Digital Homework Helps ... Except When it Doesn't

Photo by Victoria Heath

In a recent podcast for
Academic Minute, Professor Arnold Glass of Rutgers University offered us an update on something we know, but with a digital twist. Here’s the part we all know: copying answers to complete your homework, even for an online quiz or assignment, doesn't help student performance on quizzes and exams given in class.

The digital twist: the advent of digital copying of answers to online quizzes/homework has actually made the problem worse:
"The percent of students who did not benefit from correctly answering homework questions increased from 14% in 2008 to 55% in 2017." Glass describes the effect of using digital search tools to complete online homework as "insidious," suggesting that students have no idea that completing these tasks using digital search "have no idea that in achieving higher homework scores they are sacrificing equally good scores on exams.”
When I read this, I immediately thought of my usage of online quizzes. I use them for two primary purposes: 1) to react to some sort of discussion prompt, I.e. a case study to be read before class, or 2) to draw out specific concepts from assigned textual reading. Was I somehow contributing to poorer performance on summative assessments?

It also drew me back to
Dr. Jenae Cohn’s great book, Skim, Dive, Surface: Teaching Digital Reading. Dr. Cohn spends a good time reminding us that learning to read digitally is just that … a learned process. We can’t assume that our students know how to read what we want them to read, particularly when it comes to digital text. So, we need to teach our students how to read digitally.

By the same token, then, it seems if we want our students to get the benefit of digital homework/quizzes, perhaps we need to:

  1. Begin by showing them Prof. Glass’ research. Let them know that they are swimming upstream if they try to take the “digitally easy” path.
  2. More importantly, teach them how to use digital tools to build knowledge. Help them learn how to rely on digital sourcing for your desired learning outcomes, not just ease of supplying an answer. We can start by taking Dr. Cohn’s admonition and actually explains to our students the purpose of the online exercises and how they will contribute to their success.
  3. Consider modeling the desired outcome by offering practice versions of digital quizzes and demonstrate how they do, and don’t, link directly to the ultimate exam.
  4. Finally, we can think about constructing exercises that lend themselves to online research, but not cut and paste answers. For instance, I offer short cases for my students to review in preparation for class discussions. Consider asking online questions that are specific to the case and not amenable to a digital search for an answer. Or, consider asking questions that are more qualitative in nature … maybe a Likert scale response to a hypothetical or situational question.

There's a lot to unpack in Professor Glass’ minute long report. But it does reinforce that digital reading and learning is not a panacea. There are benefits that come from learning in a digital realm, but students need to be
shown how to learn in a digitally connected space. Without guiding them, our students may find a more efficient digital path to manage their studies, but a far less effective outcome at the end of the journey.