Students learn better from web pages that contain print "cues"

May 04, 2001

STUDENTS learn better from web pages that contain print "cues" COLUMBUS - Can students learn just as well from the World Wide Web as they do from print? Yes, says a new study -- but only if Web pages offer some of the same elements found on today's typical printed page.

In written tests, students who read an article about influenza on the Web scored the same as students who read the story on hard copy -- about 73 percent -- but only when the Web article contained traditional print cues for organizing information, such as page numbers and a table of contents. These print cues supplemented the common Web cues for organizing information: in-text hyperlinks. Students who read the story on the Web without these cues scored only about 67 percent.

Both print cues and Web cues were needed to make the Web perform as well as traditional print, said William P. Eveland, assistant professor of journalism and communication at Ohio State University.

"We found that a well-designed Web site can convey information just as well as a print magazine," he said. "But if a Web site isn't designed properly, people learn less."

Eveland and Sharon Dunwoody, chair of journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wrote in the journal Communication Research that learning on the Web is difficult, mostly because surfers can't devote their full attention to reading. Instead, they must constantly make decisions -- which text to read, which hyperlinks to follow, whether to scroll down a page.

Eveland and Dunwoody suggested that Web pages can make those decisions easier by including some common style elements of print media, such as page numbers and tables of contents. Readers of those Web pages can devote more mental energy to reading, and may learn more as a result.

"From the time we first learn to read, we're taught to move straight through a block of information from start to finish. Print articles are organized so that we don't have to make any decisions as we read," Eveland said.

"At the same time, we all have a limited pool of cognitive resources," Eveland continued. "So anything that takes away some of those resources, even for simple decision-making, takes away from our ability to learn."

For example, scrolling down a Web page could cause readers to lose their place in a story. Also, the resolution of text on computer screens has traditionally been lower than print, so people have to try a bit harder to read the words. Even these minor distractions could interfere with readers' ability to learn, Eveland said.

Approximately 200 students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison participated in the study, with an average age of about 20 years. In a questionnaire, the students reported using the Web an average of about 13 days in the past month. That's just little more than the 11.2 days per month that average Americans use the Web, according to a December, 2000, survey by online research firm NetValue.

The researchers borrowed the story on influenza from The Why Files, a science-news-oriented educational Web site. The article contained basic information about the flu, how it is transmitted, and how vaccines help prevent the flu.

Four groups of students read the same story, each in a different version: a hard copy; a Web version with hyperlinks within the text; a Web version without hyperlinks; and a Web version with hyperlinks supplemented by page numbers and a table of contents. This last version most closely resembled the story as it first appeared on The Why Files Web site.

After reading the story, the students answered 15 questions in multiple choice and matching format. Students who read the supplemented Web version scored an average of about 11 correct answers, or 73 percent -- roughly the same as students who read the hard copy. Students who read the unsupplemented Web versions scored an average of only 10 correct answers, or 67 percent. A small difference, but statistically significant, Eveland said.

Why did the best Web site design fare only as good as print, not better? In a new study just accepted to appear in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, Eveland and Dunwoody found that the Web's advantages and disadvantages seem to cancel each other out.

The very presence of hyperlinks on a page encourages readers to link ideas together mentally, which increases learning, Eveland said. But readers also tend to scan a Web page instead of reading it from beginning to end -- and scanning decreases learning.

"If we could eliminate the scanning and still facilitate the linking of ideas, the Web could very well communicate information better than print," Eveland said.

But trying to force Web surfers to act as if they're reading a book is not only impractical, it's almost an anti-Web concept, he added.

"In its idealized form, a Web site lets people follow whatever direction they choose, go wherever their brain leads them," he said. "The Web is supposed to be about serendipity."
In 1996, the National Science Foundation (NSF) helped create The Why Files through a cooperative agreement with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which now supports the site. Through the National Institute for Science Education, NSF funded Eveland and Dunwoody's research to determine whether the Web is an effective medium for communicating science to the public.

Written by Pam Frost Gorder, (614) 292-7475;

Ohio State University

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