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A New Way to Approach Homework Found to Be Efficient and Effective


William B. Whitten II, Ph.D., has found that guided cognition study is both efficient and effective in improving students’ learning and knowledge retention.
Photo by Bruce Gilbert

The academic landscape is rife with opposing scholarly viewpoints. The debate over whether homework is effective, however, is not one in which William B. Whitten II, Ph.D., cares to partake.

A distinguished research scholar in the Graduate School of Education, Whitten is interested in the science of homework. Research conducted by the Center for Learning in Unsupervised Environments (CLUE), of which he is the director, has proven that homework is indeed an effective way of learning if the assignments are well designed.

“We are addressing the problem of poorly designed homework,” Whitten said. “If students do the homework, will they learn from it? That’s what I’m all about. We’re studying whether there are ways to express problems and ask questions that make homework more memorable, so that later on a student is going to know more.”

Homework has been a staple in the United States for generations. But recent trends in education prompted Whitten to delve deeper into how it is designed. He found that:

• Homework has become an increasingly important part of formal education.

• Students are often engaged in unsupervised individual learning via technology, even while in school.

• Internet-based study is increasing, and most is unsupervised individual learning.

Whitten, along with Mitchell Rabinowitz, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Division of Psychological and Educational Services, and Sandra Whitten, a consultant for CLUE, asked, “What if someone could capture elements of supervised group learning, as it occurs in the classroom, and insert them into unsupervised individual learning—better known as homework?”

“Consider these two contrasting learning environments,” Whitten said. “The first one is the classroom, which is typically supervised, group-oriented, formal, teacher-based and socially interactive. Cognitive processes are influenced by the teacher’s and classmates’ interactions.

“In contrast, homework tends to be unsupervised, individualized, self-paced, voluntary, solitary, self-monitored and informal. Cognitive processes are determined primarily by the homework tasks themselves.”

If elements of supervised group learning were captured and inserted into homework questions, could they create a cognitive enrichment activity that would improve learning and comprehension?

For Whitten, the answer was yes, and thus he began his work on “guided cognition.”

Guided cognition is an instructional design method that structures study tasks to guide the learner to engage in specific, observable learning behaviors. These learning behaviors are designed to elicit underlying theoretical cognitive processes that have been shown to improve learning.

“Cognitive processes are invisible,” Whitten said. “In guided cognition homework, you have something that’s visible, that you can see people doing, like sketching a diagram. You assume that if they’re sketching a diagram, they’re doing visual thinking. So there are things that students can be seen to do, and there are mental processes that we assume underlie those explicit behaviors.”

In a series of experiments involving students in grades 7-12 in the subject area of literature, Whitten found that students’ learning improved when the “guided cognition” homework included tasks that mimicked behaviors normally experienced in a classroom, including visualizing and illustrating, relating to a prior experience, brainstorming, considering divergent answers and role-playing.

Would the results hold in mathematics? In 2008, Whitten and his team won a three-year $890,000 grant to find out. They will have conducted a dozen experiments by the end of this third year.

One experiment involved six classes of low- to average-ability 7th grade mathematics students who received lessons on two math topics and then were given either traditional or guided cognition “in-class” homework problems. After several days, the students received an unannounced quiz that included both story problems and plain numerical problems on both topics. Six months later, students were given another review activity.

What are their findings so far? Guided cognition study improved student performance nearly a whole grade-point category, assuming grade categories are 10 percentage points apart, and this improvement was still apparent six months later.

Not only was this type of homework effective, in another experiment it was also found to be very efficient. After three days and again after 14 weeks, the students who worked on eight problems with guided cognition homework tasks performed as well on unannounced quizzes as students who had worked on 24 traditional problems.

“So the traditional homework students worked three times as many problems, and in the usual way of thinking, had three times as much practice. By inference, the guided cognition homework students must have also learned by thinking about the cognitive events,” Whitten said. “So, to some extent, thinking about how to work problems is as efficient for learning as is working problems.”

Whitten described how a “visualization” task in guided cognition homework might have helped students learn.

“In a classroom, people illustrate things—a teacher might draw a diagram on the board or another student might go up to the board to draw one to work out a problem,” he said. “Now, it’s not necessarily the case that you need to have a diagram for a multiplying-fractions homework problem, but if you take the time to draw a diagram, it might make the problem more clear to you.

“So a week later, when you are asked to do some of these problems, you may say, ‘Now I remember. If I sketch out this little picture, it will help me figure this out,’” Whitten said.

It’s important to note that to test guided cognition homework, Whitten did not interact with students, and the teachers involved at the middle school didn’t explicitly teach students any strategies.

“We don’t teach them to think of multiple points of view or to role-play. We just have them do it in the homework and then when they worked the problems later on in the quiz, they were somewhat better than the students who didn’t do those things,” Whitten said.

The benefits of guided cognition homework were not due to novelty, he added.

“Our work implies this kind of homework can be used repeatedly and that the effects have long-term consequences,” Whitten said, referring to the fact that students who worked on guided cognition homework still scored better on a quiz six months after the guided cognition homework.


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