Two members of Fordham’s Graduate School of Education (GSE) faculty have won a three-year grant totaling nearly $890,000 to study how middle school math teachers can make homework and other forms of unsupervised learning more effective.
William B. Whitten II, Ph.D., Distinguished Research Scholar and director of the Center for Learning in Unsupervised Environments (CLUE), and Mitchell Rabinowitz, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Division of Psychological and Educational Services, are among four teams selected from a nationwide competition by the federal Department of Education (DOE) to receive grant money.
The grant, “Guided Cognition for Unsupervised Learning of Mathematics,” is funded through the Cognition and Student Learning Panel at the DOE’s Institute of Education Sciences.
“We are thrilled,” Rabinowitz said. “[Grants] are very competitive, and it makes your life much better to have the means to conduct your research.”
Working in conjunction with three middle schools, Whitten and Rabinowitz will begin in June by analyzing learning strategies often used in the classroom.
“The notion is that if you can enrich unsupervised learning so that people think in ways similar to the way they do in the classroom, you’ll have improved the value of the individual study,” Whitten said. “We’re trying to demonstrate that questions for unsupervised study or homework can be made more effective at a very low cost, without expensive technology, extensive teacher training or rewriting the curriculum.”
This area of research is not new to them. For the past three years, they have studied “guided cognition of unsupervised learning” as it relates to high school English.
“This new grant is a continuation of that logic,” Whitten said. “What we found is that in a classroom, a teacher might ask a question and one student may give one answer and another student may give a different answer, and if you’re in the classroom hearing this you’re hearing two different ideas. That’s an example of divergent thinking. However, if you’re doing homework, you typically write one answer to a question. There’s no one to give you alternative ideas.”
But by designing homework and unsupervised study questions that challenge students to use methods like divergent thinking, role playing, visualizing, brainstorming and evaluating, and then relating to prior experience, the work becomes more effective, Whitten and Rabinowitz found.
“If you have well-designed homework, it can be more worthwhile,” Rabinowitz said. He added that English has different characteristics than math, which is why they chose to tackle that subject as part of their grant.
“We found that math experiments afford a level of analytic precision that will provide details of how guided cognition promotes learning and of exactly what is learned,” Whitten said. “A wide variety of homework tasks are assigned, but there is no research behind them so it’s not clear which one works best. What we’re doing is systematically evaluating various ways of designing homework questions.”
The research also will add a dimension to a debate Whitten and Rabinowitz said is prominent in the press—whether homework is a waste of time.
“The question should not just be about whether spending time on homework is good or bad,” Rabinowitz said. “The question should be about whether the design of the homework is effective for learning.”