Homework, Stress, and Student Life
November 20, 2015
For our first long form project this year, we examined homework and the role it plays in our community. Obviously, homework plays a major role in all of our lives, and takes up a significant portion of our days and nights. We interviewed teachers and faculty to find out what drives the homework they assign; we talked to students and gathered their reactions to those homework assignments. We examined the toll homework can take on students’ lives, the importance of sleep, and looked into whether we can expect to be happy as students here at Head Royce, or whether that’s something we’re simply meant to accomplish at the end of doing all this homework.
Below, you’ll find pieces on:
- Lack of Sleep as a Badge of Honor
- Good Stress vs. Bad Stress
- Where Happiness Stands in Our Priorities
- Time Lapse Videos: A Day in the Life of a HRS High School Student
- Sleep Deprivation
- Interviews: How Teachers Think About Homework
- Student Perspectives: What is ‘Good’ Homework? What Homework Do You Ignore?
Team: Lauren Quittman (’16), Claire Stevenson (’16), Isabel Napper (’16), Elliot Farinaro (’16), Anish Mokha (’16), Miriam Goldgeil (’17), Zack Mintz (’17), AJ Stella (’17)
Lack of Sleep as a Badge of Honor
It’s well known that high school students don’t get enough sleep. But lately, it has become a competition to see who’s gotten the least amount of sleep. It’s perceived that if you aren’t going to bed at two in the morning, you probably aren’t working hard. AJ Stella interviewed students across all grade levels to try and see how bad this phenomena really is.
Good Stress vs. Bad Stress
Hearing the word “stress” usually brings to mind images like a student cradling their head in their hands while cramming information from a textbook, or trembling before a midterm. However, not all stress is necessarily bad. Good stress, also called eustress, is the body’s positive response to stress that is healthy and can be very beneficial for situations such as a presentation or social event. History Teacher Karen Bradley explained that, “Good stress is feeling the energy rise and focusing on the preparation that you need to do before an event…that can be writing an in-class essay, having a debate, or a game if [you play] a sport.” Positive stress acts as a source of motivation and focus, and can be very beneficial in tackling challenges that are not too overwhelming.
Telling the difference between good and bad stress can be difficult since either type of stress can be experienced before and during the same event. While a more talkative extroverted person might be amped up before a debate, someone who does not like conflict might dread the whole event. Guidance Counselor Rachel Concannon stated that a distinct difference between good stress and bad stress is that bad stress is when “[stress] becomes debilitating. There’s [so] much on your to do list that you are paralyzed and you can’t even start. Or you’re so fearful of giving a classroom presentation that you can’t even get the words out, that’s when it goes over the threshold into bad stress.” Bad stress can result in a loss of appetite, anxiety, and even insomnia. “Bad stress is the kind of stress that makes you feel scattered, “ Bradley explains, “out of control, and overwhelmed. Much of the time bad stress is stress that goes on and on.”
When cortisol, a stress hormone, is released for a long time, it depresses parts of the brain that form memories, which can effect a student’s ability to learn and remember material. “You have to be able to ramp up your stress response and then have it go down,” Science Teacher Jennifer Brakeman stated.
But how can students at the School, which has a challenging curriculum and a competitive environment, learn to effectively manage bad stress when it is a constant reality? When asked about the prevalence of students dealing with the more severe effects of bad stress, such as anxiety, Colcannon responded, “It’s hard for me to say because I see a ton of kids, but there a ton of kids that I don’t see that are struggling with this (anxiety and depression). So I would say that… it’s an issue here. And I think that needs to be addressed.”
In order to reduce the stress levels of the student body, the School could address the issue from several standpoints. The first is scheduling, and possibly limiting the number of classes students can take throughout the school year. The School offers many interesting and challenging classes, and students are compelled to take as many classes as possible in order to bolster their college applications. In reality, overloading themselves with classes only adds on the stress students face everyday. Another option would be setting boundaries on the number of difficult classes students can take, setting limits on number of AP classes, or number of harder AP classes such as AP Calculus. An alternative course of action would be to limit the amount of homework students have to do per night. Studies have shown that after a certain amount of time, doing homework is not as beneficial as it seems to be. Instead, students cut corners to get the homework done, therefore sacrificing a good learning opportunity. And if they do not cut corners, they sacrifice sleep. Furthermore, Colcannon argues, “ I think we can have an incredibly rich academic environment without so much homework.”
But there is only so much the School can do to alleviate bad stress for students. “I don’t think the school by itself can do it,” Bradley says, “ I think it’s a multi-pronged problem with a multi-pronged response, and it needs the students to really… understand how big of a problem it is, it needs the parents’ help.” Families can work to foster an environment that promotes getting enough sleep and physical activity. It is important to prioritize the health of the student, and then plan accordingly for classes, extracurriculars, and recreation time. In a culture where it is okay not to take of yourself, students, parents, and teachers have to open the conversation and be honest about what they are really prioritizing, and what needs to be changed.
Student Fitbit Data
For this piece, we contacted various students in the Upper School who have Fitbit devices. After compiling data from these students, we were able to track the activities and workflow of students during a typical week at the School. The students who were gracious enough to give us their data were Sol Zitter (‘16), Cameron Chin (‘18), Carolyn Cheng (‘17), and Winnie Chen (‘18).
Range of sleep for sample size: 4 hours and 16 minutes to 8 hours and 20 minutes
Each student had a respective average sleep time during the week of 7 hours and 5 minutes, 6 hours and 22 minutes, 7 hours, and 6 hours and 8 minutes. After weighting the various sleep times according to the number of days, the average sleep time per night for the four students was 6 hours and 40 minutes.
In addition, the students submitted data about how many steps they took per day. Each student had average weekly steps of 4,726 steps, 7,627 steps, 6,699 steps, and 10.928 steps. The average of the total steps for the 4 students was 7,495 steps. One step is approximately 2.5 feet long. Of course the number of steps include student movement outside of school, but on average they traveled about 18,738 feet. That comes out to about 3.5 miles per day!
Where Happiness Stands in Our Priorities
When did “average” become an insult? When did over-achieving become a requirement for success? When did stress become a badge of honor? When did depression become taboo, and when did happiness become a concern for the future rather than for the present? The School is undeniably good at what it does: it helps its students get into the best colleges, provides a top-class education, excels at intellectual stimulation, and shapes good students and responsible citizens. Achieving these goals, however, comes at a cost. Putting your all into academics, extra-curriculars, community service, and other enriching and resume-building activities often leaves little time for maintaining mental health. Junior Erin Jeffs admitted, “I would say academics, at least in this school, in some ways [come] before happiness.” In fact, it would be difficult to find a student or teacher here who could deny that the School’s culture applies enormous pressure to do well academically, and that we too often prioritize this success over nearly everything else, including current happiness. Freshman John Myles explained, “I think it’s not so much [that students] want to strive for happiness while at Head-Royce… but I think it’s one of the goals for most of the students… to go through Head-Royce so that you can have happiness later in life, rather than having it necessarily in the moment.” While this view is by no means shared by everyone at the School, it is certainly a common one.
Focusing too heavily on the future is a dangerous game, and it begs the question: when does it end? “Sometimes students become anxious as they think all about the future,” English teacher David Enelow acknowledged. He added, “Always planning and scheming is a recipe for an impoverished humanity.” Many students, myself included, have at some point come to the conclusion that high school is a necessary stepping stone to reach the next, and supposedly more important, phase of life: college. But college is not ultimately an end-goal, and the cycle is liable to continue long after college acceptance letters and high school graduation. History and English teacher Laura Krier admitted, “I find that approach very depressing and also somewhat counter-productive–the approach to high school as simply a tool to get into college–because that approach never ends.” High school as a prerequisite for college turns into college as a stepping stone for graduate school or a career, which in turn creates a desire for a promotion or retirement, and on, and on. If you view each phase as simply a necessary hoop to jump through, only to find that it leads to another hoop, when does the preparation end and real life, the true end-goal, begin?
“On the other hand, laying aside some enjoyment in the present for the future is absolutely essential, and that’s one of the main functions of education, is teaching students to delay gratification,” Enelow continued. The forethought and self-discipline required to do well in a challenging and relatively future-oriented environment such as at the School are surely invaluable life skills, but they are only truly valuable in moderation. When students are too focused on where their education can get them in the future, rather than on learning for the sake of learning, “It is sad,” Krier insists. “Learning is way more fun when you’re thinking about ideas and less focused on the grade.”
Still, a huge number of people find it almost impossible to set aside superfluous thoughts of the future and live in the moment. The drive for success–in school, in career, in life–is at times overwhelming, and if you view personal success simply as an abstract, “better” version of yourself, or even as a more concrete goal that unendingly advances, this ambition will never be satiated, and you will never be satisfied. When I asked a number of teachers and students for their definition of “success”, however, a trend began to appear. Math teacher Neethi Venkateswaran said, “Ideally, I think that I would want my success to be linked with my inner joy, and my feeling of bliss.” Senior Zoe Jennings concluded, “My personal definition of success… would be doing what… I love, and being happy.” Math teacher Chris Kinney stated, “To me, success is a happy, healthy life.” Not many generalizations can be made about humanity as a whole, but there are very few people in the world who do not, on some level, wish for happiness.
Kinney added, “There are stresses everywhere in life, and I think a big key to overall happiness is how you take those stresses and try to not let them affect you in negative ways, and that’s a very easy thing to say and a very hard thing to do.” While desire for happiness may be a constant but often unconscious driving force in our lives, the extreme stress that the majority of students at the School experience is far more commonly acknowledged and openly discussed. “I know a lot of Head-Royce kids are stressed,” Jeffs commented. “But I don’t know how many would consider themselves happy.”
While complaints or accounts of stress are casual and commonplace around the School, the topic of happiness–or lack of–is rarely broached. It often seems to me that our community has a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on stigmatized mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. An anonymous student who suffers from multiple mental health disorders confided, “I know that my peers don’t really take mental health super seriously. Many people wouldn’t make a joke about something like polio, but the phrase, ‘That’s so OCD’ is commonly used to the point where everyone thinks that the disorder is exclusively about being orderly and a neat freak when that is such a small part of it.” The School by no means ignores mental health, but perhaps we need a more open dialogue on the topic. A better understanding of what shapes our happiness, and consideration of our peers and of ourselves could lead to a happier community as a whole. “If you are more self-accepting, you’re going to be happier,” Enelow said. Ignoring the problem or pretending that it will fix itself will get us nowhere. The School undoubtedly has the capacity and resources, both intellectual and material, to examine itself and come to a conclusion that prioritizing the future over current happiness, as is so often done in our community, is an unhealthy and unsustainable habit.
In the end, the anonymous student says it best: “My therapist and family have considered pulling me out of the school. For me, I know that I really don’t want to leave. Ultimately, I really love [the School]. I love my classmates, my friends, my teachers, the classes I take, the opportunities, my [sports] team, so the fact that the school as a whole makes me happy is the only thing that’s really keeping me here… I know that as a community, [the School] can take advantage of the opportunities presented to us and focus too much on college and our future. This is, of course, detrimental to our happiness, because the future is the unknown. Something I’ve learned in therapy is that humans like to be in control and know stuff and thinking about the unknown future is scary and stressful because it is the unknown and that scares us as humans. This is very hypocritical, because I am very guilty of this, but I think that more [Head-Royce] students should focus on the now and appreciate the time we have left at [the School] … We need to slow down and consider the fact that in the end everything will be just fine, and I think this will lead to [a] much happier community.”
Because we attend an academically rigorous college preparatory school, it is easy to forget or ignore the health benefits of sleep and the ramifications of sleep deprivation. While it is common knowledge that sleep is good and sleep deprivation is bad, not everybody knows the specific reasons why sleep should be your best friend. According to Science Teacher Jennifer Brakeman, sleep is more important than most people realize. When you are sleeping, not when you’re awake or dozing, but “when you’re actually sleeping for a long period of time, your brain will actually flush out toxins,” including ones that accumulate in people with Alzheimer’s disease. “So the longer you sleep, the more detoxified your brain actually is,” explains Brakeman. Sleeping is not just a way to recharge for the next day; it is actually the time that your brain needs to keep you healthy.
There have been many studies showing the correlation between a lack of sleep and performing poorly on a variety of things. For example, Brakeman says, “When you are sleep deprived, everything seems worse than it really is, and you aren’t very good at coming up with solutions to problems, so that means that if you are having an issue and you’re sleep deprived, then it’ll just seem worse.” Likewise, School Counselor Rachel Concannon says that “it is remarkable how strong and direct the correlation is between lack of sleep and ability to cope with stress, anxiety and depressive symptoms.” Concannon often “‘prescribes’ students to go to sleep earlier and get their sleep schedule back on track. [And] they almost always return after a week feeling better and with their symptoms lessened.” Brakeman says that when they are sleep deprived, “People cry more, and I’m not saying that crying is bad, but they have more reasons to cry because everything seems more hopeless.” The science behind this reaction has to do with two parts of our brains: the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala.
The prefrontal cortex is responsible for managing impulse control, long-term deadlines, short-term learning and remembering, and emotions. As you age, your prefrontal cortex becomes more functional, which is why “you would never have a ten-year-old heading a family because they would be bad at it [since] they don’t have a formed prefrontal cortex,” says Brakeman. “Teenagers are starting to develop their prefrontal cortex activity, but, on average, teenagers generally make stupid mistakes or they are a little bit more impulsive. [This is because] the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex balance each other out.”
The amygdala is the more primitive, reactive, and emotional part of the brain. The prefrontal cortex and the amygdala maintain an equilibrium, giving you more perspective. However, “when you are sleep deprived, your amygdala becomes more active because your prefrontal cortex becomes less active. So that’s one of the reasons why people are in worse moods when they are sleep deprived; it’s because they are just too reactive,” explained Brakeman. “And everything negative has more of an impact on their life than the positive things. So if one negative thing and one positive thing happen in the same amount of time, you’re going to react to the negative thing and ignore the positive thing.” Senior Wendell Phillips is no stranger to this reaction, stating, “If I don’t get much sleep, not only will I be mentally disengaged, but I’m also prone to getting sick and being in a bad mood.” If this sounds familiar, there is a chance that sleep deprivation plays a role in your everyday life. Don’t disregard the notion just yet; it is very likely that people are unaware that they are sleep deprived. Brakeman said, “I think it varies by the person. Some people are just aware that they are tired; if they close their eyes, they almost doze off, which is a clear indication that they are sleep deprived. But sometimes people are so constantly sleep deprived that they think that is normal.”
It is safe to say that most students at the School are very focused on academics. They are so focused that when it comes to studying, it is not uncommon for students to sacrifice an hour or two of sleep to cram in some extra studying. Brakeman, however, warns against this strategy. She says, “Another thing that happens in your brain when you’re sleep deprived, again going back to the prefrontal cortex, is you actually can’t remember things or learn things very well.” This information may not be new, but let’s look at it from a different angle. It is possible to study the unit material every night, but if you’re sleep deprived three, two, or even just one of those nights, that studying isn’t going to help you as much. “You just won’t remember what you had learned,” says Brakeman, “And in addition, if you’re sleep deprived while you’re learning it, then you aren’t going to learn it as well. [And if that’s the case] it doesn’t really matter what you do the day before a test, because you didn’t learn it the first time. It’s really the equivalent of cramming, even if you put in the time earlier.”
It’s hard to not be sleep deprived at the School, especially with so many activities available. History Teacher Karen Bradley says, “Although I hesitate to make a blanket statement about homework assignments, I do think that too many students are doing too much: taking on too many classes, or doing a lot of extracurriculars that fill up most of their after-school time, so that there is not actually enough time to do a reasonable amount of homework and get a reasonable amount of sleep. … I do think homework is important, but I don’t think every student needs homework in every subject every day.” Concannon adds that some students do have “too many commitments,” but she also notes that “kids are not being efficient with their time because of social media, YouTube, video games, and video chat distractions.” Admittedly, many students do spend a lot of time on frivolous apps, Netflix, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, etc., spending (or wasting) time that could be better spent sleeping.
Unfortunately, many students at the School feel that sleep does not need to be a high priority. Senior Kako Ito says, “on average I sleep for about five hours, which is about the average among my friends, [but] I wish I could sleep more.” Ito also thinks “the average Head-Royce teenager should sleep for at least six hours [per night].” But Phillips says that his sleep time “varies, but it is usually between three and six hours.” Phillips acknowledges that his sleep time is typically less than his peers.
It is frightening to think that sleep has such a strong impact on our lives, especially because I, too, rarely sleep for the requisite eight hours each night. Senior Sophia Artis concluded, “It’s scary that the choices that we make now regarding our sleep schedule can affect us for the rest of our lives.”
A Day in the Life of a HRS High Schooler: Time Lapse Videos
HRS Students live busy lives. To try and capture a day in the life of a typical high schooler, we had three students wear GoPros on their heads from the time they got up until they went to sleep. Senior Isabel Napper, Junior Henry Yeary, and Sophomore Maddy Henry were brave enough to walk around with a camera strapped to their heads all day. Elliot then edited the hours of footage and condensed each students daily life into a video less than five minutes. Enjoy!
How Teachers Think About Homework
Stress Management Tips
- Create a “to-do” list. It sounds simple, but it really does help. For me, I am the most stressed when I have so much to do I don’t know where to start, so creating a list that I can check items off of really helps me stay focused and organized. Creating a “to-do” list breaks up all of the work I have into manageable sections.
- Take a break. It sounds counterintuitive, but can help you reset and refocus. After hours and hours of studying, it can be easy to get distracted, and I sometimes find myself rereading the same sentence four times. If I take a short break, it gives me time to relax a little, and then I am more focused after I come back.
- Eat a snack. I have found that if I have a bowl of pretzels or M&M’s next to me, I actually stay more focused. I have a hard time sitting still and being totally focused on one thing, so having a snack near me keeps me distracted enough without taking away from my studying.
- Know that you have studied and that you know the material. If you have a big test the next day, it can be hard to just put down the flashcards and study guide and go to bed, but to a certain extent there is nothing else you can do. I know you’ve heard this before, but seriously, sleep is much more important! Go to bed so that you are alert for the test the next day.