Learning for Success: Distance Education Students’ use of their Learning Materials

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This paper reports the results of a research project investigating the use that Distance Education (DE) students at university make of the learning materials that are supplied to them. The research is based on a survey of 998 DE students enrolled in ten undergraduate subjects spread across all five Faculties at Charles Sturt University (CSU) in New South Wales, Australia. CSU is Australia’s largest DE provider of higher education. The project addressed the following questions: • The extent to which DE undergraduate students use their learning materials. • The extent to which students undertake the learning activities that are often incorporated in learning materials. • The extent to which students obtain learning materials beyond the printed learning materials, especially their use of library facilities and the internet to research topics in their study programs. • The way in which DE undergraduate students approach their study and the study strategies that they adopt. The paper reports the major conclusions from the survey. It was found that the majority of students read most or all of the learning materials that were sent to them. They relied heavily upon the prescribed textbooks, did some additional reading as recommended, to a limited extent carried out additional reading beyond that recommended, and worked through the provided learning materials in a methodical manner. They generally completed, in their minds if not always on paper, the study tasks embedded in the learning materials. Those students that read less and paid less attention to study tasks tended to study in a way that was focused on passing assessment tasks. Overall the study provides a strong argument for the retention of printed learning materials as students seem to work well with them, and the more effectively students use them the better they seem to perform. L ear n ing f o r S uc c es s : Di s ta nc e Edu ca t i on S tud en t s ’ u s e o f t h e i r L ear n ing Mat er i a l s A. S mi t h and E . S mi th Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice 35 Introduction At many Australian universities, including Charles Sturt University (CSU), the site of this study, a large proportion of students study by distance education, but the mainstream higher education teaching and learning literature tends to assume a model of on-campus delivery, although increasingly attention is also paid to on-line learning. Relatively little attention is paid to print-based distance education materials, yet it is likely that print-based materials will remain widely used for the foreseeable future as demand for fully on-line learning remains low and problems of access and technology remain in many areas of the world. CSU has several campuses in regional New South Wales and is the largest provider of distance learning in Australia. In 2003 a little over 25,000 students from a total of almost 34,000 students were enrolled in DE mode at the university (Charles Sturt University, 2003). Such students generally study two subjects per semester and are required to attend residential schools for some subjects, although subjects with residential schools are in the minority. Over the past fifteen years CSU has moved progressively into on-line support for teaching (for example with the provision of on-line subject outlines and subject electronic forums, which are heavily used), with a small number of courses offered fully on-line. There are continual debates among the University community about the extent to which printed materials can be replaced by on-line materials. Printed materials sent to students (known as ‘mail packages’ within the University) consist of: • a subject outline which contains details of the subject aims and objectives, textbook details and lists of relevant journal, assessment information, and information about contact with lecturers, student support services and other relevant areas of the university; and • learning materials that may be divided into a ‘study guide’ containing text written by the lecturer and a book of readings consisting of copies of articles and/or book chapters, or two to three modules each containing a study guide and some readings. Typically each module corresponds to material relevant to each assignment, of which there are usually two to three (sometimes with an examination as well). The study guides consist of 50 to 75 pages of text written by a lecturer, that generally incorporate study tasks which may require students to summarise material studied, find out extra information, reflect on relevance to the student’s workplace and so on. Within the university, educational designers assist with the layout of learning materials, and the University’s Learning Materials Centre produces, prints and mails the materials.