Teaching and Learning Forum 98 [ Contents ]

How can we improve learning and evaluation in the computerised classroom?

Prudence Petford and Dr Bill Scott
School of Environmental Science, Division of Science
Murdoch University
Interactive computer programs are increasingly being used across a broad range of disciplines in tertiary education. As well as providing a learning environment favourable to the characteristics of the adult learner, the economic benefits can include the elimination of marking and reconsideration of the type and ratio of staff-student interactions. However there is the risk of reducing the role of the teacher.

The use of an electronic book of air pollution meteorology problems was assessed in a classroom environment. The results indicated that although the program was deemed suitable for use in an individualised self-paced learning mode the interactive nature of the program was not being completely explored. The teacher also had no evidence that the use of the program was improving the understanding of the problems.

The aim of this session is to explore instructional strategies that enhance the benefits an interactive computer program can provide. By utilising the classroom environment, instructional strategies not only reassert the role of the teacher in directing the learning process and determining the outcomes, they improve student learning and assist teacher assessment.

Introduction and background to the study

Interactive computer programs are used across a broad range of disciplines in education, not just computer science courses which focus on the development of programming skills. In adult education, the use of interactive computer programs has the potential to enhance the development of the basic principles of adult learning as described by Knowles (1984) in that it can be an independent, self-directed learning medium increasing motivation and deep learning. According to Laurillard (1988), motivation is increased because computers provide the student with the opportunity to determine their own learning strategy.

The placement of interactive computer programs on the Internet for adult education courses is increasing. However, the use of such programs in an individualised, isolated learning situation may not fulfil all the requirements of the adult learner. Bencini and Hennig (1997) found that students need to receive teaching that focuses on the use of the computer as a study tool, while Montague and Knirk (1993) reported findings that indicated students involved in computer instruction work just as well in pairs as alone. The interactive computer program assessed in this study, despite being on the Internet, proved difficult for the students to access. Consequently, a computer laboratory was set up providing the students with the opportunity to use the program. The results indicated that there is the potential to develop an instructional strategy for interactive computer programs beyond the concept of an individualised self-paced environment.

The third year Environmental Science course at Murdoch University, Air Pollution Meteorology, provides access to an electronic workbook of problems and their solutions, designed and written specifically for the course. These problems demonstrate how the concepts and techniques covered in the lectures can be applied in real life. The program allows the student to change parameters in the solutions and observe the subsequent adjustments to results and graphs. There are a total of forty-three questions divided into three problem sets covering forty-eight pages. The program is not an isolated resource in the course. As accessibility to the program is a problem, a hard copy was included in the study guide. In addition, the students in this study were provided with another workbook containing similar problems and their solutions. Understanding of the problems was not assessed until the final closed-book exam which was worth sixty percent of the final mark. The students had been advised that the problems in the exam would be taken directly from the program.

In the second last week of the course, a computer laboratory was set up on campus during the normal three-hour laboratory session. Eleven students attended enabling each to have their own computer terminal. The program was set up on each computer through the Internet. At the beginning of the session the teacher provided a fifteen-minute demonstration, using an overhead projector that was linked to one of the computer terminals. This meant the teacher was able to demonstrate the interactive nature of the program to all the students at the one time. The students were then allowed to use the program at their own discretion.

When the students had completed working with the program they were asked to complete a questionnaire. The questions were designed to assess the theoretical considerations behind the interactive computer learning environment both on the individual and class scale, as well as within the course structure. The students were questioned on their motivation for attending and how they used the program as well as their interaction with other students and the demonstrator during that time. They were also questioned as to their preferences regarding working alone or with another on this particular program. The students were also asked to consider the program in relation to other similar resources available in the course.

What we discovered

Although the students had two and a half hours in which to work on the program, once the pre-lab was over, the actual time spent working varied from five minutes to one hour. Most of the students began at page one. Only one student,
Went to a specific section and read the problems because I was looking for material to help me with my report.
However another student,
Went through and did the problems which I thought were hardest first, then did some manipulating of the data.
The visual impact of the solutions did stimulate the students' interaction with the package as one student wrote,
By immediately manipulating the data, the visual patterns motivated me to think about the questions and problems. This method also tests how much I could comprehend the problems.
However another student wrote,
I scrolled through quickly to find anything that interested me (pics, graphs, colour) and then manipulated the data for the graph, then read the questions.
The students were also questioned on the type of adjustments they were making in an attempt to understand if they were considering the practical application of these problems. The student who 'scrolled through quickly…' admitted he adjusted,
Any parameter which would effect the graph – unrealistic adjustments – learnt very little – only something small concerning the governing equation.
Only three of the eleven students considered they were not gaining anything from their unrealistic adjustments. As one student wrote,
At first I altered those which I had difficulty interpreting to see what their function was. Later I simply played to see what extremes I could go to.
This same student considered that,
Interactive problems lose their value if you don't know what is going on.
However, most students were able to argue effectively why they made unrealistic adjustments with one student writing,
But realistic and unrealistic adjustments make people think for reasons. The value adjustments, in general, we made were very small or very big.
While another student emphasised,
The non-realistic adjustments give a clearer picture of what was occurring.
The main issues, which rose from observing the students and reviewing their responses, centred on the concept of self-direction. Although the most time spent working was one hour it was unlikely that any student interacted with all forty-three problems. Consequently, in redesigning this situation one would need to consider providing more direction that also acknowledges the time over which the level of concentration can be maintained.

The students were also asked how they interacted with the class environment while they were using the program. Most students worked alone but only three indicated they preferred working this way. Those students who indicated a preference for working with another spoke of the opportunity to combine knowledge. However, this was dependent on the level of difficulty in understanding the problems as one student wrote,

Working with another person would be very encouraging, that is, both persons have some knowledge of the problems, but have not achieved full understanding.
Although most of the students did work alone, one student wrote,
I was only working alone because we were supplied with one computer each. It would have been good to work with another person to discuss the worked examples.
Unfortunately, the design of a computer laboratory, as well as a computer terminal, is often not conducive to collaborative learning. Yet there is often an attempt to discuss the work with others. As one student wrote,
I half worked alone but people sitting next to me helped out with exploring things.
The students were also asked about the questions they had asked and whom they asked. Seven out of the eleven students had asked no questions. The students found the program very user friendly, so the questions related to the interpretation of the problems which linked into the theoretical content of the course. All four students who asked questions had spoken to the teacher. Questioning directed to another student was limited to two students who also admitted spending some time working together.

The responses of the students to these questions indicated the potential for the use of collaborative learning techniques in conjunction with this interactive computer program. The type of questions that were asked could also be used to guide the teacher's level of direction in utilising the interactive nature of the program.

The students' use of the program together with the other similar resources was also assessed. Most students were motivated to attend as a way of assisting their exam study. However, limited access to the program meant that most of the students were relying on the other resources when preparing for the exam. No student commented on the real-life application of these problems regardless of the study resource, the focus being oriented towards fulfilling the requirements to pass the course. This indicates the potential to consider an instructional strategy that enhances the real-life applicability of these problems in order to develop higher order transfer skills.

The students were asked how the program could be improved to assist student learning. Apart from greater accessibility there was a wish to work on only a few problems at a time. There was also a request for more detail in the solutions. This interactive computer program is mathematics based yet the calculations are hidden. This enhances its user friendliness, but many of the steps used to calculate the solutions to the equations do not appear on the screen. A more constructive approach to solving this dilemma would be to encourage the students to 'fill in the gaps'.

Originally the problems were set as assignments but this was discontinued due to the time required to mark them. The consequence of this, as expressed by the students, is the lack of stimulus to do the problems. The teacher also has no way of assessing the understanding of the problems by the students until the exam.

Developing an instructional strategy

An interactive computer program provides a student with an active learning environment. The instructional strategy proposed for use with this interactive computer program in a classroom setting seeks to enhance the active learning environment and incorporate many of the issues raised by the responses to the questionnaire. This program would probably benefit from a tutorial guide providing some depth of direction. The responses to the questionnaire indicated that the students could be encouraged to reflect on the theoretical concepts demonstrated by the problems. The adjustments could be recommended by the teacher, encompassing realistic and unrealistic changes, yet also encouraging the student to consider the changes in the context of a real-life situation. The tutorial guide could also direct the students to explain the reasoning behind the solutions in an attempt to challenge them to do the questions. Directing the students in this way will result in specific activities, the completion of which will result in learning (Montague and Knirk, 1993).

The use of the tutorial guide still assumes the students are working alone but the laboratory setting provides the opportunity to develop collaborative work. The instructional strategy proposed for this interactive computer program incorporates two levels of collaborative work. The first looks at the potential for students to work in pairs while the second level looks at involving the whole class. Two issues that arose from the responses to the questionnaire were the number of problems to be covered and the difficulty in maintaining concentration. Consequently, the teacher could ask the students to work in pairs on only one problem but each pair works on a different problem. When the students have completed the requirements for understanding the problem as directed by the tutorial guide, the teacher could ask the pair to go through the problem at the terminal linked to the overhead projector for the rest of the class. The students will then have the opportunity to analyse one problem but also gain the benefit of viewing and understanding the interpretation of a number of other problems. The students would discuss the modifications they have made. This enhances their learning and provides the teacher with the opportunity to assess their understanding of the problems in situ.

The modifications to the instructional strategy for the use of this interactive computer program come into two theoretical categories. The tutorial guide provides a strategy for the student to use in analysing the problems. The use of such a guide would increase motivation and learning outcomes because the students would perceive teacher support (Volet, 1991). If implemented they would gain immediate benefits in their understanding of a problem (Volet, 1991). The second theoretical category incorporates the use of collaborative learning. The paired work encourages social interaction that is task-oriented, replicating the inter-personal nature of a work environment (Candy and Crebert, 1990). The class work also enhances social interaction and the sharing of knowledge with others, which is a transferable skill to the workplace (Candy and Crebert, 1990). Overall, the combination of a number of techniques in the instructional strategy encourages the learning of the same material but in a number of different ways.


The development of instructional strategies with interactive computer programs can redirect control of the learning environment back to the teacher. In this session we ask to explore instructional strategies that may be suitable for use in an interactive classroom using computers.


Bencini, R. and Hennig, W. S. (1997). 'Animal Stack': a computer simulated animal dissection. In Posposil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds.), Learning Through Teaching, the Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching and Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997, Murdoch: Academic Services Unit, pp. 31-33. http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/asu/pubs/tlf/tlf97/bencin31.html

Candy, P. C. and Crebert, R. G. (1990). Teaching Now for Learning Later: The Transfer of Learning Skills from the Academy to the Workplace. Paper presented at the 8th Australasian Learning and Language Conference, Brisbane.

Knowles, M. (1984). The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species. Houston: Gulf Pub. Co.

Laurillard, D. (1988). Computers and the emancipation of students: Giving control to the learner. In Ramsden, P. (ed.), Improving Learning: New Perspectives. London: Kogan Page.

Montague, W. E. and Knirk, F. G. (1993). What works in adult instruction? The management, design and delivery of instruction. International Journal of Educational Research, 19(4), 356-385.

Volet, S. E. (1991). Modelling and coaching of relevant metacognitive strategies for enhancing students' learning. Learning and Instruction, 1, 319-336.

Please cite as: Petford, P. and Scott, B. (1998). How can we improve learning and evaluation in the computerised classroom? In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 259-263. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/petford.html

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