General Education Courses on the Internet:
Why Do Students Love ‘em?
Appeal. Students have been enthusiastic about the general education Internet courses offered by San Diego State University (<www.sdsu.edu>). We know this because the enrollment has steadily increased over seven semesters through advertising and word-of-mouth peer communication. In addition, students who complete one course often take another and another. Student satisfaction in these courses is very high. In the period from 1999 to 2000, more than 6,000 students from SDSU and 43 other universities around the world enrolled in these eight courses. What makes these courses so popular? Students find that the courses are interesting and they know they can succeed. In addition, they know that with determination and persistence, they can determine their own level of success.
What Makes these Courses Work? In this paper we present our hypotheses as to why these courses work based upon prior research. We believe Mastery Learning is at the heart of their success. It is also the best-kept secret in higher education. Mastery Learning is an instructional strategy based on the principle that all students can learn a set of reasonable materials with appropriate instruction and sufficient time to learn. "Mastery learning approaches . . . provide adaptive educational settings that accommodate a diversity of student entry characteristics (abilities, skills, knowledge, attitudes, and values) yet help each student succeed . . ." (Block, Efthim, & Burns, 1989, p. 3-4). A meta-analysis of 8,000 studies examining five popular instructional strategies found that mastery learning was more than twice as effective as any of the other strategies (Ryan, 1995). A finding this strong in educational research is the equivalent of a scientific breakthrough. The instructional methods compared to Mastery Learning in this meta-analysis were (1) Adaptive Instruction, (2) Computer-Assisted Instruction, (3) Branched Programmed Instruction, and (4) Individualized Instruction.
Component Analysis. Walberg (1991) identified four elements of teaching that are part of Mastery Learning and have been found to be particularly effective in promoting learning. They are summarized below, followed in parentheses by the number of studies and the measured effect size. An effect size of 1.0 in educational research is unusually large. In the meta-analysis described above, for example, Mastery Learning had an effect size of 0.99 while the other four instructional strategies each had an effect size less than 0.5. The least effective method, Individualized Instruction, had an effect size of just 0.10.
The four effective instructional elements described by Walberg are
(1) Cues (17 studies, effect size 1.25),
(2) Engagement (22 studies, effect size 0.88),
(3) Corrective Feedback (20 studies, effect size 0.94), and
(4) Reinforcement (39 studies, effect size 1.17).
Each of these powerful instructional elements is included in the general education Internet courses, often in multiple ways. The various ways in which these instructional elements are implemented in these Internet courses are illustrated below with the example of the World Music course.
1) Cues. Cues are the ways in which the instructor communicates to the student what is to be learned and how to learn it. The quality of cues is assessed by the clarity, salience, and meaningfulness of the information that is given to students. The cues provided in the music course have been refined and distilled down to essential elements during seven semesters of use by thousands of students. The success of this process is apparent in that, while the instructor initially received e-mailed questions from hundreds of students during the semester on issues related to course process and content, now very few questions are received. Through continued refinement, the material has apparently become quite self-explanatory.
Cues can take many forms (Walberg, 1991). We’ve identified the following seven potential sources of cues in the World Music course: 1a) Home Page, 1b) Syllabus, 1c) Knowledge Webs Home Page, 1d) Objectives, 1e) Learning Objectives (embeddedness), 1f) Learning Hierarchies, and 1g) Computer Tools. We believe the content in all of the previous information is both “present” for the students and "obvious" at the level of common sense. By "present" we mean that the course material answers the questions that the students have in their minds and by "obvious" we mean that the students can readily comprehend the material. We've discovered that students at a distance, as well as students in an on-campus setting, respond positively to information that contains the characteristics of "presence" and "obviousness". The seven cues in the World Music course are described below.
1a) Home Page. All course elements are clearly shown and readily accessed from a single page on the web, the course's Course Materials Home Page.
1b) Syllabus. A syllabus describes the content and process of the course clearly, completely, and succinctly. This style and pattern of information presentation is similar in each of the eight Internet courses.
1c) Knowledge Webs Home Page. The knowledge webs home page introduces the idea of knowledge webs. It clearly and concisely describes the ways in which students can use the knowledge webs that are employed throughout the course. There are eleven knowledge webs in the World Music course, each containing about 200-500 ideas (concepts), and they all can be accessed from the knowledge webs home page.
1d) Knowledge Webs. Walberg (1991) recommends that to concentrate learners on essential points and to save time, as in training, an instructor should remove elaborations and extraneous oral and written prose. This is precisely what knowledge webs do. The auxiliary words in ordinary text are stripped away and the main ideas with links between them are clearly presented. The essence of meaning is captured in the nature of the link between two ideas (Faletti & Fisher, 1996; Fisher & Thornton, 1987). Experts have many explicit (named) links to each well-developed idea in their domain, whereas novices typically have one explicit link at best. More often, novices have fuzzy associations (unlabeled links) between ideas. In the knowledge webs, the instructor explicitly reveals to the students each salient link between each pair of related concepts that exists in the instructor's mind as at <http://trumpet.sdsu.edu/M345/Knowledge_Webs/1Elements_of_MusicY/music.htm> .
1e) Learning Objectives (Embeddedness). Instructors often specify learning objectives for students, but the links between the stated objectives and what is actually taught can be tenuous or even remain unknown to students. This is not true when knowledge webs are used for instruction. The knowledge web software automatically calculates the objectives based upon the content in the web. The objectives consist of a numerical rating of concept importance known as “embeddedness.” Research has shown that the most embedded ideas are the most important concepts and are the ones that students must learn (Fisher & Kibby, 1996). The top 20% of concepts ordered by embeddedness is equivalent to the topic outline of a course. This notion of mathematically deriving the objectives (topics to learn) directly from the content has never before been possible. It clearly shows what the professor believes to be the most important ideas of the course. Explicating the concept (or idea) embeddedness is one of the course features that allows students to "peer into the mind of the professor" and extract those course ideas that the instructor considers important.
1f) Learning Hierarchies. As students explore and traverse the knowledge webs, they literally move up and down knowledge hierarchies. They frequently move down a hierarchy and then traverse the same path back to the top. This produces a fluidity of use of the knowledge pathways and a sense of “place” for the ideas in the knowledge structure, as well as an awareness of which are more inclusive and which are less inclusive ideas. When facts, skills, or ideas are logically organized into hierarchies, learning occurs more efficiently (Walberg, 1991).
1g) Computer Tools. The World Music course contains thousands of compositions of music and movie clips for students to explore. In some cases students can watch the music notation as the music plays (<http://trumpet.sdsu.edu/Bach_Invention/invention1.htm>) and in others they can observe the performers playing music by attending both live concerts in their community and virtual concerts on the Internet.
2) Engagement. Engagement is the extent to which learners actively and persistently participate in learning until appropriate responses are firmly entrenched in their repertoires. The high level of engagement required by these courses is a key to their popularity. There are at least four types of Engagement as defined by Walberg (1991) in the World Music course: 2a) High Expectations, 2b) Active Participation/Control, 2c) Study Tools (Identifying Masked Concepts), and 2d) Frequent Tests.
2a) High Expectations. High expectations serve as a cue that promotes high outcomes. Students in the World Music course are encouraged to engage actively in learning, with extended effort and perseverance. The polished course materials and high level of course functionality convey the instructor’s high professional standards, encouraging students to strive to attain a similar level of achievement. The opportunities for frequent testing with feedback promote striving for excellence.
2b) Active Participation/Control. Every student in the World Music course is in the driverÕs seat and in control of her or his learning experiences. Each student decides when, what, and how to study, and also determines the pace at which they study and learn. Students can pursue their particular interests within the domain of World Music and can listen to their favorite pieces innumerable times. The course tools allow a student, for example, to play a piece of music and then play it again an octave higher, or down a perfect fifth, then, perhaps up a major second (see <http://trumpet.sdsu.edu/Bach_Invention/invention1.htm >) which requires the Sibelius "scorch" plug-in, available at <www.sibelius.com>. Playful repetition is an important part of successful learning (Langer, 1989, 1997). Exploration is an important feature of upper-division general education courses at SDSU. In fact, the entire set of upper-division general education courses at SDSU is entitled, "Explorations" (see <http://libweb.sdsu.edu:80/0001/>). And, it is clear that the Internet courses described here do indeed promote individual exploration. The contrast in Engagement between an Internet course of this type and a typical on-campus lecture course is enormous. In lecture courses, students can be and often are absent, daydreaming, asleep, or automatically transcribing notes. In contrast, the World Music course only “happens” for a given student when that student is present, awake, and involved.
2c) Study Tools (Identifying Masked Concepts). Each of the eleven World Music knowledge webs is provided to students (i) in its complete form and (ii) with the main idea masked. See <http://trumpet.sdsu.edu/M345/Knowledge_Webs/1Elements_of_MusicN/C81.htm>. The masked nets provide an opportunity for study. The challenge is to determine the identity of the masked concept by looking at its links to other ideas. For example, are there enough clues for you to identify the masked concept?
2d) Frequent Tests. A student in the World Music course can take an examination as often as she likes to assess her learning progress. The examinations are typically multiple choice, are randomly generated from a large item bank (one item bank for each third of the course), are multimedia in nature, and are graded automatically and instantaneously upon submission. The instant feedback is given in the form of the student’s total score. The student does not see the examination again, and is not able to review the items to determine which responses were correct or incorrect. This is done to prevent “studying to the test”. If the student wishes to earn a higher score, she studies more of the instructional material.
The effects of frequent tests on learning are relatively high, because a student taking a test is alert and fully engaged mentally. On average, students enrolled in the Internet courses during the past two semesters took 14 different versions of each multiple-choice examination. With three examinations per semester, students completed an average of 42 examinations-per-course-per-semester.
3) Corrective Feedback. Corrective feedback remedies errors by re-teaching, using the same or different teaching materials and method. Corrective feedback has moderate effects that are somewhat higher in science than other subjects, perhaps because of the higher conceptual demands in science courses (Walberg, 1991). Students in the World Music course can choose their own corrective strategies after receiving feedback on an examination. They may restudy the text, the knowledge webs, or the masked knowledge webs. Or, they may choose to spend more time on the linked images, videos, and/or audio files, or the linked text-based information. College students in a general education course can generally make these choices effectively, as they learn to assume responsibility for independent learning.
4) Reinforcement. “The immense effort elicited by athletics, games, and other cooperative and competitive activities illustrates the power of immediate and direct reinforcement, and how some activities are intrinsically rewarding. … When corrective feedback and reinforcement are clear, rapid, and appropriate, they can powerfully affect learning by signaling what to do next without wasting time (Walberg, 1991, p. 36).”
The Mastery Learning strategy in the World Music course provides ongoing reinforcement for students. Students know that they can take an examination on each third of the course whenever they want and as often as they want. Each time they take a new randomly generated version of an examination, their previous score is deleted and their new score is recorded. In other words, they are competing against themselves, trying to improve upon their previous performance. They also know that with sufficient time and motivation, they can achieve the level of performance they desire. This provides a powerful incentive to students to work and improve their knowledge of the subject.
Mastery Learning Positively Affects Students. Block, Efthim, and Burns (1989) found that mastery taught students, when compared to non-mastery taught peers, nearly always have a greater interest in and more positive attitude toward the subject, a higher self-concept, and higher academic self-confidence. They are also more confident in their abilities in the subject, feel the subject is more important, and accept greater personal responsibility for their learning (Ryan, 1995). These observations have been made repeatedly. For example, in a meta-analysis of 35 studies of mastery learning, Guskey and Gates (1986) found that students who learned under mastery conditions generally liked the subject more and were more confident in their knowledge of the subject than their non-mastery taught peers.
Mastery Learning Increases Learning Rate. When extra time is given to slower learners as they work through a course, the students are able to gradually improve their study skills as well as learn course content (Anderson, 1976). The initially slower learners gradually develop confidence as well as more efficient methods of study, so that they begin to resemble their faster peers. One reason for this may be that average students in mastery learning classes have been found to be on-task as often as the top 10-20% of students in control classes (Dillashaw & Okey, 1983; Wentling, 1973). There is often a six-fold difference between the slowest and fastest students at the beginning of a mastery learning class, but this can be reduced to about a 1.5-fold difference over time (Ryan, 1995).
Mastery Learning Improves Learning Transfer. Transfer is the ability of students to apply what they have learned in order to solve new problems. Transfer is always difficult to achieve, but appears to be more likely with mastery learning. For example, students in mastery learning classes scored significantly higher on statewide Regents Honors Diploma examinations than students from similar non-mastery classes in the same subject at the same school (McDonald, 1982). This shows learning transfer because students are applying their knowledge and skills to solve problems they haven’t seen before. Keller (1968) incorporated mastery learning into his Personalized System of Instruction (PSI) for college students. In a meta-analysis of four studies, PSI students scored on average 11.6 points higher than students in conventional classes on open-ended essay questions (Kulik, Kulik, & Cohen, 1979). This is an indicator of learning transfer because students are integrating their knowledge and skills to respond to novel open-ended questions in a coherent and informative manner. Mastery students were better able to retrieve and synthesize the information than their conventionally taught counterparts.
Mastery Learning Improves Learning Retention. Retention refers to the ability of students to recall what they have learned after the passage of time. In a meta-analysis of eight comparative studies on learning retention in PSI courses, Kulik, Kulik and Cohen (1979) found that PSI students scored 9 points higher on the final examination and 14.3 points higher on a retention test, compared to conventionally taught students. The trend for mastery learning is for higher achievement and higher retention (Ryan, 1995).
Independent Learning. These large enrollment general education Internet courses are consistent with many aspects of the educational reform movement. Consider, for example, the following principles of teaching adapted from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1989, Chapter 13).
(1) People learn to do well only what they practice doing.
(2) Effective learning by students requires feedback.
(3) Expectations affect performance.
(4) Teaching should reflect the values of the subject being taught.
(5) Teaching should aim to counteract learning anxieties.
(6) Teaching should extend beyond the school.
(7) Teaching should take its time.
The World Music course specifically addresses every one of these learning principles. 1) Students are engaged in continuous practice throughout the course. 2) Students receive feedback on their understanding of the material whenever they choose to do so and as many times as they wish. 3) Students are expected to perform better than in a traditional lecture course and are advised of these expectations. 4) This course contains high quality examples of music ranging from ancient exemplars to concerts occurring at the moment. 5) The private, independent nature of learning feedback avoids any potential embarrassment to the student and the ability to work at one's own pace and in one's own style should minimize student anxiety. The easy access to the instructor for questions or reassurance is also helpful. 6) The Music course draws upon many examples of music, from popular to jazz to classical, that occur in many different media as well as in real life and are outside the bounds of the schoolroom. 7) Students in the music course can take their time in learning about music. The material is there for them and at their convenience.
In addition, good teaching should promote healthy habits of mind (attitudes, values, and skills), promote curiosity, and encourage openness to new ideas (AAAS, 1989, Chapter 12). The humanities and social science courses described here incorporate each of these instructional principles.
What is perhaps most unique about these courses is the extent to which they promote independent learning and independent responsibility for learning. This is a critical skill to be acquired by all people in the modern world to prepare them to engage in lifelong learning. The educational reform movement advocates that individuals take greater responsibility for their own learning.
The reform movement also promotes learning through group work and collaboration. However, we believe most people would agree that it would be unwise to produce a homogeneous instructional system even if we could. Multiple teaching and learning strategies are desirable. In particular, students need to learn the skills involved in independent learning as well as the skills associated with social knowledge construction. We are convinced that general education courses are ideal settings for promoting independent learning and individual explorations of course material.
Faculty Response. Faculty teaching these courses are uniformly enthusiastic. They feel that the Internet courses are superior to any conventional course they have ever given, and they enjoy the e-mail correspondence they receive from students. Many other faculty react with skepticism. It is difficult for them to believe that students could learn more from an Internet course than a conventional on-campus course, or that students could enjoy learning in such courses. Upon learning of the methodology and pedagogy, however, some former critics have become strong supporters of this approach to instruction in general and of these eight Internet courses in particular.
Summary. The general education Internet courses offered by 2Learn2.com and San Diego State University proved to be remarkably popular with faculty and students. More than 7,500 students from countries worldwide enrolled in eight Internet courses in the four-year period spanning summer 1997 through fall 2000. The enrollees derived the benefits of any asynchronous Internet course such as being spared the travails of commuting and parking and being able to work at their convenience and at their own pace. They also obtained high quality learning experiences built upon decades of educational research.
The general education Internet courses incorporate the most rigorous elements of the most effective learning strategies ever developed for large enrollment college courses, namely Mastery Learning and cognitive knowledge mapping. Research has shown that these elements have a profoundly positive impact on student achievement. They also lead to significant gains in student retention of knowledge, transfer of learning, rate of learning, and student attitudes. And, they clearly produce independent learning and individual student responsibility for learning.
Students who complete one course in this modality often go on to take another and then another. Although the courses are very different from one another, they are organized in similar ways and share a similar look and feel. Many learning skills developed by students in one course can be adapted and further refined in another.
Forward-looking trustees, administrators, and faculty who are seeking an elegant means for addressing the demands of the significant increase in college enrollments expected in the coming decade will do well to consider adding these instructional mechanisms to the repertoire of teaching strategies in their university. To our knowledge, 2Learn2.com has developed the only Internet course support system in the entire country that that is capable of teaching multiple large enrollment classes and that also incorporates so many elements of effective teaching.
Much is now known about how to improve teaching and learning at all levels, but there is precious little research to guide us to the optimum ways of teaching through the relatively new medium of the Internet. What is known is that these courses have provided an instructional system that:
• is greatly appreciated by the students and faculty using it,
• is stable and efficient in handling large numbers of students,
• supports every aspect of course record keeping from registration to final grades,
• supports cost-effective and time-efficient course development, and
• creates a highly interactive, up-to-date learning environment.
It's an exciting time for students, faculty, and administration. As we enter the Age of Information, Education has never been more important!
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 Effect size is the difference between experimental and control groups in units of standard deviation.