Smarter homework

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.”

About Joanne


  1. I read this article and thought to myself; this is darn obvious and something I’ve incorporated into my own practice as an educator for ages (when I still assigned homework, now I focus much more on doing the practice of the material when I can give students feedback, and having students do stuff that they can all do independently at home).

  2. Partway through college, I figured this out and suddenly school was much easier (and I did much better). I rewrote my notes into ‘Cliff notes’, looking up anything that was unclear and fixing it. After that, my studying consisted of reviewing the new notes in short bursts or writing out flowcharts/lists of the material from memory and comparing it to the notes (I was in the sciences, so questions might be ‘Trace X pathway’ or ‘Explain how molecule Y relates to these processes).

    I recommend this to my students when I tutor (HS) or teach (CC students). Some say that it’s too much work, but those who do it say that it works wonders…and not needing more than an hour to review the night before the test is its own reward.

  3. My HS wasn’t very competitive so I didn’t need much studying there but I knew I would have to make up for my weak HS coursework by working MUCH harder in college. I would review each class’ notes that day, making additions, corrections and clarifications as needed. I started studying for tests and finals way early, and would re-write my notes into progressively more condensed form until I would have only a few notecards by the day of the exam. (and for history classes, I likely had several spirals of original notes). As lu-lu said, it works.