Textbook or “Multimedia” ?

“What is needed here is a paradigm shift”
(Who said this ? Way too many people…)

This interesting ArXiv preprint (filed under Physics Education) compares the effectiveness of three different instructional methodologies, applied to the teaching of physics at the freshmen college level. One of these methodologies is the “traditional” one, based on the use of a textbook, used to prepare classroom lectures delivered to students by an instructor. The other two approaches include the use of multimedia presentations, such as movies and other Web-based content. The study was conducted on a sample of 53 students at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, enrolled in the same course (calculus-based introductory Electricity and Magnetism). Students were divided in three groups of comparable sizes; all groups were taught the same set of topics, each group being exposed to just one of the three above-mentioned methodologies.

On looking at the student performance on tests administered immediately after the lectures, as well as two weeks later, authors conclude that the use of multimedia modules affords, on average, a greater degree of learning and retention of material on the part of the students, compared to the lecturing based on textbook alone. Moreover, students themselves state their preference for multimedia-based teaching.
Authors explain their findings as follows:
1) Students have little patience/time for the textbook, these days. More than half of the students in the sample openly admitted not to have open the textbook ever during the entire semester (page 11 of the manuscript).
2) Multimedia convey information “via dual channels (visual and auditory)” and involve a “lesser memory load” than textbook learning (page 10).

There is no question that getting students to read the textbook is quite a challenge. Time and again, I have been frustrated by the realization that many students who come to ask questions during office hours, have not read the textbook at all. I am unclear as to how exactly they expect to learn; unsurprisingly, many of their questions have to do with definitions, which do not really require any deep “understanding” but more mundane, straightforward memorization (yes, there are some things that simply have to be memorized, e.g., units, or fundamental laws such as Coulomb’s).
In some cases it can be doubtless due to sheer laziness, but for the most part I tend to be sympathetic to students, who are typically overloaded with coursework, and have really little time to devote to each of the five (six ? seven ?) classes for which they register each term. So, it is clear that we should be open to experimenting with alternate methodologies, possibly capable of conveying the same information more quickly and efficiently than textbook reading.
I have to confess that I am a bit skeptical about the prospects of eliminating the textbook altogether from the learning process. I don’t know, to me there is something essential about the act of reading; I am afraid that reading the same thing many times, each time grasping something more and appreciating different nuances, through a mechanism that remains mysterious to most of us, is still the most important component of learning. Nonetheless, precisely because there remains so much to be understood, experimentation is certainly called for.

There is one aspect of this study that I find rather puzzling. In Table II (second column), authors compare the performance of the different groups of students on the three 1-hr exams (presumably) determining the final course grade. As I understand it, these are the exams taken by all students registered for the course, including those who are not part of the study.
While the performance on the tests administered right at the end of the lecture and after two weeks is significantly higher for students exposed to multimedia modules, there is no statistically significant difference in performance on the actual course tests. I might be missing something here, but in my opinion this is a very important part of the study, one that the authors do not seem to have addressed to the extent that it would have warranted. The apparent (partial) inconsistency between the results obtained on the tests administered right after the lecture and the regular course exams (as far as the relative effectiveness of the different teaching approaches is concerned) is surprising, and does not really support the claim of the authors of “greater effectiveness” of multimedia modules.
Granted, the fact that results on the exam tests are similar, does not per se undermine the validity of multimedia-based teaching methodologies, which may be just as effective as reading the textbook, while saving students time. However, the suspicion arises that, while it may be effective at fostering some short-term material retention, multimedia-based instruction may achieve no greater degree of learning in the long run.
I need to see more research before I abandon my notes (based on the textbook) and start working on my Quicktime movies on momentum conservation.

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2 Responses to “Textbook or “Multimedia” ?”

  1. mareserinitatis Says:

    I seldom read the textbook, finding that, most of the time, it really doesn’t help a lot. There are some texts which are quite illuminating, but not many…for me. I tend to need books with lots of diagrams to give me a visual sense, and most writers seem to be more analytical and not so great at getting the conceptual information across.

    I told a friend about this (who is the only person I know who graduated from Caltech with a 4.0), and he confessed that through his four degrees (he’s got two masters), he’d almost never opened a textbook. It turns out he and I operate the same way…we look at example problems, tables, etc. Then I compare that with my husband, who goes through texts meticulously. When we took classes together, we always earned the same grades on exams, but we often got different things wrong.

    I think that students have more patience for multimedia because, throughout high school, they are pretty much spoonfed everything the teachers want them to know. They’ve never really had to dig into a book. (The only exception I can think of in my high school career was AP Biology.) There is also the fact that 1/3 of them are probably visual learners, and this will inherently cater to their learning style.

    (Keeping in mind that I haven’t read the paper myself…) I would find it interesting if they had divided the group based on learning styles (for instance, taking a test to determine the style at the beginning of class). My guess would be that the multimedia presentations would cause an overall increase for the visual learners and a decrease for the strongly sequential learners (who tend to not like learning visually). Visual learners tend to cement concepts better (when presented in a visual format), but sequential learners need regular practice for concepts to be memorable. Those who are balanced learners (and function well for either type of presentation style) would probably see no change. So I guess I don’t see it as surprising that the final exams would come out about the same. I think there may be a difference, however, if you were to examine subgroups. I bet you might lose some people in one presentation format while a different group would be lost with the other…but by examining the class averages, those changes wouldn’t be noticeable.

    • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

      One thing that worries me about movies, web-based content and other gadgetry of this type, is the fact that it may make our brains lazy… sometimes I wonder whether the fact that one has to think about concepts, the exercise of trying to visualize things like fields, charges etc. is an important component of it all. If a screen does all that for you… not sure what the outcome is. But I am no expert of this subject.

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