Unsupervised individual learning is a major part of education and includes most homework. Compared to supervised group learning (such as typical classroom instruction), the portion of time students spend on homework increases as students progress from elementary to high school. For high school seniors, as much as one-third of learning time may be spent on homework. This proportion often increases to two-thirds during college where students may read and study two hours outside of class for every hour of class time.
A great deal of research has been focused on typical classroom instruction, but relatively little research has been aimed at improving the effectiveness of homework. Many studies have shown that homework is effective for learning, but some studies have not found homework to be beneficial.
Three educational scientists from Fordham University—William B. Whitten II, PhD; Mitchell Rabinowitz, PhD; and Sandra E. Whitten, MA—have hypothesized that ineffective homework has often been due to ineffective design of the homework. They recognized that supervised group learning is generally group-based, teacher-paced, social, interactive, and occurs in a formal learning environment. Under these conditions, cognitive processes can be positively influenced by teachers and classmates. In contrast, unsupervised individual learning, including most homework, is generally self-paced, solitary, self-monitored, and occurs in an informal learning environment. In these situations, cognitive processes are primarily determined by the requirements of the homework questions and tasks, and learning from homework may be relatively impoverished compared to learning in the more interactive, social classroom environment.
The researchers identified common learning behaviors that occur in a classroom environment and selected some of these that would likely engage learning-effective cognitive processes. The researchers called such learning behaviors cognitive events and hypothesized that homework could be made more effective and efficient by enriching the homework questions with these cognitive events.
In their new book, Guided Cognition for Learning: Unsupervised Learning and the Design of Effective Homework, Whitten, Rabinowitz, and Whitten report the positive results of 26 experiments on learning from better designed homework questions and tasks. These experiments, funded over a period of eight years by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, were conducted in authentic learning environments where the Guided Cognition experimental homework was integrated into the schools’ curricula for middle school and high school literature, and for middle school mathematics.
During the experiments, some students were assigned typical traditional homework questions, but other students were assigned the new-style Guided Cognition questions, each of which incorporated a cognitive event that was common in the classroom environment. These identified cognitive events included relating to prior experience, visualizing and illustrating, role playing, and considering divergent answers. An example of a traditional question about Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer” was: “What did the captain do to achieve his goals during his meeting with Captain Archbold?” In contrast, an example of a Guided Cognition question that included the role play cognitive event was: “Imagine you are the captain. Speaking as the captain, describe your goals during your meeting with Captain Archbold and how you managed to achieve them.“ Notice that both of these questions addressed the same content, but the role play cognitive event guided the student to imagine that he or she was a character in the story.
Students’ learning from completing the homework was evaluated by unexpected quizzes about the studied content. Students who had completed Guided Cognition homework performed about one letter grade (approximately ten percentage points) better than students who had completed the traditional homework questions. Importantly, in several experiments, average-placement students who completed Guided Cognition homework performed as well or nearly as well as advanced-ability students who completed traditional homework.
Whitten, Rabinowitz, and Whitten show that the benefits of Guided Cognition design are not due to specific content, time on task, teaching effects, or novelty, and are obtained across a range of ages, ability levels, and subject matter. The authors also investigated students’ perceptions of and preferences for Guided Cognition homework, and provide theoretical explanations for how and why each cognitive event was able to improve learning in very different subjects such as literature and mathematics.
To help practitioners, including teachers, textbook authors, and technology-based content authors, Whitten, Rabinowitz, and Whitten provide guidelines and examples for creating Guided Cognition-style homework questions. They hope their findings will inspire a new generation of researchers to explore further the design of homework and other forms of unsupervised study that are important for lifelong learning.