Hitting the Books
How much do college students study?
By Myrna DeVries Anderson '00

studying on the Commons lawn
There is evidence aplenty at Calvin of students who are working hard, students who are hardly working and students who are just getting by.

“Wherefore let every Man look after his Homework; what he hath to do at Home,” reads the first citation of the word homework in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

In 1683, when that sentence was written, homework was quite simply work done at home—not at a factory. If the word is updated to its current meaning (the first recorded usage of which occurs in the 1889 OED) the 17th century sentence stands as a wise admonition, which still requires an updated understanding of gender. The gals must needs hit the books as diligently as the guys.

But how often? The gold standard, passed from generations of hopeful professors to their stunned students, is unvarying: “Two to three hours outside of class for every hour spent inside of class,” quoth Jan Heerspink, a counselor in Calvin’s Student Academic Services office (SAS). For the student carrying a full course load, that adds up to 25 to 30 hours of homework a week. “That’s not to say a lot of students are doing it,” she added.

National Numbers
The 2002 National Study of Student Engagement (NSSE), a project of the University of Indiana at Bloomington, showed just how egregiously the nation’s college students have departed from the gold standard. The NSSE questioned first-year students and seniors at 366 colleges and universities (Calvin did not participate) about every facet of their learning environments, including study habits.

More Online
Honors Program

Student Academic Services

Institutional and Enrollment Research
Statistics and reports on Calvin students and staff

Minds in the Making
The philosophy behind Calvin's tagline

National Survey of Student Engagement
The 2002 survey conducted by the University of Indiana at Bloomington

Higher Education Research Institute
2002 College Student Survey press release and supplemental graphs (PDF files)

College Student Experiences Questionnaire
Background information on IU's survey

When asked how much time they spent weekly preparing for class, defined as “studying, reading, writing, rehearsing, and other activities,” only 10 percent of the first-year students at four-year liberal arts colleges reported studying 26 to 30 hours. The largest percentage (19 percent) confessed to homework-ing a paltry six to 10 hours. Eighteen percent study 11 to 15 hours; another 18 percent study 16 to 20 hours. Fifteen percent study 21 to 25 hours. Eleven percent spend only one to five hours a week on homework in all its permutations. The smallest number of first-year students, 8 percent, really put in the hours—30 or more.

Asked the same question, seniors at the same institutions show even less impressive numbers. Again, only 10 percent of respondents spend 26 to 30 hours at their desks, in the lab or in the rehearsal hall. The largest number of seniors, 21 percent, spend only six to 10 hours on homework. Eighteen percent study 11 to 15 hours; seventeen percent spend 16 to 20 hours. Thirteen percent work 21 to 25 hours. Ten percent really grind away, spending 30-plus hours on homework.

First-year students and seniors are not slacking alone, however. Dr. John Hayek, assistant director of the NSSE, cited another study from Indiana University, the College Student’s Experience Questionnaire, which covers all college class levels. “A little less than two-thirds of all students spend 15 hours or less preparing for class. That number is pretty consistent across the board with national numbers,” he said.

Calvin’s Data
Calvin’s homework data, what there is of it, does show a similar disregard for the 2:1 rule. Only the college’s seniors—approximately 300 of them—took part in 2002 College Student Survey, administered by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA. On average, according to HERI, Calvin seniors study a mere 13 hours per week. The nearly-graduated at Knollcrest have not erred as greatly, however, as those at other four-year institutions, who study only 10 hours a week.

Numbers might lie or otherwise come athwart of the truth, but there is evidence aplenty at Calvin of students who are working hard, students who are hardly working and students who are just getting by. As SAS director Jim MacKenzie said: “You hear stories.”

There is the story of first-year physics major Alexis Reynolds, who is juggling two classes in her concentration with Greek and speech. “Probably, like, five or six hours a night and then even more on weekends,” she hazarded about her studying regimen. “I have a lot of work.” Reynolds, of Wynnewood, Pa., put her study-hours-per-week tally at 36, adding, “I should do more.”

In his role as director of Calvin’s honors program, Ken Bratt sees a lot of students like Reynolds, those who study 30 or more—some many more—hours a week. “These are certainly hard-working kids. They’re looking for an extra challenge. Some of them are driven and overworking. On the other hand, a lot of them aspire to graduate schools and professional schools, and they know this is what it’s going to be like in a couple of years.” Fifty-five students who walked last May, a full seven percent of the 2002 graduating class, wore honors medallions.

A sophomore psychology major tells the story of a different kind of student. She made the Dean’s List for the last three semesters, while spending only two to three hours a week at her books. “I try to get things done pretty fast. I don’t procrastinate. I get it done and don’t worry about it,” she offered by way of explanation.

Senior communications major Beth Gunnink, of Kanata, Ont., said she works about two hours a day and more on weekends to land in the 12 to 15 hour bracket and on the Dean’s List with regularity. “If you factor in rehearsal hours, it would go up a lot,” said Gunnink, who performed two roles in Calvin’s spring production of Emma.

Calvin students find a lot of ways to lighten the 25 to 30 hour workload, but those who do five or less hours of studying a night have a favorite homework-reduction strategy: They don’t do the reading. “I won’t read the books or the texts I have to until I take the test—which works. It works!” claimed an unidentified mass media major who makes Bs and Cs in his classes.

Karin Maag and class
Karin Maag gives a history lecture outside.

The also anonymous psychology major also avoids the drudgery of daily readings: “You learn which classes you have to do the reading for and which classes you don’t have to do the readings for,” she said of the strategy.

“It’s a procrastination habit for sure,” said Heerspink, who manages the tutoring program at Calvin and teaches “College Thinking and Learning,” a class in study strategies. “It’s also the assumption that you’ll read something once, and you’ll get it, and that’s not true for most of us. … They’re shortchanging themselves. A lot of students think they can study the night before the test, and that’s it. They’ve got to be learning this stuff all along. There’s just too much material to succeed in college that way … and it’s too big and deep and connected.”

Heerspink commented on the Calvin population’s widely varying study habits: “I think it’s a mixed bag partly because we admit a real mixed bag of students. We have some top scholars here, and we also have students who had a tough, tough time in high school. We take them in and give them a try. There are fabulous pockets of students who are really helping each other. It’s really a place where students are expected to be students.”

Homework History
If Calvin students are not honoring the homework standard now, was there a time in the dim memory of the college when they did? Dr. George Harper, English professor emeritus, whose college career was interrupted when he joined the army in 1942, remembered: “Right after the war, you had to fight to find a place in the library. It was too full.”

Even for Harper and his hard-working ilk, the quality of all that homework was different. “Most of that was not assigned work. It was reading lots of good stuff because the prof expected you to. … I don’t think we had as much busy work as students have today. There were no photocopiers, and there were no computers. Today professors hand out a lot of paper. It was a different world.”

To hear Joy DeBoer Anema ’65 tell it, to be a student on the Franklin campus in the early 1960s was to be a part of a community where homework took on the nature of a ritual. Anema, Calvin’s associate registrar for academic advising, recalled: “Our habits were to go over to the library after supper at five-thirty, six o’clock. Everybody took a coffee break at nine or nine-thirty. The library emptied out.” Following coffee at the commons, the Franklin community, thus far co-ed, made a division. Female students, who were required to be “in” at 10 p.m., repaired to their dorms or the “coops” (residences on Franklin) to burn the oil until midnight. But while the women hit the books, it seems, the men hit the campus.

“After 10 o’clock, it would be screw-around time, basically,” said professor of education Leroy Stegink ’65, of his gender’s study habits in that era. “Some would study. … Some would raise whoopee.”

Standing Firm
Plus ca change…Perhaps, as an article in the December 6, 2002, issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education suggests, the 2:1 homework-class work ratio is and always has been too impractical an ideal. “Perhaps a more realistic response is to simply lower expectations, so that they more closely comport with campus reality,” wrote Jeffrey Young, the article’s author.

student studying

The stalwarts in Calvin’s SAS office are holding the line. “We counsel them that if you want to be a serious student at Calvin, you have to consider it a full-time job,” said MacKenzie. While acknowledging that there are a lot of distractions—social, athletic, extracurricular—pulling at students of all grade levels, he had a counter-argument. “Our tagline is Minds in the Making. That doesn’t put down other things in a college education, but the curriculum at Calvin is a demanding curriculum; and for a student to be successful here, they have to be serious about their studies.”

At this writing, Calvin is participating in the latest NSSE, anticipating a late summer or fall report card on its homework habits. “I really lobbied to get us to take part in this because I hope our scores are very good,” said Claudia Beversluis, the college’s dean of instruction. Beversluis believes the homework issue will raise issues of not only how much to study, but how best to teach. “I want to increase the rigor and engagement, but in a way that works for students here,” she said.

— Myrna Anderson is Calvin’s staff writer.