a fun way to learn complex theoretical content

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    Learning, study and review methods 101:A fun way to learn and study complex theoreticalcontent

    Cheryl Howard

    Berwick School of Information TechnologyMonash University

    This paper examines the development and implementation of a collaborative/game-basedstudy format in a university context and the benefits gained by the students involved. The

    research project compared the established delivery format of lectures and tutorials with analternative delivery format involving collaborative learning and games-based study tools. Itexamined the differences that these formats had on student learning outcomes for theheavily theoretical content of the Human-Computer Interaction in Multimedia (HCI) unit,

    as part of the Multimedia Bachelor Degree at Monash University.

    A collaborative/game-based study format was developed to provide an interactive learningenvironment that allowed the students to explore the unit content using a variety of toolsand resources, such as textbooks, internet, and discussion groups. To verify understanding,students contributed questions, based on the content researched, to the game-based studytools designed to enhance the study and review process. The treatment compared the resultsof students in each group (traditional vs collaborative) to their performance scores in a pre-test and post-test of the content area (short-term retention) and the results of the semesterexamination (long-term retention). Data gathered by survey was used to ascertain student

    opinions regarding both methods.

    Keywords: games-based study tools, collaborative learning, teaching and learning strategies

    Collaborative learning and game-based study

    Analysing existing methods and resources

    When teaching a heavily theoretical subject as part of a largely practical course, there are inevitably anumber of issues to overcome. The most significant is encouraging the students to learn content that theyperceive as irrelevant and boring, while working within the constraints of the Universitys preferreddelivery methods. While student engagement with the content and resources is often quite evident duringtutorial sessions, it is not always so during lectures. This observation provided the motivation to

    investigate alternative teaching and learning strategies that would enhance the learning process andprovide a more effective format for teaching predominantly theoretical subjects.

    The challenge was developing a format that would satisfy the needs of both the University and students.The obvious difference in the students behaviour during the tutorials indicated that a suitable learning

    environment would focus on a more collaborative approach. However, to avoid experiencing issuessimilar to the current method over time, a novel approach was needed for learning and/or studying thematerial delivered one that was interesting and fun for the students but also providing an appropriatelevel of instruction and learning for university. To ensure this, several of aspects of the current learning

    environments were examined with the following strategies / resources being identified:

    1) What are the main delivery methods of units within the Multimedia degree course?a) A 12-hour lecture, followed by a 2-hour practical tutorial session, with students working

    individually or in small groups on small projects.b) A 1-hour lecture, followed by a 3-hour studio session, with students working in small groups on a

    single large project or prototype.2) What tools do the students use most frequently while participating in learning activities?

    a) The internet and e-mail are the most frequently used tools for finding/sending information.

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    b) The university also has an on-line facility called MUSO (Monash University Studies Online) thatis accessible to all students, where materials related to the unit are posted. Discussion groups canalso be created using this facility.

    3) What support materials can be provided to students to help with learning the content delivered?a) The most common materials provided included the weekly lecture notes and tutorial activities,

    usually posted on MUSO.b) Other support materials included unit syllabus, assessment and tutorial briefs, and links to

    associated on-line reading materials.

    Developing an alternative format

    The concept of a student-centred environment is not new and the strategies for content delivery in tertiaryeducation should reflect this ideal, to keep pace with both the needs and expectations of the currentgeneration of students. Sander (2005) argues that with the changes in student demographics over the last

    decade, higher education institutions are being forced to review their current teaching strategies. This isparticularly relevant, as tertiary institutions need to maintain higher numbers of students, and therefore

    need to implement appropriate strategies to cater for the needs of the diverse range of students nowwanting higher levels of education. Sander (2005) further implies that the discrepancy between what

    future students perceive as a good education and current delivery strategies is causing disenchantmentwith the educational system, thereby decreasing prospective student numbers and the viability of many

    institutions. One way to improve this situation is to research, develop and implement new deliverystrategies that suit both the needs of the tertiary institution and those of the student body. The author

    argues that these strategies must address two main issues: a) acknowledging that active studentinvolvement is an integral part of the learning process and b) providing both interesting and flexiblelearning environments that engage learners with the content through a variety of resources and tools.

    At Monash, the students within the Multimedia Degree are frequently exposed to different collaborativesituations during tutorials or as the primary means of delivery, so it seemed a logical step to apply asimilar format to the delivery of content usually given in lectures. However, most often lecture notes arenot useful without the accompanying commentary, a fact many students berate if they miss one, andmaking them available on-line for later study does not guarantee that any learning will take place. While

    alternatives, such as recording or pod-casting lectures are supportive of student learning, they are notalways available or may require a significant investment in time and effort to set up, as opposed to justposting on-line. Therefore, the collaborative/game-based study method (Figure 1) was developed tocreate a collaborative learning environment that provided guidance and support but also gave the studentsthe freedom and flexibility to explore the content using tools and methods that were appropriate to them.In addition, an alternative method to support the study and review was provided, in the form of game-

    based study tools, to assist with the consolidation of the content learned (Howard, 2006).

    Student-generatedstudy questions

    Tools

    Internet, MUSO,discussion groups,focus questions,

    study tools

    Resources

    Lecture notes,on-line articles,

    textbooks,

    quiz questions

    Game-basedstudy tools

    Collaborative groups

    (one group per topic)

    Figure 1: The collaborative/game-based study method

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    Race (2001:26) states that We need to remember that learning is done by people not to them. Thisimplies that the current lecture format may not necessarily engage the students as actively as otherstrategies may, largely due to its relatively passive nature. Race (2001) also argues strongly for usingstrategies that students understand to support effective learning. This suggests that using tools andstructures with which the students are familiar is a more appropriate strategy to adopt, as they already

    have some skills with which to undertake learning activities. Sander (2005) supports this argument statingthat for universities to ensure their undergraduates are independent or autonomous learners, they must

    provide learning environments that promote both effective and independent learning. The focus must beon a student-centred approach, where students are actively engaged with the subject matter rather thanpassively listening to an expert about it and are inclusive of all students by providing teachingmethods and learning environments that reach all students (2005:117).

    The proposed format substituted a collaborative learning environment with on-line research, held in astudio/lab rather than a lecture theatre, in lieu of the normal lecture. The students were divided into small

    discussion groups of 35 members, in which individuals were encouraged to participate in a variety ofroles to enhance the experience, such as researcher, discussion leader, note-taker, etc. The content of the

    lecture was divided into five sub-topics with one selected by each group, allowing individuals toexplore a topic based on an area of interest or familiarity of the group members. The tools available

    included access to a word processor, the internet and an on-line discussion group specifically created forthis purpose. Students were free to use other tools as they deemed appropriate, provided session outcomes

    were met. However, an argument for caution when using technology becomes an integral part of theteaching process is proffered by Kiili (2005) that the technology can often become a substitute teacher

    for delivering information rather than as learning tools that support the active learning process(Kiili, 2005:303). While computers are good for delivering content in a variety of ways, whetherefficiently or not, there needs to be a balance between information delivery and achieving the requiredlearning outcome(s) with supporting and enhancing the learning process (Facer, 2003; Grabinger &Dunlap, 2000; Quinn, 2005).

    Key componentsAn integral part to the learning process is being able to understand the information presented and processit so that it becomes meaningful to the individual (Aldrich, 2005; Grabinger & Dunlap, 2000; Harper &

    Hedberg, 1997; Oblinger, 2004; Papert, 1993; Prensky, 2001; Quinn, 2005; Race, 2001). Harper andHedberg (1997) also argue that educators should view the learning environment as something the learner

    has a major impact upon, the process has to include the learner as an active participant. Numerousstudies have examined ways in which to encourage learners to be active, such as problem, case andscenario based learning using authentic tasks/content (Cunningham et al., 1993; Grabinger & Dunlap,2000; Schunk, 2004), and more recently the introduction of simulation and games-based learning

    (Aldrich, 2005; Prensky, 2001; Quinn, 2005).

    Therefore, a key component to making the proposed format work was for students to link the resources

    provided, in an organized manner, to their research of the weekly topics. To ensure some consistencybetween groups, weekly focus questions were prepared that related to the topics covered in the lectures,including at least one reference or link to an appropriate resource. However, the groups were free toexplore and discuss these questions, using any of the resources provided and/or others discovered during

    their research. Each group had to post their answers to the group discussion board for others to revise andstudy, and were required to ensure that the following criteria were met: a) each answer had to provide anadequate response to the question; and b) have clearly identified reference(s) used.

    In order to enhance individual learning, the lecturers role became one of a facilitator so that the studentscould be more actively involved with the resources and have a certain degree of autonomy over how they

    would use them. The links for the focus questions were only provided as a starting point the studentswere free to pursue other sources if they believed that they would support the answers to their topicsquestions. While these strategies promoted engagement with the content, they could not necessarilyensure the quality of the learning, if any, taking place. Thus, for this format to address the issue ofeffective learning, the following two additional strategies were implemented:

    The first investigated the development of some game-based study tools to support the consolidation ofthe learning taking place during the collaborative sessions. Due to the students perception that the

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    content of the unit would be boring because it was mostly theoretical, these tools had to also providean interesting and fun way to study or review the complex content. To ensure compatibility with thedeveloped study tools, the Focus Questions were divided into five categories related to the currenttopic with a minimum of four questions each.

    The second explored the concept of the students generating the content for use within the game-basedstudy tools. This strategy was designed to enhance the processing of the information learned by thecreation of questions related to the researched topic the premise being that in order to ask a validquestion one must first understand what is being asked. It was also to challenge the students to meetspecific criteria when creating the questions in order to promote higher-order thinking skills.

    Format overviewThe collaborative/game-based study method (Figure 1) used the following format during each session

    (Howard et al., 2006a):

    1) Students formed random groups of 35 members these can be based on areas of interest(e.g.: by topic) or familiarity (eg: with friends).

    2) Each member was encouraged to take on varying roles within the group (eg: researcher, discussion

    leader, note-taker, etc.) to ensure that their experience encompassed a broad range of learningopportunities.

    3) Each group selected one category that they thought interesting to pursue.

    4) For approximately 45 minutes, the group could explore the questions and answers using the resourcesprovided and/or other relevant sources discovered during the research process, ensuring that thefollowing criteria were met:

    a) the answers had to provide an adequate response to the questionb) providing clearly identified references5) At the end of this time, each group would post their answers to the discussion board provided, for

    others to revise and study.

    6) Finally, each group was provided with an instruction sheet and examples of the eight question formatsto be used. Using two or more of these Q&A formats, each group would create and submit by e-mail

    at least four questions related to their research topic for use in the game-based study tools. The use of

    T/F, and multiple choice questions was limited (on...