Simple changes to homework improved student learning

In Portugal, the last discussions about Education were primarily focused on the big system level improvements, which politicians and population think will allow the students and teachers to improve their performances significantly.

"(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."
However, we know that when we discuss Education we are looking at a major intricate novel where complex characters coexist. Downstream, students are the often called recipients of learning or the agents that will change the economy, societies. There is some truth to that if we change the wording but, at the end of day, the purpose of everyone is to have better schools, better communities, a better future. But way more than that, we want to have happy students in the process of learning, able to make a positive contribution in their communities and, more importantly, in themselves.

The learning process demands salient abilities and psychological and emotional harmony from students, pre-requirements of an educational development that intersects with the self-development. The process of learning has been thoroughly studied and findings of cognitive science have allowed us to identify some strategies that improve this process.

"Based on laboratory studies, we know a lot about how people learn," said lead author Andrew Butler, a postdoctoral researcher at Duke. 

Based on research done with undergraduate students, a new set of principles were followed to change the nature of homework and assignments. The principles implied in this process are:

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.
Repetition, retrieval, and expansion of knowledge; segregation of parts of problems spaced over time; and immediate feedback.

This means that the learning process was focused on dilating the period of intensive learning, on the consolidation of learning, allowing in this process for enough time to reflect upon the material learned and immediate feedback to ensure that students review what they have learned.

"Giving students multiple opportunities to practice retrieving and applying their knowledge on new problems is a very powerful way to promote learning, especially when this practice is spaced out over time," 

Feedback also is critical to learning, and previous studies have shown that students will often skip looking at feedback."

The method:

The researchers split the class into two groups and assigned each group standard homework and intervention homework during alternating weeks; in any given week, half of the students were assigned to the intervention and half to the standard practice homework.

The course covered 11 broad topics and approximately five core concepts per topic. Questions on the midterm and final exams covered specific concepts and topics, so by comparing how the two groups fared on those questions, the research team could compare whether students learned more doing one style of homework or the other. 

The results:

The research showed that students scored about 7 percent higher on the portions of the final exams that were taught with the intervention.
The study showed that the combination of repeated retrieval practice, spacing and immediate, required feedback had a powerful effect on student learning of complex engineering material.

As mentioned in the article, it was hard to control the variables of extra-study at home or any other measures taken by the students to improve their outcomes; however, there seems to be a positive impact of these principles in the learning outcomes. 

At this point, if you are teacher, you'd say, well, I already do this with my students! and yes, you probably right, as some of the principles here are very common in our schools. Nonetheless, this study is important because it helps us review some major principles that we sometimes tend to forget or, because of the frantic nature of classrooms and schools, to neglect.

As the authors point out, these principles can be used in other contexts and grades.  

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