Using visual representations to improve instructional materials for distance education computing students

Price, Linda (2002). Using visual representations to improve instructional materials for distance education computing students. PhD thesis The Open University.



Understanding how to develop instructional materials for distance education students is a challenging problem, but it is exacerbated when a domain is complex to teach, such as computer science. Visual representations have a history of use in computing as a means to alleviate the difficulties of learning abstract concepts. However, it is not clear whether improvements observed are as a result of improvements in the visual representations used in instructional materials or due to individual differences in students. This research examines the two themes of individual differences and visual representation in order to investigate how they collectively impact on improving instructional materials for distance education students studying computer science. It investigates the impact of different representations on learning while additionally investigating the relationship between individual differences and student learning.

The research in this thesis shows that visual representations are important in designing instructional materials. In particular, texts with visual representations have the power to cue students to perceive instructional materials as easier to process and more engaging.Investigation into the impact of concrete high-imagery versus abstract low-imagery visual representations illustrated that concrete visual representations incurred fewer cognitive overheads for computer science students and were able to ameliorate the challenges of learning computing.

The research in this thesis into individual differences demonstrated that Imagers did benefit more from studying instructional materials containing text with visual components. However the research indicates that appropriate selection of individual difference tests is dependent upon the application, i.e., whether the results are to be used to assess generalised tendencies or episodes in learning and whether the tests examine underlying approaches to cognition or practices in education.

An underlying question was whether students studying instructional materials containing low-imagery visual representations would cope as well as those studying high-imagery ones. Accomplished learners demonstrated that they could perform as well as with those receiving high-imagery visual representations. However, studying and recalling these materials did incur more cognitive processing.

This thesis argues that improving instructional materials by including appropriate visual representations is a useful basis for improving learning for distance education computer science students.

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