The way that homework is supposed to work, or so we were always told in school, is that it helps you not just learn, but remember ideas, events, facts, and figures for later exams.

Yet the prevalence, and dominance, of smartphones in our daily lives over the past decade has seeped into studying habits, so much so that a Rutgers University study recently published in the journal Educational Psychology found that the number of students who scored lower on exams than their homework jumped by more than 40% (14% to 55%) between 2008 and 2017.

The increase in internet use as a homework aid may be even more pronounced as schools reopen virtually this fall in New Jersey, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rutgers psychology professor Arnold Glass, the study's lead author, described it as a "great cultural shift": Students now know how and where to look up things they don't know, but doing that via a simple Google search doesn't actually teach them anything.

"It doesn't serve its usual purpose of preparing them for the exam, because in order to help you for the exam, you have to remember what you did on the homework, which they no longer do by the time they take the exam," Glass said.

Glass called this a "bizarre pattern" that's only become apparent in the last 10 years, but it's relatable to scenarios outside of school.

"You look at people who take pictures when they go to a museum, and afterwards, the people who take the most pictures remember the least about what they've seen," he said. "If you devote your time to recording your experiences, you have your recording, but not the memory of the experience itself."

In some subjects like math and science where instructors still expect students to "show their work," Glass said traditional habits won't change, because they can't.

But he reiterated that whether it's academics, sports, or the arts, the way you develop a skill is to practice — and in school, that is best accomplished through homework.

There is a way, Glass said, to have the best of both worlds. If students can condition themselves to look at a homework question and take a short amount of time to formulate a hypothesis about the answer, he said then they can go to look it up to see if that hypothesis is either confirmed or refuted.

"If students did homework that way, then it would work in a conventional manner and they would do better on the exam than on the homework, that's all it would take," he said.

The study included the scores of nearly 2,500 Rutgers students over an 11-year period.

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