Published Online: March 17, 2010

When Students Don't Prepare for Class

In a recent Teacher Leaders Network daily discussion, a high school government teacher—we’ll call this person GovTeach—wrote, in part:

The assignment for Friday's session in my three AP government classes of mainly 10th graders and a scattering of seniors was four pages in the textbook, which I wanted to use as the basis for a discussion and analysis.

In sixth period, I tried to start the discussion and got no response. So I bluntly asked who had read all four pages. Not a single student had. I was both furious and incredibly disappointed.

When I am angry, I talk very softly but intently. I told them if they were not prepared, I was not going to carry them, but they would still be responsible for what we would have covered in the discussion. I then told them I was going to leave the room so that I did not lose my temper. When I returned to the room, a student who is quite irregular about doing his work but is quite bright had organized the class, and they were proceeding with a discussion. I spoke only once.

Eighth is my final AP class. I told them up front what had happened in 6th and asked them to be honest—how many had done their work? It was under one-third. I then put them on the same notice and again left the room.

When I came back after 10 minutes, they were in small groups, each having one student who had read the material, going through the assignment together. Then with about 15 minutes left in the class one of the stronger students checked to see if everyone had gotten through the pages, and began to lead a discussion. (I often have students lead discussions…so they had some background in how to respond to the challenge with which I left them.)

Eighth was bad enough. But I admit I have NEVER encountered what I experienced in 6th, not even in my lowest level classes. They knew the assignments, and most of them did not have commitments of athletics or dramatics that would have prevented them from spending the 10-15 minutes maximum it would have taken to fully read and digest the four pages.

Renee, who teaches in a high poverty area of rural Mississippi, replied:

I wish I could say your experience was rare, but every English teacher (the folks I mostly hang out with) lives with this fairly regularly. How you handled it, though, was great and a testament to how much respect your students must have for you and the class.

One of the best literature discussions I ever witnessed among students in my high school classroom occurred when I refused to participate; sort of a modified Socratic seminar. Their first reaction was terror: "She's REALLY not going to tell us what the story was about!" Then anger, "But that's your job!" Finally, slowly, they began to organize and engage themselves in the task at hand. It was painful but satisfying to watch; sort of like the first time I let my kids clean the kitchen by themselves, instead of jumping in and doing it for them.

Marsha teaches in a suburban Kansas district:

I am amazed that this hasn't happened to you more often. Maybe it's because you teach AP kids and they are so motivated...but let me tell you that 6th grade science students most often don't prepare for class. I also think it helps that in HS, your grade makes a difference. In middle school, even if you don't pass, you still move onto the next grade. I hear your pain, share it very frequently, and am in a constant battle to find ways to motivate students to do their prep so our class can move forward.

GovTeach, who teaches in a bedroom community of Washington, D.C., replied:

Half of my six classes are AP, half are not. That has been my mix for the past five years. Even in my lowest level classes I have never had an entire class come in with no one having done their work. I remember once, when teaching 8th grade, I had about half the class come in without doing their homework. I asked the principal to come to my room. When she arrived, I explained the situation. She promptly marched the 13 to her office, made each of them call a parent and apologize for not doing the work. The word got around. I did not have that problem for the rest of the year, not in that class or in my other classes.

As far as AP, it is unusual for a class of 30 to not have done the work. I cannot remember another time in ANY AP class more than half had not done their work. A weird experience.

Cossondra teaches in rural Michigan:

Students not completing work is by far the biggest struggle I have. I also teach middle school, and like Marsha, we have nothing to "hold over their heads" at all. Students know they will go on to the next grade regardless of whether they do homework or pass their classes. We do not have any sort of detention room, during school nor outside of school hours. I can keep students on my own, but then transportation always becomes an issue.

I teach math and one section of social studies. In math, students often have an assignment to complete independently. Without this practice, students will rarely master the skills taught in class. I try to allow adequate class time to complete these assignments, but unfortunately, many students are entirely unmotivated and simply do not work unless I am physically sitting next to them. While I can sometimes do this, at other times the assignment is such that even the more motivated students may need guidance, and I simply cannot give each student the individualized one-on-one time that some demand.

As to the kind of homework that expects students to complete something entirely on their own outside of class, on a good day, I might get one-third of assignments completed. I try to make assignments relevant, interesting, and motivating. But sometimes, they have to do it just because it has to be done! And, honestly, the completion rate on more interesting, engaging assignments is not much better than on a boring worksheet of practice problems.

I wish I knew the solution, but I fear there isn't one. Teachers and public education take a bashing in the headlines every day for what we are not doing. Until some of the responsibility for educating students is put on the students themselves and their parents, we are doomed.

Halfway through the year, one of my girls has already missed 23 days of school—about 25 percent of the time we have been in session. Yet, she will continue on to 8th grade next year, and do poorly on her standardized test, and that low score will reflect on me. I have no recourse for her attendance, and I cannot possibly make up all the learning she has missed on the days she is actually here. And, unfortunately, she is not unique.

Heather is a middle grades English teacher in California:

In my middle school, this problem is very common. And more so this year than any other. When a vast majority of my kids don't do their homework/prep, I tend to ask myself, "Did this apply to them? Why didn't they think this was important? Was it as important and relevant as I thought?”

I'm not a big homework-giver: I have often wondered if super-homework givers get more kids to do their daily work than those like me who assign it less frequently. So I asked around. My current policy is that kids know everything I expect for the week on Monday so they can develop some time management skills and plan ahead by the due date. But I have found that my track record seems the same as those teachers who have a 50-question per day type of expectation. What does this mean?

I really do believe that we are beginning to see a different breed of kid than we have seen before in education. But I say this far more respectfully than just "kids these days!" I mean, I think they are busier, savvier, and more preoccupied than ever before. Those preoccupations range from survival to distraction. I really think we must adapt our homework to address this different kid. It isn't about eliminating it, it's about making sure it applies.

I've developed a list of skills that kids will need in their future and when I assign something I worry will somehow not connect to them now, I show them the list and circle the future skill that the assignment does address.

In the end, however, I make it a policy to not work harder than the student. I do everything I can to make sure my assignment is important and meaningful. Then it’s up to them. Not doing outside work is still a chronic problem in my 8th grade classes, but I leave school without guilt, knowing that I’ve done my part of the work.

Any of these thoughts ring true? What’s your experience with students who aren’t prepared for class?

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