Students Who Access Learning Resources on the Web
Display a Higher Level of Recursive Reading
Given the current debates about how the web influences student learning, for good or ill, one of the questions I was especially interested in answering is whether at later points in the semester students returned to primary source documents assigned earlier in the semester. Good historians return to the same pieces of evidence over and over again, considering many possible meanings of their sources before finally committing themselves to one interpretation. Therefore, we hope that our students will learn this skill, not only because it is an example of what we like to call "critical thinking," but also because it is one very important way that they develop a stronger sense of the interrelatedness of historical evidence and of change over time. In my surveys with students I asked them very specifically whether or not they had gone back to primary sources used earlier in the semester and, as Table 1 indicates, in the three web sections, approximately three-fourths of them said they had done so. The final papers turned in by the students in the sections taught through the website bear out their answers on the surveys because the essays reflected a fairly high level of recursiveness. [Go to survey data]
Students in the course section taught via print did not display this same high level of recursive use of sources. Only one in four reported going back to materials assigned earlier in the semester. Further, their final essays bore out this finding, displaying a much lower use of sources assigned earlier in the semester. [Go to sample essays...under construction]
In the interviews I conducted with a selected sample of the students in each class section, I explored their work patterns in more detail and all of the students I interviewed from the web sections said that because the documents they looked at from earlier in the semester were "just a click away," they were much more likely to use them. When I asked if they would have done the same thing with documents supplied in a course pack, all but one demurred, saying that, as one student put it, "having all that paper to sort through" would not be as immediate as a hyperlink. Or, as another student said in her interview, the web "is just easier to use than a book." The students I interviewed from the print section, who did have "all that paper to sort through" all responded to this question with some version of "Well, it seemed as though I could write the paper without going back to the older stuff."
Although it might be exciting to think that all we have to do to encourage recursive reading among our students is to put our assignments on the web, the reality is much more complex. While three out of four students in the web sections said they engaged in the sort of recursive reading we hope to facilitate, that statistic alone is somewhat misleading. A careful examination of these students' responses to survey questions and of their essays indicates that they engaged in this sort of recursiveness almost exclusively when the assignment was designed in such a way that returning to earlier sources would obviously improve the paper. Of course, even with their assignments designed in this way, almost all of the students in the print section stuck to those sources they were working with that week. [Go to writing assignments]
Thus, when properly designed, web-based learning resources and assignments do encourage recursive reading among students in an introductory history course in ways that the very same assignments in a offered via print do not.
The Hypermedia Revolution Signals
the Doom of Conventional History Survey Course
While I do not believe that the hypermedia revolution heralds the end of the book, I do believe it does herald the end of the coverage model introductory history survey course. Because the web encourages recursiveness and self-directed research, our students will become increasingly impatient with the traditional model of the introductory history survey. If we continue to charge them with making sense of the western past from Plato to NATO in just 28 weeks (or from Reconstruction to the Clinton years), they are going to become increasingly frustrated with us and our courses. The careful consideration of topics and underlying sources that hypermedia encourages is simply not possible if one covers the French Revolution on Monday, Napoleon on Wednesday, and Congress Europe on Friday.
Moreover, our students already understand that the coverage model survey course does not encourage any sort of deep understanding of the past. In survey after survey that I have conducted over the years, they tell me that the coverage model encourages the memorize-regurgitate-forget model of learning, but that a more focused approach helps them to think more carefully and to arrive at a deeper understanding of the material they are considering. In my surveys this year, fewer than 10% of the students said they preferred a coverage model course to one taught in a more focused manner. As one student put it in her survey this past spring, "It's one thing to know the material, but it's more important to learn the material. Long term memory is more useful than short-term memory." [Go to survey data]
Using the web in instruction encourages students to spend more time on the topic before them and so, if we continue to insist that they inhale as much content as possible in a short time, they are certain to rebel. One wonders if the declining numbers of history majors nationwide is already a reflection of this disconnect between our students and the ways we teach them? Therefore, I believe that in the not too distant future, the survey course as we know it today will disappear completely from our curricula.
The Web Does Encourage Independent Investigation,
But Not As Much As We Would Like
Cyber-pundits love to opine that because the world wide web opens up an entire world of knowledge to students, when they begin an assignment constructed in hypermedia students will embark on their own unmediated intellectual quests, and therefore are more likely to produce work that is more creative than the standard student essay.
What I found in my research is that the cyberpundits seem to be correct, but in a more limited sense than perhaps they would like to admit. My surveys of the students in the three web sections indicates that less than half (44%) actually ever left the class website to go poking around on the web, despite being encouraged to do so. Among the students in the print section, 35% reported going to the university library to engage in similar poking around on their own. Certainly, those students who went either to the web or to the library to investigate on their own generally produced better essays, although I did not find a qualitative difference between those produced as a result of additional web research and those produced as a result of library research. [Go to sample essays]
Thus, sending students to the web seems to encourage them to do more additional research on their own, but that the differences between the students in the web sections and those in the print section are not stunning. Further, despite my designing assignments to facilitate (but not require) such additional research, the majority of the students in all four sections did not do more than was required. [Go to survey data]
As with Conclusion #1 above, I again found in my interviews that design was the most important element in whether the students did more than was required by the assignment. Students who reported doing additional research did so either because they were "not sure what you were looking for" and so had to find answers to their own questions, or they simply felt empowered or liberated by the non-specific nature of the assignment to go forth and find. [Go to writing assignments]
Historians Must Begin Teaching Web Literacy
Regardless of what we might think of it, the web is not going away and with each passing week more and more of our students will come to believe that if something does not exist on the web, it simply does not exist. Even the ever decreasing number who are willing to believe that information does exist off-line generally search the web first, resorting to the library and other such resources only if they cannot find what they want on-line.
In my interviews with students this past year, as well as during previous semesters, I consistently find that students in my courses, despite going through very specific assignments designed to help them use the web as a research resource, remain disinclined to apply any sort of critical analysis to the sites they visit. Even the very best students simply do not think very much about whether or not a site is a good source of information. The only test most students impose on the sites they visit is a visual one--if the site appears to be very professional, then the information it contains must be valid. One of my favorite examples that I use with students is the Constitution Society website, which, according to its homepage "publishes documentation, engages in litigation, and organizes local citizens groups to work for reform." The site is very professionally produced and contains a large and varied collection of constitutional primary sources from the United States and Europe. However, a careful visitor might reasonably ask what sort of "local citizens groups" the Constitution Society supports. By following the link for "Organizations," what one finds is that the Constitution Society provides support to militia groups across the United States. While providing support to militia groups does not ipso facto invalidate the primary source documents provided on this site, the clear and obvious agenda of the Constitution Society should be enough to cause a student to think carefully about the presentation of material on this site...what is included and what is not, for example. My experience is that students almost never ask such questions until they are exposed, in a very specific way, to the risks of not reading a site carefully.
A standard aspect of many history courses is an overview of how to select appropriate sources for writing an essay or for answering a question about the past. However, most courses that include such exercises typically spend most of their time on resources found in conventional media. Only a few historians devote a significant amount of time to how to judge hypermedia sources and if we do not change this pattern quickly, we are bound to become more and more frustrated with our students and the work they submit to us.
Now that you have read my conclusions, I hope you will take a minute to comment on them, using the comment form that is part of this site.