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The posting below looks at looks at factors impacting student decisions to change homework strategies. It is by Jeffrey S. Burmeister, Ph.D., Camilla Saviz, Ph.D. and Abel Fernandez, Ph.D., School of Engineering and Computer Science, University of the Pacific, Stockton, CA.
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Homework Habits: If it is Broken, Fix It
The literature on undergraduate engineering education widely reports on the benefits of cooperative learning techniques as instruments for improving student learning. Cooperative learning (CL) involves individuals helping each other achieve a common set of objectives. Homework performed as a group would be an example of unsupervised CL. This paper analyzes student self-reported individual and/or group efforts on homework for two engineering classes at the University of the Pacific: Engineering Mechanics I (Statics) and Fluid Mechanics I. Some students appear to be extremely steadfast with their homework habits following poor performance on exams in the early stages of both courses. Indeed for such students that it would be in their interest to try a different homework approach, only 30% showed a change in how they complete homework. Thus, it may be incumbent upon the instructor to highlight, if necessary, the need for change in homework study habits as soon as possible and suggest ways of doing so, e.g. tutors, study groups and/or instructor's office hours. In doing so, students may discover the benefits of applying different homework strategies.
The literature on undergraduate engineering education widely reports on the benefits of group and cooperative learning techniques [1,2]. Briefly, cooperative learning (CL) is when individuals help each other towards a common set of objectives. Homework performed as a group would be an example of voluntary and unsupervised CL. The education literature has widely reported that students learn better and are more motivated when working together, as opposed to working individually [3, 4].
This preliminary study analyzes student self-reported individual and/or group efforts (as percentage of total time spent working as an individual) on homework for two engineering classes at the University of the Pacific: Engineering Mechanics I (Statics) and Fluid Mechanics I. The primary goal was to track the homework habits to see what, if any, habits change following poor performance. The paper concludes with instructor recommendations regarding homework habits.
Students were asked to report the amount of time they spent on a given homework assignment either as an individual or working in a group or both. This ratio was converted to a percentage to account for differences in pace and/or difficulty of a specific homework assignment. For example if a student worked for two hours completely on their own, then 100% of that assignment was completed as an individual vs. someone that worked for 1 hour in a group which would be recorded as 100% group member (0% individual effort). If someone spent two hours total of which one hour was on their own, then 50% was completed as an individual. Finally, a change in homework habits was defined as at least a plus or minus 15% change in individual effort.
Engineering 20: Engineering Mechanics I (Statics) is typically a second year course with 20 students enrolled. The overall homework grade represents 10% of the final grade. Civil 130: Fluid Mechanics I is typically a third year course with 34 students enrolled.
Results and Discussion
The authors acknowledge that this paper is founded on self-reported student data. It was emphasized at the beginning of both courses that there would be no repercussions no matter what the total time, and/or individual vs. group effort breakdown was documented. This announcement was repeated throughout the semester for both courses to remind the students that accurate reporting was critical to the success of these preliminary findings. The instructors were careful to blind themselves to this data as it was compiled.
It is also worth noting that it was not the authors' objective to necessarily correlate performance to individual vs. group effort. With examples of strong performance across the board (100% individual to 100% group work and points in-between), it would be difficult, and perhaps erroneous, to convince a student to change homework habits that clearly work for them. In point of fact, 65% and 62% of students showed no change in their homework habits following a greater than 70% performance on the first exam for statics and fluids, respectively. In short, "if it is not broken, don't fix it."
However, it was the authors' primary objective to see how many did attempt to "fix it" if it was broken. Of the students that performed less than 70% on the first exam, only two out of seven (28%) and four out of thirteen (31%) showed a change in their homework habits for statics and fluids, respectively. These students recognized the need for change in order to attempt to fix the problem. Given that approximately 70% of students did not report a change, it may be incumbent upon the instructor to highlight, if necessary, the need for change in homework study habits . For example, after the semester was completed, a commuter student admitted that it was difficult to coordinate study partners due to living off campus. As a result, the bulk of this student's work was performed individually, whereas group work may have been beneficial. Perhaps other commuter students were in the class and possible study partners could be introduced to each other.
Benjamin Franklin's definition of insanity as "? doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results" may be appropriate given that 70% of students did not change their homework habits following poor performance. Students may not always recognize that change may be necessary in order to improve their results. If necessary, instructors should highlight the need for change in homework study habits as soon as possible and suggest ways of doing so, e.g. tutors, study groups and/or instructor's office hours for those that may benefit from applying different homework strategies. If "learning is a process that changes behavior ," these suggested changes in homework habits may yield significant dividends to both the respective course and ultimately life long learning.
 McKeachie, W.J. Teaching Tips. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999.
 Burmeister, J.S. and Fernandez, A. Dynamic statics: preliminary cooperative learning findings. Proceedings of American Society for Engineering Education, Pacific Southwest Section, April 2004 Conference, 35-39, 2004.
 Masten, S., Chen, K., Graulau, J., Kari, S., Lee, K., "A Web-based and Group Learning Environment for Introductory Environmental Engineering", Journal of Engineering Education, January 2002.
 Light, R.J. Making the Most of College. Harvard University Press, 2001.
 McGonigal, K. "Getting More "'Teaching' out of 'Testing' and 'Grading'", Speaking of Teaching, Center for Teaching and Learning, Stanford University -Spring 2006, Vol 15, No. 2, http://ctl.stanford.edu/Newsletter/
 Wei, J. "A new style of teaching", Dukengineer, 2005-2006.
JEFFREY S. BURMEISTER, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of the Pacific.
ABEL FERNANDEZ, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of the Pacific.
CAMILLA SAVIZ, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of the Pacific.
We would like to thank Mr. Bhupinder Shergill for compiling this data and University of the Pacific students for their self-reported data.