versus doing the difficult work of understanding the concept.

Of course, people don’t only follow one strategy exclusively. Students tend to use different ones depending on the context. On average though, most tend to have one dominant strategy, and that’s where this survey of strategies comes in. You might find yourself latching onto one specific strategy here, or maybe you have a mix. At the end of the day, the important part is getting your homework done, and doing it in a way that is sustainable and doesn’t suck the life out of you.

I like to be an early bird, but that’s the result of my personality. I actually think the steady marcher is probably an easier way to go, but I enjoy the challenge of figuring out the ideas on my own. It can be difficult at times, but I enjoy the process.

The point here is that there doesn’t exist one “best” strategy. However, I would argue that the last strategy is the worst one. I expect I’d get a fair amount of agreement on that.