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A Quick Google Search May Help Homework but Harms Grades

A student using google for homework
New research indicates students should generate the answer to a homework question for themselves before they try to Google the answer.

Rutgers researcher says students’ reliance on the internet can harm information retention, test performance

Students who Google their homework answers may get a short-term boost but at the cost of longer-term harm, according to a new study by Rutgers-New Brunswick psychology professor Arnold Glass in the School of Arts and Sciences.

Unless we change the way students complete their assignments, reliance on the internet may turn homework into an ineffective ritual, he said.

How is the internet affecting student exam performance?

Students who rely on the internet to look up answers to their homework questions are getting higher homework scores but lower grades – a half to a full letter grade – on exams.

Further, fewer college students are benefiting from doing homework. Over 11 years, the number of college students who score lower on their exams than their homework has increased from 14 percent in 2008 to 55 percent in 2017.

How have smartphones contributed to this phenomenon?

The 11– year period perfectly coincided with the increase in power of and pervasiveness of cell phones. The shift is also consistent with self-reported data from students about how they did their homework. In the absence of a plausible alternative, we can be confident that smartphones played a causal role.

Going straight to your smartphone might be a quick way to get homework done, but students are not recognizing the effects of those actions until it is too late.

Will the switch to remote learning due to COVID-19 lead to an even greater use of the internet as a homework aid, for college and K-12 learning?

Absolutely. When everything is done on the internet, it will become the familiar way to work. While students will be more skilled at using internet applications, they will know less and may become less interested in knowledge. It is especially concerning as remote learning may mean less oversight when completing assignments, whether parents are distracted, teachers aren't checking in or students are feeling less motivated.

What homework strategy do you recommend to students?

Students should generate the answer to a homework question for themselves before they try to Google the answer. They should go so far as entering it as the answer in the assignment so that they will have to change it if it is wrong – even if they are guessing. This will have measurable long-term effect on subsequent exam performance, which is why homework is assigned in the first place. However, if the student skips this step and immediately finds the answer online, they will soon forget both the question and the answer. Consequently, the student will be less prepared for the exam. The process is transforming homework – from what is typically a useful exercise to prepare for an exam – into a meaningless ritual that does not improve exam performance. When students find the correct answer without internet aid, they will remember the entire experience, including the correct answer, much longer than if they did not first generate the response for themselves.