Homework: The Exchange Student’s Headache 

 June 30, 2023

By  Laura Kosloff

American students all know that homework is integral to their school performance. But foreign exchange students may have a very different understanding of and relationship to homework, and it can get them into big trouble here in the U.S. Therefore, host families need to be ready to help their exchange students “get with the program,” and avoid the pitfalls associated with failing to turn in homework.

There are many reasons why high school students may not turn in their homework. Some students may not have good organizational skills, or they might have difficulty with time management. Some just procrastinate; I can certainly sympathize with that, being something of a procrastinator myself. Others may have a heavy workload, so they push to the back burner items they think they can easily deal with later – and then that back burner disappears.

All of these reasons can apply to exchange students, too – with a couple of added issues that can also cause stress and confusion. Your exchange student most likely will not have had classes completely in English before; even students who are used to getting top grades back home may have difficulty adjusting to math, science, and history classes taught in a language that they have only studied for a few years. Think about your own foreign language classes, if you have had any; did you study the vocabulary that one finds in geometry or chemistry in your high school Spanish class?

Moreover, in many countries, “homework” is something different than we are generally used to in the United States. For some of our students, homework is just work they’re expected to do at home at some point to help make sure they are learning the subject. They don’t turn it in, and the test of whether they have learned the materials is just that – an exam at the end of the term. Some of our students are indeed expected to turn in their work, but they may not be graded on it; it’s just the teacher’s way of knowing it’s been done.

Exchange students may also not be used to working on group projects, and so may receive poor grades as a result. They are often totally unused to the concept of class participation; even if they are used to the idea, the idea that a portion of their class grade may come from class participation could well be new to them.

Of course, exchange students are told before leaving their home countries about the general expectations are in the U.S. educational system. It’s part of the orientation and training they receive as preparation for exchange. In addition, local coordinators like us explain this to our students after arrival. Some students get it right away. But some don’t, which is pretty normal – they do receive a ton of information as preparation, and it’s unrealistic to expect them to remember everything!

How Can You Help?

Here are a few strategies that may help your student.

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  • Set clear expectations: Make sure your student understands the importance of homework, group work, and class participation. If you can, go over the syllabus with them. Some classes may only require work in class; does the student understand that? What are the teacher’s expectations for completion and quality?
  • Create a routine: Encourage your student to establish a routine for completing homework. For some, right after school may be the best time to get all or most of it done; for others, evenings may work better. Encourage your student to have a specific place in your home to work.
  • Prioritize: Host parents can help students prioritize assignments by asking a few questions about the nature of the assignment. When is it due? Is it short and sweet and due tomorrow? Or is it more complicated, requiring some research? Does it involve coordination with a classmate?
  • Provide support: In some cases, host parents may be able to offer assistance with assignments or direct the student to resources that the student may not be aware of. (By the way, this is something your local coordinator might be able to help with – don’t hesitate to get in touch!)
  • Encourage communication and discussion: Help your student to think about the reasons why they are having difficulty. Is it time management due to having 6, 7, or 8 classes? Do they understand the material? Consider, too, whether there is something else going on in their life. Is your student having difficulty making friends? Is there anything going on back in the student’s home country that could be affecting how your student is feeling?

Even with your own children, you want to find a balance between providing support and allowing your teenager to take responsibility for their own work. It’s the same with our exchange students. We know it can be more challenging with exchange students, because you are just getting to know them and they may not yet feel comfortable sharing everything with host parents or their coordinators. What motivates your student may still be a mystery to you. Provide positive reinforcement, help them get to know what’s needed, encourage them to talk to their teachers, and overall -- be there for them when they succeed.

Featured image by Alexa from Pixabay

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