Homework is the key to learning, but how do you
get students to unlock the door?
Students who do their homework learn more. This makes
sense: Students need to practice in order to learn. Studies we have
done with our courses prove this. For example, in a sophomore engineering
course in which students were encouraged to work on homework in groups,
we compared the students' test points to homework points. Generally
speaking, the students who earned higher homework grades tended to
earn higher test grades.
Still, students routinely ignore their homework, and
their grades suffer because of it. Perhaps getting the word out about
the relationship between homework and test scores would encourage some
students to be more diligent about doing their assignments. Many professors
make homework part of the course grade. This system works well if homework
counts toward 10 to 15 percent of the overall grade. If it's
any higher, some students are tempted to cheat; if it's lower,
it does not provide enough of an incentive.
Requiring students to work together in groups on homework
can be an effective tool as well. Group work encourages extroverts,
who enjoy interacting with others, to study and learn more. It also
doesn't hurt introverts, who can benefit from developing teamwork
skills. Of course, freeloading can be a problem, but one that can be
handled by requiring groups to rate the performance of its members.
Also, freeloaders will likely receive their just desserts when exam
But simply doing the homework won't be enough—students
need some indication of how well they did on their assignments. Although
it is not necessary to grade every problem, it is essential to make
correct answers available.
Once their graded homework is returned, students must
incorporate the concepts they failed to grasp the first time around.
Allow students to correct problems for increased credit or occasionally
have a minor test problem that is very similar to the homework.
What should be included in homework? Both straightforward
single-answer problems (the application level in Bloom's taxonomy)
and multipart problems that may have many solution paths (the analysis
level) are certainly very important in engineering and are easiest
to write and grade. But we also need to include comprehension questions,
open-ended synthesis problems, and evaluation questions.
Homework questions should be typical of what students
can expect on tests. If the difficulty of the test reflects the homework,
there will be fewer complaints that the test was unfair. Problems are
easier if students are told which technique to use; more difficult
if the students have to choose between several techniques. For a challenge,
ask questions that require students to pick from a number of solutions,
have multiple steps, and that contains no hints or parts.
To prevent procrastination, students should be required
to do something beyond reading every week. That something can be a
quiz, a test, laboratory work, project work, or homework. Look at your
schedule. If students are not already doing something in a given week,
make a homework assignment due that week.
It may not be flashy or entertaining, but homework plays
a critically important role in ensuring that students learn and take
Phillip Wankat is head of interdisciplinary engineering
and the Clifton L. Lovell Distinguished Professor of chemical engineering
at Purdue University. Frank Oreovicz is an education communications
specialist at Purdue's chemical engineering school. They can
be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.