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An evaluation of the introduction of online resources in a first year chemistry course

Gail Chittleborough, Mauro Mocerino and David Treagust
Curtin University of Technology
Consistent with the increasing use of online resources in many university courses, this paper examines the introduction of online resources to an introductory, first year chemistry course. In this study, students were required to complete pre-laboratory exercises online as well as having access to email, a discussion forum and solutions to typical tests online. This paper examines the motivation for using online resources, the use of the online resources and the impact of these additional resources on the students' learning experience. The study concluded that the medium of the assessment was not a significant factor and students adapted quickly to the new online medium. The lecturer chooses in the best interest of his students as to how, when and where the online resources will be used. There are many factors which impact on these decisions and this paper investigates the assessment of the appropriateness of the particular online resources, the specific requirements of the particular subject matter, the ability to customise resources, the teaching role of the online resources, the merits of the communication resources, as well as the accessibility, availability, flexibility and feedback of the online resources.


Introduction

This paper reports on an on-going project developed under the Learning Effectiveness Alliance Program (LEAP) operating within Curtin University of Technology. The project involves the introduction of a small online component in a first year university chemistry course. The objective of the LEAP program was to "develop a more flexible learning environment in laboratory work and assessment" (Leap 2002).

Background information

Laboratory work is fundamental to the teaching and learning of chemistry. This first year introductory chemistry course requires a compulsory laboratory attendance record and satisfactory written reports to pass the course. No prior knowledge of chemistry is necessary to undertake this course, however the results of a preliminary study last year revealed that students' prior experiences and knowledge in chemistry had a significant influence on their approach, attitude and perception of chemistry (Chittleborough, Treagust & Mocerino, 2002). The study also indicated that although students received help from tutors after tests and from demonstrators in laboratory sessions, the majority of students worked in isolation - there being no formal provision for collaborative discussions as part of the teaching program - and only 20% of the students interviewed obtained help from peers. The laboratory manual is detailed and thorough but lacks illustrations and diagrams. Evidence from the study showed that some students had difficulty writing up laboratory reports and made use of a laboratory-help web page provided later in semester two. Students come to the laboratory session apprehensively, but soon develop confidence in what they are doing and learn new skills. Despite their ability to follow written instructions, students' understanding of the aim of an experiment is sometimes obscured by the tasks at hand. It is proposed that a more thorough preparation for the laboratory class would improve this situation.

Aims of the study

The aim of this project is to introduce pre-laboratory exercises via Web-CT, an online program supported by the university, that students are required to access, complete and submit electronically prior to the laboratory class. As a result of the project, students will be better prepared to maximise the benefits of the class and gain basic information with little or no chemical background. The exercises can be used to target specific objectives such as, understanding the aim of the experiment, being able to identify equipment, following safe procedures and performing calculations. The web-based assessment is designed to provide students with some immediate feedback on their understanding, correct answers are positively reinforced and in the case of incorrect answers, correct answers are given so students can identify any misconceptions. Diagrammatic and illustrative resources, which are vital for improving students' mental images of chemical structures and for chemical explanations will be included in the Web-CT site with the aim of improving students' ability to transfer from one type of chemical representation to another. The Web-CT site allows students and staff to communicate via email - hopefully encouraging students to help each other. The exchange of ideas is a most desired outcome because it is proposed that this encourages students to express their personal understanding, improve their understanding and promote meaningful learning of chemical concepts. In addition, the Web-CT site can provide supplementary resources to students including solutions to typical tests, course information, glossary, as well as links to useful and relevant Internet sites.

The motivation for using online resources

This significant first year university unit is a pre-requisite for courses in other areas of specialty such as health science and biology. It has large numbers of students (n=137), with diverse backgrounds and the unit assumes no prior chemical knowledge. The weekly, 1-hour lecture and 3-hour laboratory session are the students only contact times. The online resource can provide an additional forum of communication between students and staff and among students.

Common presumptions about online resources

With the reduced cost of technology, increased popularity and greater accessibility, there has been a large increase in the use of online resources at all levels of education. Economic factors, perceptions and expectations of students, administrators and parents have driven this trend often without assessing the educational value and merit of such resources. The term 'online learning' is used loosely and somewhat presumptuously, whereas the term 'online resources' may be more appropriate and accurate, with the learning being that which occurs in the learner not in the computer. The medium of the knowledge transfer must be distinguished from the learning process, yet both aspects must be considered because they do impact on one another. In light of this, the analysis of data is discussed in terms of:

Implementation

The project was trialed during semester one 2002 with 137 students who were required to complete online pre-laborator y exercises each week for 13 weeks. Data were collected with respect to the students' responses to exercises as well as their use of email, discussion and additional resources. In addition, a survey was administered to students to investigate their opinions about the advantages of using online exercises, the impact on the experimental work, the features of the Web-CT site and the educational value of the exercises. The survey used a Likert scale of 1-9, where 1 was strongly disagree and 9 was strongly agree, to gauge students' opinions. The validation of the survey is supported by cross-checking results with a number of items in the survey and with other the other data collected.

Results and discussion

In analysing and evaluating this project two aspects are distinguished, learning chemistry and the use of online learning forum.

Learning chemistry

The mean scores of the weekly pre-laboratory exercises were consistently high, with means between 72.2% and 93.3% (see table 1). This is consistent with the intentional strategy of the exercises providing positive feedback, building students' confidence and being a learning exercise, rather than an assessment exercise. Many students did take advantage of the second and third attempts when the questions proved more taxing to boost their score. The number of attempts provides an indication of the difficulty of the exercises. With students improving their scores in consecutive tests, this would suggest that the feedback is providing insight into the meaning of the questions and helping students answer the questions correctly. Despite these positive results, it is not possible from the data to ascertain that the exercises did improve the students' learning of chemistry.

Table 1: Frequency of pre-laboratory exercises completed each week

WeekNo. of pre-labs
recorded
Mean score %One attempt
only %
212481.150.0
312282.147.5
411493.357.0
511185.556.8
69779.228.9
89790.822.3
99472.222.3
108682.843.0
119386.038.7
128381.534.9
137888.551.2

The reduction in pre-laboratory exercises completed as the weeks progressed can be attributed to the 'trial' nature of this first study in which some demonstrators were content to accept written pre-laboratory exercises from the students.

Table 2: Student responses to survey items
Scores: 1- strongly disagree, 9=strongly agree

ItemResponsesMean MedianSDVariance
I had difficulty accessing the website from home. 932.9312.707.30
I had difficulty keeping the website up and running. 1042.4412.104.40
I had difficulty navigating the website for the unit. 1062.1911.783.18
The online pre-laboratory exercises allowed me greater flexibility with my time. 926.2772.606.80
The online pre-laboratory exercises provided feedback on my understanding. 946.5072.164.68
The online pre-laboratory exercises helped me to learn and understand the concepts in the experiment. 936.5072.094.36
Getting immediate feedback on the online pre-laboratory was valuable. 927.1981.873.52
The online pre-laboratory exercises were challenging. 935.9262.084.30
Being able to try an exercise more than once helped me learn from my mistakes. 1017.1482.154.63
I had to read the laboratory notes in order to do the online pre-laboratory exercises. 985.9072.204.84
The online pre-laboratory exercises were useful in confirming my understanding. 986.3871.833.37
The online pre-laboratory exercises provided me with valuable feedback on my progress. 966.1361.983.90
I understood the experiments better having done the online pre-laboratory exercises. 966.1862.074.30
The pictures in the online pre-laboratory exercises were valuable. 956.1162.094.40

The survey (see Table 2) items sought students' opinions on the educational value of the exercises relevant to the learning of chemistry. The data from the survey are presented in Figure 1 and support the value of the pre-laboratory exercises in improving students' understanding of experiments and the concepts involved.

Item 14
I understood the experiments better having done the online pre-laboratory exercises.
Mean = 6.19 SD = 2.07
Figure 1 item 14
Item 12
The online pre-laboratory exercises were useful in confirming my understanding.
Mean = 6.37 SD = 1.83
Figure 1 item 12
Item 07
The online pre-laboratory exercises helped me to learn and understand the concepts in the experiment.
Mean = 6.51 SD = 2.09
Figure 1 item 07

Figure 1: Students' opinions about the impact of pre-laboratory exercises on learning chemistry.

Students' perceptions, preparedness for laboratory work and confidence are important aspects to learning concepts in chemistry that seem to have been boosted through the use of the online pre-laboratory exercises.

The survey items (see Table 2) sought students' opinions on the advantages of using online exercises. Some results are presented graphically in Figure 3. Getting immediate feedback on answers, being able to redo exercises and the use of pictures were identified as being of value by most of the students for greater understanding (see Figure 2).

Item 08
Getting immediate feedback on the online pre-laboratory was valuable.
Mean = 7.15 SD = 1.87
Figure 2 item 08
Item 10
Being able to try an exercise more than once helped me learn from my mistakes Mean = 7.14 SD = 2.15
Figure 2 item 10
Item 15
The pictures in the online pre-laboratory exercises were valuable. Mean = 6.12 SD = 2.09
Figure 2 item 15

Figure 2: Students' opinions about the features of the pre-laboratory exercises

Feedback is a critical factor in conceptual learning whereby a learner expresses an understanding, gets feedback and if necessary may consider re-evaluating their understanding (Tyson, Venville, Harrison, & Treagust, 1997). Personal responses would be preferable but impractical with large numbers of students. The immediate feedback and the opportunity to redo the exercise may help intercept this dynamic process. Visual representations such as diagrams and pictures are often used to explain abstract chemistry concepts (Gilbert, Boulter, & Rutherford, 1998). This perception is supported by the students as indicated in their responses to the survey represented graphically in Figure 2.

Online resources

The survey items (see Table 2) asked for students' opinions of the advantages of answering the exercises online. There were only minimal issues of access and connection, with the majority of students not experiencing difficulty accessing or navigating the Web-CT site. These results are presented graphically in Figure 3. In addition the online medium provides complete flexibility to students with respect to when and where they complete the exercises.

Item 02
I had difficulty accessing the website from home.
Mean = 2.93 SD = 3.42
Figure 3 item 02
Item 03
I had difficulty keeping the website up and running.
Mean = 2.44 SD = 2.1
Figure 3 item 03
Item 04
I had difficulty navigating the website for the unit.
Mean = 2.1 SD = 1.78
Figure 3 item 04
Item 05
The online pre-laboratory exercises allowed me greater flexibility with my time.
Mean = 6.27 SD = 2.6
Figure 3 item 05

Figure 3: Students' opinions on the features of Web-CT site

These results suggest that the majority of students adapted to using the online exercises easily.

Mail and discussion
The email and discussion facilities focused on administrative issues rather than conceptual issues. The number of times students accessed the site is provided in Table 3. The data include students who were not required to do the online exercises, but were given access to the site for equity. The focus group of 137 is included in the total of 382. The data indicate that many students accessed the discussion page frequently however the number of postings made is quite small. This is not unexpected with students still becoming familiar and competent with a new medium of communication.

Table 3: Number of times students access the discussion page during semester one

No. of times accessed
discussion page
No. of studentsCumulative total
Zero never accessed site122392
Zero but has accessed site108270
Between 1-1074162
Between 11-202488
Between 21-301064
Between 31-401154
Between 41-50443
Between 51-60439
Between 61-70635
Between 71-80429
Between 81-902425
> 9011

The topics discussed included problems with the online exercises, questions about the laboratory work, queries about the PSI (personalised students instruction) tests and exams, requests for typical test solutions, recommended Web-sites, generation of a study group and pleas for lost property. The online medium provides students with an easy way to access staff and other students.

Typical tests solutions
These are provided on the Web-CT site in a pdf format (Adobe's Portable Document Format). These solutions help students to prepare for the weekly topic tests whereas previously they had to go the library to access the solutions.

Conclusion

Students adapted easily and quickly to the online exercises. The value of the pre-laboratory exercises used in this first-year chemistry unit depends on them being relevant to the laboratory work and pitched at an appropriate level for students. The limited feedback provided with the exercises is helpful and is a valuable method of helping students to learn.

The educational merit of online resources is not proven. Students completed the pre-laboratory exercises successfully, with the majority supporting the value of the online exercises for their learning. Two aspects of the pre-laboratory exercises are advantageous to learning: the immediate feedback with the opportunity to redo the exercise and the use of visual representations. Other aspects make it easier to find the opportunity to learn: improved communication between students and students and staff, greater flexibility and improved access to a wider range of resources.

Bibliography

Chittleborough, G., Treagust, D. F. & Mocerino, M. (2002). Constraints to the development of first year university chemistry students' mental models of chemical phenomena. Paper presented at The National Association for Research in Science Teaching, 7-10 April, New Orleans, LA.

Gilbert, J. K., Boulter, C. & Rutherford, M. (1998). Models in explanations, part 1: Horses for courses. International Journal of Science Education, 20(1),83-97.

Tyson, L. M., Venville, G. J., Harrison, A. G. & Treagust, D. F. (1997). A multidimensional framework for interpreting conceptual change - events in the classroom. Science Education, 81, 387-404.

Authors: Gail Chittleborough, Mauro Mocerino and David Treagust, Curtin University of Technology, Perth WA. Contact person: G.Chittleborough@curtin.edu.au

Please cite as: Chittleborough, G., Mocerino, M. and Treagust, D. (2002). An evaluation of the introduction of online resources in a first year chemistry course. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 2002. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/2002/chittleborough.html


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