Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

Information overload: How can we help students?

Geoff I Swan
Physics Program
Edith Cowan University
Publishers of major textbooks are increasingly producing CD-ROMs that not only contain a hypertext version of the textbook, but also include ancillaries like study guides, tutorial software, worked solutions, videos and simulations. The trend is towards students having enormous resources at their disposal at home to help them learn. However many students have insufficient time or study skills to make effective use of textbooks, so how can we expect them to make effective use of information packed CD-ROMs?

CD-Physics contains all these resources on one CD-ROM and was a required purchase for first year physics students at Edith Cowan University in 1998. Survey results indicated that students did not choose to access most of its features on a regular basis if at all. How can instructors help students take better advantage of this student centred resource?


With the growth of computing power and its accessibility in the 1990s, publishers are increasingly producing computer based educational resources to support popular university textbooks. These new information packed education resources are aimed primarily at the large first year student market for use on home computers. The trend is across disciplines, with electronic versions of major textbooks and/or other supplements being developed and offered for sale on CD-ROM. Students are not only having wider access to sophisticated learning materials, but also more flexibility in how, when and where learning occurs. The locus of control is shifting away from instructors and towards students and major publishers.

In addition, the profile, experiences and expectations of students are changing. The rapid growth in student participation levels in Australian universities (64% for the decade 1982-1992) has ensured diversity in the student population. McInnes, James & McNaught (1995, p. x) in their study of first year students' experiences on campus assert that "More students now require assistance beyond what was once the norm". They also note (1995, p. 3) that 53% of students surveyed said they studied the minimum of what was required by their teachers even though 83% (of all students) had a strong desire to do well in their subjects. Students experiences and expectations with university life in Western Australia has often been a topic of discussion at previous teaching and learning forums. De la Harpe, Radloff, and Parker (1997) discussed issues arising from an upward trend in the amount of paid work undertaken by students including the (negative) affect on student's academic performance, and the implications for curriculum planning and instructional strategies. Cooper (1998) reported on commencing first year students' apprehensions where he found that many students worry that they will not be able to keep up with the work and would find it difficult to ask a tutor for help.

Given this background, how are students going to cope with the enormous amounts of information contained in comprehensive computer based resources? How are instructors with their pedagogic and content knowledge going to empower a diverse population of flexible and individual learners make effective and efficient use of these resources? How will the increased availability of sophisticated educational resources in the student's home redefine the instructor's role over the next decade?

In this dilemma session, a short description of one such package, CD-Physics, will be presented to illustrate the emerging capabilities of computer based educational resources. A summary of how students actually used CD-Physics at home will then be discussed. Although it is intended that this conference dilemma session focus on the general dilemma(s) these resources present instructors, any specific suggestions for CD-Physics will be gratefully received.


In 1998, all students studying calculus based introductory physics units at Edith Cowan University (ECU) were required to purchase "Fundamentals of Physics 5th edition extended plus CD-Physics version 2.0" (Halliday, Resnick & Walker, 1997). Shrink wrapping these two items reduced the extra cost of the CD-Physics by almost half to approximately $40. The additional expense was justified on the basis that it was comparable to the cost of the student solutions supplement alone. CD-Physics (version 2.0) includes the following components on a single CD-ROM: The first three components are predominantly derived from print based materials that have been adapted for electronic delivery. The last two components are examples of interactive multimedia and can only be delivered electronically. These two types of computer based educational materials are described in the following sections.

Components derived from print based materials

Figure 1 shows an example of a content page from an electronic textbook designed to look like the pages of a book. There are no scroll bars; students can use the appropriate tool bar icon situated at the bottom of the screen to turn pages. The tool bar icons often make content accessible in a number of ways. For example, important terms are linked to relevant pages through the use of hypertext and can also be found using the "search" icon. The "key info" icon allows students to swiftly look up key formulas, concepts and miscellaneous data. The image on this page links directly to a simulation and is described later (see Figure 3).

Figure 1

Figure 1: A page from the textbook

Tools exist which enable students to use the electronic textbook much like a regular textbook. They can highlight text in a variety of fluorescent colours (two segments are highlighted in the first paragraph in Figure 1), bookmark pages (see the ribbon at top right in Figure 1) and write their own notes using the computer notepad.

Figure 2 shows an end of chapter problem. The icons on the right of the screen provide a wide variety of help for students when attempting exercises and problems:

Figure 2

Figure 2: An exercise from the textbook

Students with CD-Physics therefore have a far wider and more accessible range of help options than students with just the textbook.

Hard copies of content pages, note pages, problems and their solutions are readily available through the print option.

Interactive multimedia resources

CD-Physics also takes advantage of interactive multimedia through simulations and tutorials.

Figure 3 shows a typical simulation. Each Simulation has audio instruction that explain the situation and give directions on using the simulation to the student. In this simulation, the student is challenged to calculate the minimum speed needed for a stuntman to successfully jump between rooftops (from left to right). The student inputs an initial velocity, clicks on start, and then watches a man either making the jump or falling into trash cans below. All simulations can be accessed through content pages (see Figure 1) or through a simulation menu.

Figure 3

Figure 3: The stuntman simulation

The interactive learningware tutorials (see Figure 4) are only available for about 5 problems in each chapter. Small steps have been designed to help students understand the concepts and apply their knowledge to solve the problem. It is very interactive and far more detailed than the worked solutions. The number of steps needed to fully solve the problem does depend on the student. All interactive learningware tutorials are accessible through problem pages (see Figure 2) or through a problems menu.

Figure 4

Figure 4: An interactive learningware tutorial

How do students use CD-Physics?

Students have been surveyed on their usage of CD-Physics since its introduction as a required purchase in 1998. The surveys were completed anonymously in class time during the last teaching week (week 12) of each semester. Two groups of students were surveyed: SCP1111 Physics of Motion students in the first semester, and SCP1141 Physics for Engineering 1 students in the second semester. Both groups were undertaking their first calculus based physics unit at ECU and therefore using CD-Physics for the first time.

There were 21 respondents for the Physics of Motion unit in the first semester. Over 80% agreed or strongly agreed with the following statements:

In addition, almost all these students found CD-Physics easy to install on their home computer.

They were also asked about their use of the textbook. Most confirmed that they used the textbook rather and CD-Physics when:

These students were also asked about their study habits and how often (always, usually, sometimes, never) they used specific features of CD-Physics. The average (median) student reported that they: Most students nominated access to worked solutions as the feature that helps them learn physics the most which is reflected in their heavy use of this particular feature. The next most nominated features were simulations (three students) and interactive tutorials (two students).

The author, as the students' lecturer, did not integrate CD-Physics into his teaching (apart from setting homework problems that had worked solutions on the CD-ROM). A low profile of the resource could substantially reduce its importance and relevance in the eyes of students and contribute to the reported low levels of usage.

In the second semester of 1998, the same survey instrument was given to SCP1141 Physics for Engineering 1 students. For these students however, two short non-assessable assignments, which required access to the study guide, interactive tutorials and simulations, were set for the early part of the semester. The intention was to make students more aware of CD-Physics and a significant increase in usage of a wider variety of features was reported for:

Otherwise, responses from the Physics for Engineering 1 students for most of the statements were very similar to those given by the Physics of Motion students. Despite a wider variety of features were being accessed at least sometimes by the engineering students, a clear majority still nominated the worked solutions as the feature that helps them learn physics the most.


The results of the surveys are clear. Students overwhelmingly use CD-Physics to access the worked solutions of end of chapter problems in their textbook. This is not surprising given that students know that in the end of semester exam they will be mainly tested on their ability to solve similar problems. It would also seem that they have a strong preference to study at home given that they use their home computer rather than the hard copy of the worked solutions placed in library closed reserve.

The interactive multimedia components of the package were also popular with students, but these were not considered as helpful as the worked solutions in helping them learn physics. Other potentially useful features were rarely accessed by students, although an increase for engineering students in the second semester could be linked to the setting of two assignments requiring CD-Physics. In any case, the author has (at last) found funding to purchase a notebook computer which will make it possible to take advantage of computer based teaching and learning resources in lectures on a regular basis. The effect of this approach on students' usage of CD-Physics will be investigated.

Traditionally, the instructor's role has been to provide a path along which students' can progress and learn on campus and at home. Homework in physics would typically include some reading and problem solving exercises. However, these educational resources (and in particular the more sophisticated packages which will follow) are radically changing the complexity of the situation with students having:

How are students going to navigate through these huge amounts of information? How are teachers going to set a path in the context of a diverse population of students learning at home? How are students and teachers going to cope with this information overload?


Cooper, G. (1998). Students' apprehensions on commencing first year: Some student groups at The University of Western Australia. In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, p80-84. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/asu/pubs/tlf/tlf98/cooper.html

de la Harpe, B., Radloff, A. and Parker, L. (1997). Time spent working and studying in the first year: What do students tell us? In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p73-77. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/asu/pubs/tlf/tlf97/harpe73.html

Halliday, D., Resnick, R., & Walker, J. (1997). Fundamentals of Physics, 5e extended plus CD-Physics version 2.0. New York: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 04171339830. [The Australian distributors for John Wiley & Sons are: Jacaranda Wiley, PO Box 1226, Milton Qld 4064, Tel (07) 3859 9755]

McInnis, C, James, R, & McNaught, C (1995). First year on campus: Diversity in the initial experiences of Australian undergraduates. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Please cite as: Swan, G. I. (1999). Information overload: How can we help students? In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 403-408. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/swan.html

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