Teaching and Learning Forum 98 [ Contents ]

Interactive multimedia: What do students really learn?

Shelley Yeo, Robert Loss, Mario Zadnik
Department of Applied Physics

Allan Harrison and David Treagust
Science and Mathematics Education Centre
Curtin University of Technology

Interactive multimedia (IMM) is promoted as an effective and stimulating medium for learning science; however, students do not always benefit from IMM as intended by software designers. This paper discusses the effectiveness of IMM in teaching and learning introductory university physics concepts like projectile motion. Qualitative data collection using a video camera and split screen video-recorder were used to record each student's image and voice along with computer screen capture showing the student-program interactions. Left to themselves, student interaction with the program was limited and they prematurely moved onto the next graphic or screen. When the researcher asked students to explain their observations, two things emerged: students held common intuitive conceptions of projectile motion, and only following researcher prompts did they note and interpret abstract aspects of the program. Without intervention, students did not cognitively engage at a deep level, did not always read and follow all the instructions, nor relate the graphic to the text. These results suggest that enhancing the quality of IMM physics programs requires increased input from psychology, science education and content specialists and that commercial programs should be rigorously evaluated before use with school or university students.


The interactive multimedia (IMM) research discussed in this paper reports the preliminary findings of a collaborative research project. Although computer-based instructions (CBI) are widely promoted as capable of enhancing student knowledge in many different learningdomains, there is a need for more research into CBI's effectiveness in secondary and tertiary physics learning environments. This report discusses first year university physics students' interactions with the biomechanical factors unit in Body systems: Interactive physical education (Department of Human Movement, UWA, 1995).

The past 20 years has seen revolutionary changes in the philosophy, psychology and pedagogy of educational knowledge and practice. Not only have teachers' social and employment roles changed, but technology offers teachers the opportunity to partly replace or augment their teaching with IMM resources. Tobin and Dawson (1992) reviewed teacher uptake of new teaching/learning technologies and suggested that instructional designers have failed to take teachers' knowledge and the culture of teaching into account when designing multimedia curriculum resources. Consequently, many teachers either fail to adopt IMM based technologies or use them inappropriately. Advances in computer hardware and the development of sophisticated IMM software requires that IMM programs be critically evaluated (White, 1995).

Much research over the past 20 years has investigated students' understandings of scientific phenomena (Pfundt & Duit, 1997). Students bring to science lessons their own experiences, observations and understanding of the physical world (Treagust et al., 1996). Children's conceptions are variously called na•ve, prior or alternative conceptions and are frequently incompatible with scientists' conceptions and often inhibit science learning (Novak, 1988). Indeed constructivist knowledge theory holds that students actively construct their own experiential meaning by using their existing conceptual frameworks to interpret new information in ways sensible to them.

Learning physics in an IMM environment

IMM introduces new dimensions which may not previously exist in the classroom. Research in human-computer interactions recognises the importance of situated cognition and cognitive load. High cognitive load interferes with learning due to high element interactivity, as might be expected in learning physics, and learning is more effective if situated in authentic rather than decontextualised contexts (Park & Hannafin, 1993). Much research into human-computer interaction focuses on the users and the overt features of the user interface with little attention placed on the interaction between the user and the program's embedded content (Jonassen et al., 1994). Thus, multimedia environments often require users to simultaneously interact with multiple sensory elements in rapid succession. These interactions are usually instrumental in contrast to the deep cognitive requirements for studying physics.

Problematic physics conceptions

A difficult concept for students to understand is the changing velocity of an object thrown upward. Students are reluctant to accept that the velocity of a ball thrown vertically upwards is greatest when it leaves the thrower's hand; however, they have fewer problems with the increasing velocity of a vertically dropped ball. Students' impetus theories (McClosky, 1983) hold that a ball in parabolic motion has an in-built force or 'impetus' which maintains its motion for a while but the ball loses this in-built impetus and slows down. Gravity then takes over and accelerates the ball as it falls vertically. Students holding this construct believe that horizontal velocity decreases and then increases or remains constant until it runs out of 'forward force.' The ball will then fall vertically. Some students believe that gravity will act immediately a ball is aloft, whereas others believe that it will only affect the ball after the ball's impetus falls below a critical level or the ball reaches the top of its trajectory. Unless asked to explain, students ignore gravity as a force acting at all times on an object regardless of its motion.

Research design and questions

The project context. The paper reports the interaction between ten students and the parabolic motion segment of the Human Movement IMM program (Department of Human Movement, UWA, 1995). The selected topic features the concepts of mass, speed, force, inertia and momentum and the parabolic (or projectile) motion involved in long-jumping. It is believed that embedding the physics content in a sporting context makes the physics more relevant and easier for the students to learn. Students take an average of 55 minutes to work though the program. The studied segment seeks to represent to students the vertical and horizontal speeds of a long jumper while moving through the air by comparing the athlete's motion with the motion of a ball travelling the same way.

The question initiating the research was concerned with the issues surrounding the interaction between beginning physics students and an IMM program containing applied physics concepts. A preliminary study of 16, 15-year-old secondary students yielded extensive quantitative and qualitative data about their use of the program, their prior and changed conceptions, and their attitudes to IMM learning.

Preliminary results. Students using the program, settled into a pattern of action/response which seemed almost automatic, carried out as if to complete a task rather than to learn. Students frequently moved from segment to segment without deeply reflecting on the on-screen information and spent less than one minute per segment. For one series of related graphics illustrating the concept of balance, students averaged four seconds per graphic. Students did not always read everything on the screen and often chose not to access hypercard links to related information. Where information was represented in two or more forms (e.g., text and graphic) students sometimes attended to one or the other, not both, and they did not always follow the instructions for processing screen-based information. While all this was going on the students appeared a 'picture of concentration'. They hardly moved, apart from the hand operating the mouse.

These data elaborated the initial question as two research questions:

  1. What decisions do students make about accessing information, knowledge and skills while using the program?

  2. What learning takes place during the interaction between student and program?

Research method

The research approach was qualitative and interpretive utilising a "hermeneutic, dialectic circle" (Guba & Lincoln, 1989). This constructivist stance was taken because of the need to understand what happens at the time and place of the interaction between student and program. The researcher's role of 'participant observer' allows temporal questions such as "what is this segment trying to show you?" to be asked to elicit immediate student responses to the program content.

Subjects. Ten students participated in this research: eight had no substantial physics background and two had studied Year 12 Physics. The students were enrolled in a service first year non-calculus introductory physics course supporting degree courses in, for example, physiotherapy. At the time of their involvement in this research, they were studying an 'introductory mechanics' unit, thus, they were superficially familiar with the concepts of mass, force, weight, velocity and acceleration. All the student-subjects were volunteers. Before commencing, the researcher discussed with each student their previous and current physics experience. The program was introduced and each student provided with a brief summary of the program's key physics concepts. The students expressed familiarity with the concepts.

Two students worked as a pair and all other students worked on their own. The first five students, Lexi, Lia & Tonia, Sam and Hugh were allowed to complete the individual segment without interruption. The technique adopted for the next five, Alan, Nina, Evan, Tom and Aaron differed in that they worked without uninterruption until they were about exit each screen At that point, the researcher began an exploratory conversation asking for their understanding of the animated graphics and the information conveyed by the program.

The students were videotaped while working and all conversations and the computer screens were recorded simultaneously. The videotape carries the sound and shows the students working as an inserted picture on the main computer screen. The times students took to complete specific actions or program segments were determined and researcher notes also were made about each student. On completion, each student was given a brief pen and paper post-test consisting of questions designed to elicit their conceptual knowledge about the key concepts.

Description of the program segment

The initial appearance of the screen is:

Initial screen

Animated graphics 1-3 appear in the lower left half of the screen when each of the three cameras is 'clicked.' Each graphic shows the motion of the ball from the selected camera's perspective. At the side of each graphic appears a small amount of text describing the ball's motion.

Animated graphics 1-3

Graphic 4 appears when the ball is 'clicked'. Graphic 4 is quite complex as it combines graphics 1-3. As the ball moves along its trajectory, a red arrow changes size and direction to depict vertical velocity and the constant-length blue arrow depicts constant horizontal velocity.

Potential outcomes. The program intended students to learn that an object travelling in parabolic motion:

The students were introduced to parabolic motion in lectures prior to this investigation and Nina and Evan were studying physics for the second time.


Table 1 summarises the times and interaction histories of the students using this segment. Students 1-5 were not subject to any intervention. The graphics viewed, and the number of times students replayed each graphic are shown in column 4. These results were the students' decisions and the average student time spent on the graphic was approximately 90 seconds.

The equivalent data for students 6-10 is shown, but the last three columns reflect their interactions with the program following the researcher's intervention. These students' decisions to revisit any graphic may have been their own or may have been prompted by the researcher's questions.

Table 1. Students' interaction with the program segment.

The post-test contained a number of conceptually-oriented, but still contextually-based, questions. Post-test results are summarised in Table 2.

Graphic - program segment, positions

No student correctly identified position 6 as the point where the vertical velocity is greatest. The lower centre of gravity of position 6 compared with position 1 may have been too subtle for these students. Six students identified position 1 as the point of greatest vertical velocity and position 3 as the point of least vertical velocity. This is probably an acceptable response in the circumstances. Three students, however, chose position 3 for the greatest vertical velocity.

Table 2. Summary of student responses to the post-test question.

Interpretation and discussion

This research sheds light on how students access information while interacting with one short segment of this IMM program. Students consistently decided to exit the screen because they thought they had performed the expected task. Students understood the physical representation but did not fully appreciate the embedded physics concepts. Even emphasised text did not alert most students to the important ideas and only one student made notes as suggested. Students were passive rather than active knowledge-builders (Chan et al., 1997) who tended to react to salient surface features rather than deep features suggested by the text. Research into instructional cuing (Lee & Lehman, 1993) shows that reminders to access all relevant material is helpful to passive learners. Unless compelled, students did not stay in any one segment long enough to consider the more abstract ideas. This questions the instructional effectiveness of the program when there is no guidance or imposed control.

Strike and Posner (1992) believe that verbal messages that are at odds with the learner's conceptual beliefs are quite likely to be ignored, disbelieved or misconstrued. This may explain why all of these students failed to read with understanding the textual information about each graphic. Their reading of the text did not result in their accessing the appropriate information, whether incidentally or by choice. Students construct their understandings from what they know, see and read and in this case, this did not include the represented physics.

Prior to the researcher's intervention, all students were absorbed in the task; however, following intervention, the student-computer interaction altered markedly. The locus of control moved away from the student to the researcher. The student began to act more as an interpreter of information and thus started to compare the information on the screen with their own conceptions. Only at this stage did the students seem less sure of their ideas, thus making conceptual changes possible. Persistent teacher intervention encouraged students to interact more with the physics in the program. Students then used the computer graphics to illustrate what they were previously unable to explain.


The IMM program in this research uses an instructivist approach to help students learn physics; however, the students learned more about the long jump than the important physics concepts. Effective IMM programs should be located at an appropriate cognitive level and this program's cognitive demand seemed too high for these students. Effective design involves integrating meaningful learning theories, alternative conceptions research and research into human-computer interaction. The text and the graphic were not as well integrated as recommended by cognitive load theory. Knowledge of physics requires significant conceptual change for most students and instructional designers must incorporate features which focus users attention on the learning that they are undertaking. We also suggest that the teacher retains a pivotal role in effective student use of IMM.


Chan, C., Burtis, J. & Bereiter, C. (1997). Knowledge building as a mediator of conflict in conceptual change. Cognition and Instruction, 15(1), 1-40.

Guba, E. G., & Lincoln, Y. S. (19..). Fourth generation evaluation. London: Sage.

Jonassen, D. H., Campbell, J. P. & Davidson, M. E. (1994). Learning with media: Restructuring the debate. Educational Technology Research and Development, 42(2), 31-39.

Lee, Y. B. & Lehman, J. D. (1993). Instructional cuing in hypermedia: A study with active and passive learners. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 2(1), 25-37.

McClosky, M. (1983). Naive theories of motion. In Gentner, D. and Stevens, S. (Eds), Mental models. Hillsdale: L. Erlbaum.

Novak, J. D. (1988). Learning science and the science of learning. Studies in Science Education, 15, 77-101.

Park, I. & Hannafin, M. J. (1993). Empirically-based guidelines for the design of interactive multimedia. Educational Technology Research and Development, 41(3), 63-86.

Pfundt, H. & Duit, R. (Eds.) (1997). Bibliography: Students alternative frameworks and science education. 5th Ed. Kiel, Germany: Institute for Science Education.

Strike, K. A. & Posner, G. J. (1992). A revisionist theory of conceptual change. In R. A. Duschl & R. J. Hamilton (Eds.), Philosophy of science, cognitive psychology, and educational theory and practice, (pp. 147-176). New York: State University of New York Press.

Tobin, K. & Dawson, G. (1992). Constraints to curriculum reform: Teachers and the myths of schooling. Educational Technology Research and Development, 40(1), 81-92.

Treagust, D. F., Duit, R. & Fraser, B. J. (Eds.) (1996). Improving teaching and learning in science and mathematics. New York: Teachers College Press.

White, B. Y. (1995). The TinkerTools Project. Computer microworlds as conceptual tools for facilitating scientific inquiry. In S. M. Glynn and R. Duit (Eds.), Learning science in the schools: Research informing practice, (pp. 201-227). Mahweh, NJ: Erlbaum.

Please cite as: Yeo, S., Loss, R., Zadnik, M., Harrison, A. and Treagust, D. (1998). Interactive multimedia: What do students really learn? In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 341-347. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/yeo.html

[ TL Forum 1998 Proceedings Contents ] [ TL Forums Index ]
HTML: Roger Atkinson, Teaching and Learning Centre, Murdoch University [rjatkinson@bigpond.com]
This URL: http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/yeo.html
Last revision: 14 Mar 2002. © The University of Western Australia
Previous URL 10 Jan 1998 to 14 Mar 2002 http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/asu/pubs/tlf/tlf98/yeo.html