Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Making Homework Assignments Smarter for your Students and their Brains


One of my favorite bloggers, Annie Murphie Paul, has written a post about homework that every educator should consider as a guideline for better learning opportunities. Her claim, based on Neuroscience and Psychology research, entails making better use of strategies that are effectively proven to have an impact on learning.

Annie mentions three strategies that could be used by educators when they are considering the kind of extra-class activities they will assign:

- Spaced Repetition - instead of assigning units of content and then "getting over" them and moving to the next topic, make sure you come back to the content students have explored last week or in the past month over and over in different ways.

As the blogger puts it,
"Exposing ourselves to information repeatedly over time fixes it more permanently in our minds, by strengthening the representation of the information that is embedded in our neural networks."

- Retrieval Practice - In the beginning of the year, I explored the topic in a post about "learning by retrieval", which evokes the power of using testing/assessment tools more often to constantly retrieve information in a more active processing of the brain, instead of just studying content or taking notes. By working on the output of the language, learners are able to strengthen the brain connections for the content they are learning. This requires more of a study-test-study-test-study-test perspective rather than just study-study-study-test approach that we generally have. And by testing, we're not talking just about standardized tests, but self-assessments, quizzes, every kind of assessment that challenges the mind and retrieves information over and over again.

- Interleaving - Consider our homework assignments. Make an auditing of what you've asked your students to do in the past month. I bet that we have generally asked them to focus on the content they're studying right now in class and with types of problems and situations that are similar to each other to "make sense" for the students. In fact, what Annie Paul suggests based on recent studies and even sports training is that we mix up the types of problems and situations students will have to deal with for homework in a way that the sequence is not really predictable. By doing that, we force the brain to "work harder" to try to figure out the solution.

I think that the best chance we have to reconsider our homework practices is to audit what we've been doing and strategically plan ahead. Here's an initial list that might help:

- Have I used any of those three strategies - spaces repetition, retrieval practice, interleaving - in any of my past month assignments? If so, how?
- Have I varied the types of homework I assign to students or do they all follow a regular pattern?
- How challenging and motivating those homework assignments seem to be to my students? Have I ever asked them which types do they prefer, which are more challenging and which they feel are more effective for them in retrieving what they've learned?

Thinking strategically:

- How can I make homework assignments a more meaningful part of my teaching?
- How can I intertwine those 3 strategies to compare learning results?
- How can I check the effectiveness of the new strategies I try to use?
- How can I make homework a more challenging and engaging part of my classes?

I'd love to hear your views and findings about homework in the classroom and how they can be transformed to make it a relevant learning tool for our students.

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