• November 26, 2020
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Frustrated student with her head in hands. (Photo courtesy of Andrea Piacquadio, pexels.com)

There is nothing more frustrating than finishing an assignment and realizing how useless it really was, knowing I’ll never get those thirty, forty, sixty minutes of my life back. 

Students spend nearly seven hours a day sitting in classrooms (or more recently, at home, staring at a screen) and additional hours completing homework. So why do teachers give students “busywork”, wasting what little time students still possess? Busywork is a drain on students’ time and effort, time they should be spending on actual learning. 

What is Busywork?

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “work that usually appears productive or of intrinsic value but only actually keeps one occupied.”

The Urban Dictionary is even more scathing, defining it as “class or homework teachers tend to give that usually have no learning benefit or provide more than necessary exercises to learn the material. This work is usually distributed when the teacher is lazy or needs to do something and needs to preoccupy the class for the day. Busy work is especially common in cases of substitute teachers.”

“I would define busywork as any form of work that doesn’t teach new content or particularly help enforce previously learned concepts,” said Brooke Dickinson, sophomore (via text interview).

Some teachers’ perceptions of busywork differ from students’. “I would define busywork as something to keep students working in the classroom. Busy work fills the time for a given class,” said Allison Bullard, Chemistry teacher (via email interview). 

Even though Bullard also believes busywork to be a time filler, she views it as necessary when students’ need extra practice, and she is not able to teach. “The work I would consider busywork I assign… when I need a substitute. I use that time to give extra practice for a concept that I have already taught in class,” wrote Bullard.

Essentially, teachers give students busywork just to keep them occupied rather than teaching them anything new. The work does not provide necessary educational value. Some examples include post-assessment activities like vocabulary word searches and redundant worksheets like fill-in-the-blank activities on material already covered.

That is not to say that all worksheets are useless or that all homework is busywork. What distinguishes busywork from productive work is students’ knowledge or understanding afterwards. Productive work introduces new ideas and revisits old ones. Work that strengthens students’ skills, allowing them to analyze and evaluate content with greater understanding, is work of intrinsic value.

“Students often tell me that they understand a topic in class, but when they get home they are lost. Productive work helps reinforce what is taught in the classroom. Busy work is a time filler,” wrote Bullard.

“Busywork often… includes insignificant activities, such as a reading with questions or a ‘problem-solving’ activity. On the other hand, I would consider productive work to be thought-provoking and actually relevant to the curriculum,” wrote Dickinson.

Busywork has no real educational value. While it may be related to the content, it does not build on students’ knowledge or skills. Important skills busywork neglects to reinforce include: critical thinking, problem solving, and analyzation. 

When I solve a math problem, I use essential formulas and ideas the teacher can only impart through multiple examples and a lot of practice. However, busywork comes into play when the practice becomes superfluous – when I no longer gain anything from excessive worksheets on the content. In like manner, science work is most often memorization of vocabulary and concepts. Yet, students can tell when teachers give assignments just to fill the time, having already learned and practiced the material. 

Students do not gain anything from busywork. Excessive practice is not always busywork, as long as students are still applying their learning to new situations. It’s when that practice neglects to help students that it becomes busywork. It is the work that students complete to check a box…work without worth, where students’ knowledge before and after completing it is the same.  

“I believe that busywork is pointless and encourages students to procrastinate. When they do not do well on an assignment and still ace their tests, it leads to a spiral of bad habits,” said Anderson Fox, Sophomore (via text interview).

The Effects of Busywork

Typically, the higher the grade level, the less busywork students’ do. The concepts in high school are more challenging than those in middle and elementary school, requiring more practice in understanding the material. 

The problem is that when students receive busywork as part of an increased workload, they are more likely to dislike a topic they may otherwise have interest in. However, students still generally complete busywork for fear that not doing so will negatively affect their grades. 

“Teachers give busywork so that they are not constantly teaching material, and attempt to get more grades in the grade book to look better. Busywork leads to higher stress in students, because it puts pressure on them to complete all of their assignments and have a higher average,” wrote Fox.

Bullard also believes busywork to be a possible source of stress for students, especially due to the fact that many students fall behind in completing the multitude of assignments. “Sometimes I feel that students think all work assigned is busy work. They often spend a lot of energy saying how hard something is or take a long time to get started. Once they really focus, the assignment doesn’t take nearly as long as they predicted,” wrote Bullard.

However, Bullard acknowledges that a lot of busywork can confuse students about what is essential content. “I also think that students struggle to know what is important for the unit,” wrote Bullard. 

In almost every subject, I find the content interesting but stressing about my grade diminishes my enjoyment in learning about it. Instead of learning about an interesting subject I end up learning what I need to know to get a good grade. Busywork only exacerbates this problem. Increased busywork means more work and more grades, leading to more stress, decreasing students’ desire to learn for the sake of learning. 

This is indicative of a wider issue in the school system: The negative effects grades and assessments have on students’ long term knowledge. In schools today, the scores of standardized tests are the yardsticks with which students’ worth is measured by. 

Students learn the necessary skills to fulfill the curriculum’s requirements and are rarely incentivized to learn beyond that. Adults reward students for test grades, instead of actually learning and retaining the material. Likewise, administrators reward teachers for how well their students do on tests, not for whether they will remember the material in a few months’ time.

“The structure of my curriculum in middle and high school made me focus only on the consequences associated with learning, not with the material itself. This made everything uninteresting and made truly learning material very difficult,” wrote Andrew Mayor, writer, in an article on medium.com.

Busywork is a part of the system that causes students’ disinterest in learning. Work lacking in value discourages students from finding worth in education.

“I think busywork can occasionally reinforce previously learned concepts. Although, I believe that when a teacher relies on busywork consistently, students lack an understanding of the curriculum that could have been achieved through productive work,” wrote Dickinson.

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