Simple changes to homework assignments based on psychological behaviors can increase students' class performance, according to a study conducted by researchers at Duke and Rice University.

The paper—published based on a study conducted at Rice—tested the effects of implementing new homework policies on college students' overall performances in a core engineering course. Students switched every week between traditional assignments and "intervention" assignments—those using the psychological principles—and they received higher exam grades on material taught by the intervention method.

“One major goal was to try to see whether these powerful principles that we know from laboratory research improve long-term retention of information...[and] whether that then could be applied to the classroom,” said Andrew Butler, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral research scholar in psychology and neuroscience.

Through the use of a homework resource website called OpenStax Tutor that the team developed, researchers were able to apply three basic psychological principles of long-term memory—repeated retrieval practice, spacing and feedback—to the process of completing homework. These principles were implemented in intervention homework through follow-up homework questions, problem sets spaced out over three weeks and immediate online feedback for submitted assignments. Attempting follow-up questions and viewing online feedback counted towards the course participation grade.

Butler explained that the structure of classes can affect how well students study for exams. Because students tend to cram all of their learning on nights before tests and do not receive or look at feedback on prior assignments, much of the learning is lost. Butler added that simply retrieving information from memory is an important process for long-term memory and deeper understanding of the material.

“Think of a time you were in a study group and you were studying for an upcoming exam and you’re going back and forth and explaining concepts to each other,” Butler said. “Through the process of studying and retrieving and using your knowledge, you’re actually learning that material better.”

Co-author Richard Baraniuk, professor of the engineering course at Rice, said that the study has been a positive first step towards integrating cognitive science and technology into the process of student learning.

“A next step is exploring how ideas from machine learning can be used to make these basic principles even more powerful,” Baraniuk wrote in an email Friday.

Butler stated that one issue in the average class is how much time instructors can devote to individuals, given that students within a class have different amounts of starting knowledge and learn the material at different speeds. He said by developing technology as an implementation of these principles based on their study, instructors could personalize and improve the learning experience for individual students.

“In the future, we hope to be then further differentiating, saying ‘this student would benefit from some more practice and retrieving and using their knowledge on this concept," Butler said, "whereas this other student might benefit doing some more practice on this other concept because they haven’t yet mastered that.'"

Although the research has provided evidence for the three psychological principles, further research will look at expanding the principles of learning to include a wider spectrum of real-world contexts, noted co-author Elizabeth Marsh, a professor of psychology and neuroscience.

"We are excited to have successfully translated the basic science into the classroom, demonstrating that the techniques have great potential for improving student learning,” Marsh said.

Butler said their research does not predict how well the intervention method would fare in different classes or at different education levels, but any student could benefit from implementing these same cognitive principles regardless of whether special technology is used or instructors change their homework policies.

“The idea of practicing retrieval, the idea of spacing out your study—that’s an effective recipe for learning as an individual,” Butler said.