Designing Smarter Homework

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A couple of years ago, I published a piece in the New York Times about how we could improve the effectiveness of homework by incorporating techniques from cognitive science, like spaced repetition and retrieval practice, into students’ take-home assignments.

Now someone has tried it, and it worked—really, really well. Researchers made changes to homework assignments in an upper-level undergraduate engineering course at Rice University, adding these features:

Repeated retrieval practice: In addition to receiving the standard homework assignment, students were given follow-up problems on the same topic in two additional assignments that counted only toward their course participation grade.

Spacing: Rather than giving all the problem sets for a week’s lectures in one assignment, the researchers spaced the problems over three weeks of assignments.

Feedback: Rather than waiting one week to learn how they did, students received immediate feedback on intervention homework, and they were required to view the feedback to get credit for the assignment.

The website ScienceDaily quotes the instructor of the engineering course, who was also one of the co-authors of the study:

“The results exceeded everyone’s expectations,” said Richard Baraniuk. “These simple changes produced a larger effect than the average improvement for classroom interventions that require a complete overhaul of curricula and/or teaching methods.”

So why aren’t we adding these features to homework assignments given to students at all levels? I think we should be, and as the authors of this study point out, technology may make that easier to do.

Brilliant readers, what do you think? Could we make students’ homework assignments smarter?

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4 Responses to “Designing Smarter Homework”

  1. Benjamin Childers says:

    Hello! I am an educator in Tucson, AZ and wanted to share another study with you that we have begun to attempt to implement at our high school. The link is to the study that we took from OSU to implement our homework model.
    http://www.physics.ohio-state.edu/~lbao/Papers/AJP_2008-9-878-FlexHW.pdf

  2. Yes, though I did not participate in this study – when I was in college I recopied my notes after each class and this helped to clarify my thoughts and understandings of the subject. This study and results make very good sense!

  3. Anon says:

    The link above references a 4 minute video on ALEKS, demonstrating how this is all baked in to our software. The research is correct, and it validates much earlier work by other cognitive scientists. The funny thing is the people who haven’t read it and don’t know it are the ones making most of the educational software that delivers web-based homework today.

  4. Homework, just like worksheets, don’t have their roots based on the end result of increased student skills or knowledge. It is/was a convenient way for teachers to see student outcomes for multiple students. However, we need more individual attention paid to students in the form of immediate feedback. What is the most effective, I suspect, is a teacher able to sit with a learner to see HOW they conquer a question or solve a problem. The amount of information a 5 minute sit down with a student can yield is absolutely stunning. It may be difficult in a class of 30+ students but is worth every effort to implement.

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