Designing Smarter Homework

2 minute read

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.

Annie Murphy Paul is the author of the forthcoming book Brilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter. Read more at her blog, where this post first appeared.

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