Many textbooks now come with an array of support materials, including free websites or those that students pay to access. “These websites may include practice tests, resource tools, study guides, flash cards, interactive demonstrations, and real-world application of the textbook content. It seems likely that utilizing these varied resources should result in an improvement in a student's grades as well as increase his or her engagement with the material and enjoyment of the class.” (p. 228)
But despite the availability and increasingly widespread use of these ancillary materials, so far only limited research has explored their impact on learning. Two psychology professors, both teaching the introductory course in that field, decided to explore that impact, specifically in terms of the use of practice tests that are a part of MyPsychLab published by Pearson and ancillary to an introductory psychology text authored by Ciccarelli and White. These professors were motivated by a very pragmatic concern. “Is it worthwhile to require students to purchase access to these resources?” (p. 229)
Their results are based on the exam and course grades of 187 beginning students of traditional age who were enrolled in one of seven sections of Introduction to Psychology. In some of the sections students did not use the online materials, in others they were an optional resource, and in the spring and fall 2011 sections purchase of the online materials was a course requirement. In-class exams were closed book with multiple-choice and short-answer questions. Some of the test questions came from the test bank associated with the textbook, which made the practice tests provided in the MyPsychLab “ideal” preparation for the in-class exams.
The results showed that “using MyPsychLab, specifically the practice exams, is associated with improved performance on in-class tests and consequently an increased class grade, even when controlling for the students' GPAs.” (p. 230) That confirms what most teachers would expect. “However, making MyPsychLab required does not significantly increase the average class grade or the proportion of students who pass the class.” (p. 230) And why is that? Despite the required purchase, a significant portion of the students—24 percent of students in the spring and fall 2011 sections—did not use the resource.
Some students do make poor learning decisions. The report on this research does not say whether teachers told students that some exam questions would be drawn from the text test bank and therefore likely to be the same or very similar to questions on the practice tests. Students using the practice tests would have discovered this, and one suspects that would motivate their continued use of them. But if that was not discovered and students don't think practice tests are a good way to prepare for the real tests, that likely explains why so many didn't use the resource.
Researchers queried students about their use of other study resources included in this package. They were required to take only the practice tests that students rated as the most helpful resource in the package. Fifty percent of the students reported that they used the study guides (perhaps indicating that when students study, they think they should focus on answers, not on the questions). Only 23 percent used the chapter pretests, 18 percent the chapter posttests, and 25 percent the flash cards.
The authors of the study resort to the adage about leading horses to water but not being able to make them drink. Learning course content is entirely a student responsibility, that's true. Teachers cannot learn the material for students. Teachers can provide resources such as these. They can exercise teacher authority and require use of the resources, but as these results show, if the student thinks there's a better, easier way to learn—in this case, to pass the exams without using the practice tests—then some students will decide to go that route. This is why it is so important for teachers to explore with students the consequences of decisions they make about how to learn. It's one more reminder that education is not just about learning the content. It's also learning about learning.
Reference: Van Camp, D. and Baugh, S. (2014). You can lead a horse to water: Efficacy of and students' perceptions of an online textbook support site. Teaching of Psychology, 41 (3), 228-232.