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An investigation into how STEM students use learning resources in different formats, and how this use develops over time

Project leader(s): 
Laura Alexander and Alexis Lansbury
Faculty: 
STEM
Status: 
Archived

An overall summary of our findings would be that:-

For OU STEM students the ideal package of study materials would be a combination of books and digital content, particularly digital quizzes and visual content such as videos, animations and recordings of lectures. Students also want the option to access the content of any books digitally, both online and offline.

1198 students on 3 different stage-2 (second year undergraduate) modules in Physics, Maths and Computing were asked to complete questionnaires around how they used the different learning resources on offer to study both their current modules and their stage-1 (first year undergraduate) modules. 225 students responded to the survey.

Key findings were that:-

  1. Students use a mix of digital and paper-based study methods, regardless of whether a module is presented entirely digitally, or has a mix of paper and digital resources.
  2. The most popular ways of learning for STEM students were ‘online quizzes and iCMAs (interactive Computer-Marked Assignments)’, and ‘doing exercises and activities on paper’, followed by ‘taking notes on paper’ and ‘using module software’
  3. a) Students who have previously studied an entirely digital module at stage-1 are less likely to need to change the way they study when they meet an entirely digital module at stage-2.

b) Students who have previously studied an entirely digital module at stage-1 are less likely to find that any changes they need to make to study their stage-2 module causes them problems.

c) However, considering only students who have studied an entirely digital stage-1 module, now studying an entirely digital stage-2 module, their main concern was a desire for more books, showing that while previous experience of entirely digital study helps students with subsequent digital study, most students would still prefer to have access to books as well.

  1. Students studying an entirely digital module seem to shift from annotating module textbooks to annotating printed pdfs and making more notes on paper, rather than developing ways to annotate information online or making notes electronically
  2. Students value digital resources, particularly audio-visual digital content and online quizzes, and would like more of these alongside books for textual content. They would also like digital content to be available offline.
  3. Age is not a predictor of whether students would prefer more books or more digital content.

Further in-depth interviews were carried out with 12 students to explore some of these issues further. These highlighted that for STEM subjects, OU students:-

  1. Prefer to have a combination of book based and digital resources.
  2. Particularly value digital visual content and online quizzes
  3. Find two devices with large screens are required to study entirely digital material
  4. Find books better for studying while travelling, both for ease of use and because of poor internet connectivity while travelling
  5. Want to be able to access digital module material offline
  6. Want to be able to access a digital version of any paper module books.
  7. Don’t seem to find digital note-taking easy/effective – and to get it to work at all for them, need access to expensive technology (~£1000 on top of the cost of their main PC)

In addition, for some students, too much time spent looking at a screen does cause issues, but that is not the case for all students. This is not age related but seems to be particularly an issue for those who use a screen all day at work.

In summary, in the STEM faculty, module teams should be aware that students prefer a combination of books and digital resources to entirely digital resources, and this is not age related. Students would like more non-textual (audio-visual) digital resources, and more online quizzes. Qualification leads and module teams should be aware that students meeting an entirely digital module for the first time are likely to have problems adapting their study methods, particularly if this happens after stage-1. In addition, the impact on students from poorer backgrounds of entirely digital modules should be considered, since entirely digital modules seem to require at least two different digital devices for effective study, as well as a good broadband connection and access to a printer.

Related resources

Alexander, L. and Lansbury, A. (2021) An investigation into how STEM students use learning resources in different formats, and how this use develops over time. eSTEeM Final Report (PDF).

Laura Alexander and Alexis Lansbury presentation

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