By Arnold Glass
Homework, the bane of students since the era of one-room schoolhouses, has taken an unexpected – and unfortunate — turn with the rise of smartphones a decade ago.
The purpose of homework is to prepare students for exams. To the extent that students remember the correct answers to homework questions that are similar to exam questions, they will be better prepared for the exam. Assigning homework to prepare students for exams worked well until about 10 years ago.
Then smartphones came into wide use, destroying the value of homework as preparation for an exam. Students should know that how they use their smartphone for homework affects their retention of that work and ultimately how well they will do on an exam.
For homework to improve performance on an exam, there must be long-term retention of the homework questions and answers. If the student does not remember the homework questions and answers, they are of no help on the exam. Smartphone use interferes with the retention of homework questions and answers in two ways.
First, it makes it easy to divide attention between the homework assignment and other tasks, such as talking with a friend, playing a game, watching a video or shopping. There is a cost to dividing one’s attention between two tasks. Long-term retention of the content of the tasks is eliminated. By dividing attention between study and another task, we defeat the purpose of study.
Second, a smartphone makes it remarkably easy to find the answer to a homework question. Students are getting better scores on their homework assignments than previous generations of students. But today’s students who perform the best on homework assignments perform the worst on exams.
The problem is that what people remember longest and best is the consequence of their own actions.
Even guessing an answer to a homework question initiates long-term retention and ultimately improves exam performance, especially if it is eventually followed by feedback containing the correct answer.
When a student finds an answer with a smartphone, there is no self-generation. Only a fragile representation of the answer is created, and two weeks later the question and answer will be gone from their memory. Consequently, the student must start over at the beginning when learning the material for the exam.
What is particularly sad is that the negative effects of smartphones on academic performance can be eliminated by only small changes in behavior. First, the student needs to have the discipline to not do anything else when doing homework. All other tabs should be closed and incoming calls should go to voice mail. If some other task must take priority, then the homework should be put aside until the other task is completed.
Second, when a student reads a question, they should always generate an answer and write it down in the homework, even if it is a guess. At that point, long-term retention has been activated and it is fine to use the smartphone to rapidly find the correct answer. If it is different from the generated answer, then the generated answer can be changed. If the feedback is the same as the generated answer, then mark that the generated answer is correct.
Furthermore, feedback does not have to occur immediately after an answer is generated to be effective. If the correct answer is learned one or two days later, that is fine as long as one goes back and changes the generated answer even if the homework has been submitted and the change will not affect your grade on the homework. What is more important is that making the change will improve your chances of getting a better grade on the exam.
Today, our world is filled with powerful tools that can have unintended consequences. It is the responsibility of all of us to make certain that students understand the consequences of their actions, so they can make informed decisions about how to use their smartphones when doing homework and in other activities of daily life.
Arnold Glass is a professor of psychology at Rutgers University-New Brunswick’s School of Arts and Sciences.
Our journalism needs your support. Please subscribe today to NJ.com.
Here’s how to submit an op-ed or Letter to the Editor. Bookmark NJ.com/Opinion. Follow us on Twitter @NJ_Opinion and on Facebook at NJ.com Opinion. Get the latest news updates right in your inbox. Subscribe to NJ.com’s newsletters.