Prism Magazine - February 2003
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Teaching Toolbox

Getting Homework to Work

- By Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz   

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 time comes.

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 their lessons…home.


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

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