Students who rely on smartphones for homework help were more likely to receive lower grades on exams—and see issues with retention over time, according to a study by Rutgers University. But there's still hope for parents to instill good homework habits in kids.

By Melissa Mills
August 25, 2020
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A new Rutgers University–New Brunswick study published in the journal Educational Psychology found that students who rely on smartphones for homework help were more likely to receive lower grades on exams—and see issues with retention over time.

I know, I know—another smartphone study. But, this time, the findings have a solution that doesn't simply involve avoiding screen time altogether. Phew.

“When a student does homework by looking up the answers, they usually find the correct answer, resulting in a high score on the assignment,” said lead author Arnold Glass, a professor of psychology at Rutgers–New Brunswick’s School of Arts and Sciences, in a press release. “However, when students do that, they rapidly forget both the question and answer. Consequently, they transform homework from what has been, until now, a useful exercise into a meaningless ritual that does not help in preparing for exams.” 

The study, which included more than 2,400 Rutgers–New Brunswick students over an 11-year period, looked at students who guessed at homework questions from memory and how they fared on exams and students who looked up the answers to homework questions and how they fared on exams. The outcome? Students who used their phones to look up answers may see poorer grades—and lower retention—down the line.

The findings showed that while 14 percent of students scored lower on exams than homework in 2008, that number jumped to 55 percent in 2017 as students admitted to copying answers from another source—such as Google or checking in with a friend.

"Students need to do more than find the correct answers to homework questions on the internet to prepare for an exam," says Glass. "A student needs to first generate the answer to the question, even if it is a guess, and then look up the correct answer. Otherwise, a week later the student will remember neither the question nor the answer."

The internet and smart devices leading to poor retention is, unfortunately, nothing new. A 2014 study found that writing out notes by hand—versus taking them on a laptop—results in better exam performance. And a 2013 study found that students who switched between social media, texting, and studying had lower GPAs.

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In a time where teens spend more than 7 hours a day on screens and possibly even more during the pandemic, should parents be concerned? Glass says that kids will be "more skilled at using internet applications," but they might "know less and become less interested in knowledge."

The good news? A report from the nonprofit Common Sense Media says that not all screen time is equal—and that quality matters more than quantity when it comes to what kids are consuming. On top of that, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says that remote learning due to COVID-19 does not count toward screen time limits with kids because it's educational.

"Obviously this has to be true," says Glass. "If you are reading book on paper, on a Kindle or Nook, or on a laptop, you are reading, which provides a variety of cognitive benefits. If you are watching a video there are different effects, which may or may not be positive. Playing a game has still different effects. What you are doing is more important than the technology you are using. Instruction over the internet is better than no instruction at all."

So the biggest takeaway for parents from the Rutgers study should be that students should use the internet less for homework help—or a homework distraction—and simply focus on the task at hand. Having students pay attention to what they're learning and processing the information should be a priority.

"Tell the students to treat homework as a 'guess the answer' game," Glass says. "First the student should generate all the answers and then find the answers on the internet."

The study goes so far as to say homework could become "an ineffective ritual" and that "cell phone use will be an existential threat to academic study," so it's more important now than ever to monitor your kids' smartphone use, especially when it comes to education. And that doesn't mean you've got to severely restrict all screen time—which is just not realistic in a time when everyone is online more and more—but it is crucial to help children prioritize quality content and instill healthy homework habits from an early age.

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