EDUCATION Web: Layout assists learning

Many professors put information on their Web sites for students to print out and read.
Remember Goldilocks? Imagine if she were involved in an online learning effort.
Her teacher put up a Web page for students to do their homework. When the teacher used flashy graphics, stylish designs and loads of links on the page, it looked hot, but Goldilocks and her classmates' grades weren't as good as they once were.
When the teacher changed the page, making it look colder and more like printed articles, Goldilocks and her peers still did poorly.
But when the teacher combined parts of each style ... that was just right.
What's the moral of the story?
According to a recent study in the journal Communication Research, a Web site's design plays a key role in its effectiveness, and a design that combines traditional print cues with Web-page favorites can produce knowledge retention nearly identical to reading from paper.
"That was the Web site in which people learned the best," said William P. Eveland, assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Ohio State University and one of the researchers involved in the study.
Experiment: Using four groups of students who each read a different version of the same story -- three on a Web page and one in print -- the researchers found that the Web article that combined print cues, such as a table of contents and page numbers, with Web-site staples such as hyperlinks produced test results identical to the print versions.
"On the Web site where they just had print cues, where the Web site was set up basically just like a print magazine and all you could really do was go forward a page or backward a page, people actually learned less than they did in a traditional print magazine," Eveland said.
"Similarly, people learned less on Web sites where all that was available were the in-text hyperlinks and none of the print cues, none of the forward and backward buttons."
Eveland explained that certain Web page designs can detract from learning because they have too many links and too much scrolling. Without a table of contents, the reader often clicks on several links, hoping to find certain information. This wastes time, causing readers to scan material rather than read it entirely, and readers often lose their place when they're constantly scrolling up and down a page.
But Web pages that are identical to print pages detract from learning, Eveland said, because they often bore the reader.
"They're just going to sort of turn pages like you do when you're reading a magazine at the dentist's office," he said.
In practice: John-Christian Smith, a philosophy and religious studies professor at Youngstown State University, said there are always a few students who don't like online work, but most of his students learn well from the articles and other information he puts on his classes' Web sites.
"I think the learning curve has improved with use of supplementary Web sources," he said. "We had in the spring about 160 courses here that used the Web for supplementary instruction. I expect every professor in my department to have something on the Web by fall."
Many professors, including Smith, put their materials in a .pdf format -- where the articles appear exactly as they do in print -- and the students simply print it out.
"I put stuff on that they can print out," said Jim LaLumia, a Youngstown State communications professor. "Personally, I don't like to read off of the computer, and I'm sure they don't either."
But for people who don't want to waste paper, Eveland's research suggests it is possible to create an effective teaching Web site.
"Take care to design the site properly ... and we can produce Web sites that people can learn from," he said.
Eveland said he conducted the study because of questions he had about the effectiveness of learning from Web pages and the movement of printed materials online.

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