How to Maintain a Balance in the Game of School

An Introduction

High school is a stressful time. With college admissions looming around the corner, there comes a pressure for students to take large number of honors/AP/IB (or whatever other high-level classes there are) classes, join numerous extracurriculars and/or clubs, play one or more sports, and volunteer. All of this comes occurs under the even increasing homework workload from schools, and possible pressures from family to do well in school. The question is, how is one supposed to balance all of these expectations, while still having fun (and staying sane)?

My Community

As a high school senior, much of the college-admissions stress has dissipated; however, I still remember closely the pressures and fears I had about being admitted into colleges. Since my school is a college preparatory school, the pressures to take difficult classes and apply to a large number of colleges is enormous. While I have never had to deal with going to bed past 1 AM (at least not for homework), I witnesses many of my peers regularly going to bed late due to a combination of school plays, sports competitions, or AP world homework. Furthermore, I saw how some of my classmates faced not only pressures from the school to succeed, but also pressures from parents, who would sometimes sign up these students to extra classes or tutoring.
In my school, there are some of my peers who can spend upwards of three to four hours a day on homework and those who spend less than two. Those who spend large amounts of time on homework are also often the ones involved in extracurricular activities (choir, school play, sports, etc) which further exacerbates their stress. After interviewing one of my peers, I came to understand is that a large factor for this gap is the fact that students may lack the ability to manage their time (or stay on task, i.e. social media/netflix distractions) and/or may not understand the material as well as others. Consequently, what may take one individual a short amount of time could take another hours. Given this disparity, I wonder if there is some combination of homework and student effort that could result in a more balanced system.
Another area of concern in my school is the role that parental expectations play on some of my peers. Whereas many can go through school without worrying excessively about parental pressure to get As (certainly, my peers may get in trouble for Cs and maybe Bs, but not excessively), some of my classmates are expected to attend supplementary classes on personal time to advance their learning in school. While this may increase academic performance, I fear that such an emphasis by parents and family can add on to the already high stress high school students bear, making the experience more difficult.
Below is a map that will (hopefully) be populated by a multiple schools. If you like, please add an entry for your school, with a brief description of its expectations/pressures, and what you estimate is the average time people sleep.

Given the seemingly asymmetric balance of pressure, I came to wonder, is there some balance between student motivation, school and family pressure that can maximize the high school experience? If so, maybe I could reduce (if only slightly) the stress of my peers, and ensure a slightly more sane high school experience. After all, even though I may be leaving soon, I know some of my younger friends will still have to deal with the pressures.

What is the problem?

In high school, there are three large players impacting students’ lives: schools and their faculty, family and friends, and the students themselves. Each party has different goals, which often can conflict. While a student may prefer to socialize or play games one night, a teacher could assign hours of homework (AP Chemistry lab report anyone?), or family could plan extra classes. Thus, the question is, how do we balance all these goals?

In this post, I hope to address a specific facet of contention: homework. Homework is an integral part of most educational systems around the world, yet the effects of homework can vary. Too much homework can result in students having little sleep with detrimental effects, yet a lack of homework could result in students performing poorly on some end-of-course assessment (IB, AP, etc). Coupled from pressures from family, the high school experience can become extremely stressful for students. To avoid resorting to having Pusheen do homework, I hope to find an alternative solution to the balance of high school.

Why does it matter?

Let’s face it: high school is stressful. With increased rates of feeling overwhelmed, and a decreased feeling of positive mental health for seniors in the US, there appears to be an increased number of stressors.

While a certain amount of stress may be beneficial, excess stress in high school students can exacerbate extenuating issues and lead possibly to suicide.

With such concerning data, there comes a need to understand the source of all these stressors. As it turns out, a large amount of stress can be attributed to two key areas: homework and familial stress (parents and siblings, etc).

Given this data, it is my hope to take these specific aspects of high school and, using Game Theory, try to develop a solution which can result in less stress, while still satisfying all parties.

Game Theory x Homework

Before understanding how Game Theory applies to solving the problem of homework, one must first understand, what is game theory? Put simply, the goal of Game Theory is to “solve” situatuons that involve any decisions. These decisions are represented as “games.” Games can constitute anything, from what one would consider traditional games (i.e. board games, video games, card games) to daily situations such as how to divide a cake fairly, the famous Prisoner’s Dilemma or even the United Airlines fiasco.

Modeling the game

To model the game of Homework, we first need to identify the players. In this game, let’s focus on three players (In real life, there would be many more players; however, to make a simple model of this game, I will just focus on these three groups):
  • Students
  • Schools
  • Parents/guardians
After identifying the players, it is important to address which strategies they can play. For this game, we will assume the following strategies:

The strategies

  • For students:
    1. Do little homework (in favor of sleep, socializing, or just pure procrastination). After all, homework isn’t absolutely mandatory…
    2. Spend lots of time studying/doing homework. You’re the student who puts school as a top priorities
  • For schools:
    1. Do not assign a lot of homework. Your students are stressed, and the teachers are busy. Why not give them a break?
    2. Assign substantial amounts of homework. To prepare your students for the final exam, you need lots of practice (through homework)
  • For parents:
    1. Do not pressure students much. Your child is already self-motivated, and you don’t want to put any excess pressure
    2. Apply significant pressure. You want your child to have the best education, so you will supplement/encourage your student to go beyond.
After identifying the available strategies for each player, we are now ready to present the game. There are many ways to represent a game, but one of the most simple forms is through a matrix. (Green represents the players, blue represents the available strategies, and the red section is the intersection).

The (incomplete) matrix

Parents Low pressure High pressure
Schools Low homework High homework Low homework High homework
Students Little effort Outcome 1 Outcome 2 Outcome 3 Outcome 4
Lots of effort Outcome 5 Outcome 6 Outcome 7 Outcome 8
In the matrix, we see all the possible outcomes (there are 8). However, the matrix is incomplete as we have not assigned “payoffs” for each outcome. A payoff is can be described as what a player would receive for a certain outcome. For example, in a game of dividing $100 among three friends, your payoff for the game would be how much money you receive. There are two main ways to assign payoffs, cardinal payoffs and ordinal payoffs. Cardinal payoffs involve assigning each outcome a value (like the above example), whereas ordinal ones simply involve ranking each option. Since assigning exact values for every option is extremely difficult (if not impossible), we will be using ordinal payoffs for modeling our game homework. Below, please respond how you students, parents, and schools would rank.

List of outcomes
  1. Outcome 1: Low homework, low pressure, low effort
  2. Outcome 2: High homework, low pressure, low effort
  3. Outcome 3: Low homework, high pressure, low effort
  4. Outcome 4: Low homework, high pressure, high effort
  5. Outcome 5: Low homework, low pressure, high effort
  6. Outcome 6: High homework, low pressure, high effort
  7. Outcome 7: Low homework, high pressure, high effort
  8. Outcome 8: High homework, high pressure, high effort
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