Students don’t need more homework or less homework, writes Annie Murphy Paul in the New York Times. They need smarter homework assignments that use what we know about how people learn. A new discipline called “Mind, Brain and Education” has produced useful insights, she writes.
For example, “spaced repetition” — repeated, brief exposure to information — is more useful than studying it once in a large block. “Retrieval practice” uses the pressure of a test — it can be a self-test — to help students remember more.
When we work hard to understand information, we recall it better; the extra effort signals the brain that this knowledge is worth keeping. This phenomenon, known as cognitive disfluency, promotes learning so effectively that psychologists have devised all manner of “desirable difficulties” to introduce into the learning process: for example, sprinkling a passage with punctuation mistakes, deliberately leaving out letters, shrinking font size until it’s tiny or wiggling a document while it’s being copied so that words come out blurry.
Teachers can use “interleaving” — mixing different problems in one assignment — to create desirable difficulty. “When students can’t tell in advance what kind of knowledge or problem-solving strategy will be required to answer a question, their brains have to work harder to come up with the solution and the result is that students learn the material more thoroughly.”