Homework in college will likely look, feel, and be used differently than the homework you were assigned in high school, and it's possible there won't be any homework assigned at all. If this is the case, make it a point to give yourself some homework (finding practice problems, doing outside readings, making mind-maps about all that you've learned, etc.). And, If you are assigned homework, do your best to take full advantage of it.
Homework is your opportunity to practice what you've learned in class, or to test your learning and find gaps where you need to engage in additional research or testing or practice. Homework is there to help you learn the content fully. It's your chance to practice what you know so you’re fully prepared to perform on your test. If you're working to identify/solve/explain/connect as a part of your daily learning practice, then you're working to remember, and when you get into your tests you'll draw on your memories as you retrieve your answers.
Common types of homework might be practice problems, practice questions, assigned reading, assigned videos, quizzes covering what you've read or viewed, discussion board posts, interviews/experiences, self-reflections, etc.
The goal of these activities is to give you hands-on practice with the concepts and problems, and to get you thinking about what you know and/or don't know, as well as why something is used or solved in the way that it is. Have you already read about the memory process? If not, give it a look, and if you have then you'll remember that engaging in repetition and elaboration are aspects of the learning and memory process that will help you to remember the material for the long-term. Simultaneously, this practice will show you what you know well and what you need to spend more time learning. All of these skills play a part in self-monitoring, which is what helps to give you an accurate picture of how you’ll do on your tests.
To make the most of your homework practice, and to be sure the homework is preparing you for the test, consider the following tips so you can be most effective in your practice approach:
Don’t take shortcuts. Looking up answers immediately or simply guessing until you get an answer right doesn’t actually teach you the material. If you notice a pattern but aren't entirely sure why it's there, find out. If you feel like you just don't know it, ask yourself to sit with the problem just a little bit longer to see what you might be able to pull from your memory. Actively engaging with information in order to gain comprehension is what makes homework most effective, and the work to find the answer without looking it up is one of the ways you can be actively engaged.
See problem-sets as opportunities to test yourself. Self-testing and practice testing are some of the most effective ways to study, learn, and retain information (Dunlosky, 2013). You're asking your brain to actively engage again. To be even more effective, think about what types of problems and ideas are being presented. Don't try to memorize individual problems or questions; do all you can to be able to identify the problem type or the concept, and to know what you would apply to achieve a solution/answer.
Practice identifying the concepts you’ll be tested on. Every homework problem/question is an example of a concept the instructor wants to make sure you know — it's chosen intentionally. So try to think about why: what does your professor want you to demonstrate that you know? What does your instructor want to see you explain or make connections to? Approaching your preparation like this can help you make sense of how problems are designed and also get you thinking about how they relate to the larger concepts in the course.
Mix up problems from different chapters and parts of the term. This mixing increases retention and retrieval (Roediger, 2013), helps keep you from falling into a familiarity trap, and let's you start thinking about how all of the content you've been learning is connected and informs itself.
Work toward comprehension. If you’re struggling to understand how to do a problem or answer a question, revisit the text/your notes and examine the information again. If it still doesn’t make sense, ask a peer, friend, or your instructor for guidance. Don't be afraid to keep asking until you understand, and if you need to ask again, that's fine.
If there aren’t enough practice problems or questions, make up your own. One of the best ways to prepare for tests is to try to anticipate possible problems or questions and then answer them.
Schedule regular blocks of time throughout the week to work on your homework. As in, don't wait to do it all at once on a single huge chunk of time; rather, distribute it over the course of several days. Not only is this a proven strategy for effective learning (it's distributing your practice, and distributed practice has been proven to be one of the most effective ways to prepare for exams) (Dunlosky, 2013)), it's also a way to reduce your stress level because you'll have the time to complete the work at a manageable pace, to take breaks as you need them to refresh, to walk away from problems when it feels like you just can't solve them, and to return ready to to think and focus on the work.
Overlearn the material. Overlearning means you know the information and how to do a problem so thoroughly that you can retrieve it quickly even during a stressful exam. To achieve this, continue to engage in practice problems or testing yourself beyond getting the answer right just once. Test yourself and practice so you can get it right every time.
If you're already using these strategies, awesome, and if you see some you haven't tried yet that you're interested in exploring, we hope you will. We get that this is all a process, and it's not always easy to make changes to the way that you practice and learn material. But we hope that you'll experiment and add to your strategy toolbox.
We're including a few worksheets below. Check them out for the difference between initial learning and review/practice, new activities to help with the learning process, and what it is to engage in the study cycle.
Want to talk more? Come and see us: Waldo Hall 125 | Monday thru Friday | 9 AM to 5 PM. You don't need an appointment, and our strategists are here to chat with you about all things learning and studying. Strategists are students too, and can offer recommendations and ideas. We can't wait to chat!