Simplifying a Course to Reduce Student Stress so Students Can Focus Again on Learning

Published 2016

Authors

Dr. Alex Edgcomb
University of California- Riverside

Prof. Frank Vahid
University of California- Riverside

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Abstract

The¬†integration¬†of¬†digital¬†and¬†Internet¬†resources¬†has¬†led¬†to¬†class¬†resource¬†clutter:¬†online¬†announcements,¬†discussion¬†boards,¬†posted¬†slides¬†and¬†additional¬†readings,¬†Google¬†docs¬†folders,¬†online¬†textbooks,¬†online¬†homework¬†systems¬†with¬†separate¬†subscription¬†and¬†login,¬†class¬†calendars,¬†posted¬†solutions,¬†lengthened¬†syllabi,¬†surveys,¬†clickers,¬†lecture¬†videos,¬†and¬†more.¬†Students¬†struggle¬†to¬†find¬†and¬†focus¬†on¬†the¬†core¬†academic¬†content¬†through¬†the¬†clutter.¬†As¬†one¬†student¬†said,¬†“I¬†have¬†to¬†open¬†10¬†tabs¬†every¬†day¬†for¬†this¬†class.”¬†Students¬†are¬†distracted¬†by¬†the¬†time¬†needed¬†to¬†install¬†and¬†learn¬†how¬†to¬†use¬†each¬†class¬†resource.¬†Beyond¬†the¬†time¬†and¬†technical¬†barriers,¬†such¬†context¬†switches¬†impose¬†significant¬†cognitive¬†load¬†that¬†detracts¬†from¬†core¬†learning.¬†We¬†conducted¬†a¬†crosssemester¬†study¬†to¬†determine¬†whether¬†aggressively¬†focusing¬†a¬†class’¬†resources¬†can¬†improve¬†student¬†performance.¬†We¬†note¬†that¬†the¬†focus¬†of¬†this¬†paper¬†is¬†in¬†simplifying¬†the¬†class¬†resource¬†structure,¬†rather¬†than¬†modifying¬†the¬†underlying¬†academic¬†content.¬†The¬†study¬†observed¬†a¬†total¬†of¬†four¬†courses¬†with¬†a¬†total¬†of¬†528¬†students.¬†The¬†first¬†study¬†considered¬†two¬†offerings¬†of¬†the¬†same¬†course¬†(an¬†online¬†CS1¬†Introduction¬†to¬†C++),¬†with¬†the¬†same¬†content¬†coverage¬†and¬†university.¬†The¬†first¬†course¬†offering¬†contained¬†traditional¬†resources,¬†while¬†the¬†second¬†course¬†aggressively¬†simplified¬†and¬†focused¬†class¬†resources.¬†The¬†same¬†study¬†was¬†again¬†conducted¬†for¬†two¬†inperson¬†CS1¬†offerings:¬†One¬†offering¬†with¬†traditional¬†resourcesÕ嬆a¬†second¬†with¬†simplified¬†class¬†resources.¬†The¬†participants¬†were¬†blind¬†to¬†the¬†conditions¬†of¬†the¬†study.¬†We¬†surveyed¬†the¬†students¬†to¬†measure¬†stress¬†with¬†agreeability¬†questions¬†on¬†a¬†6points¬†scale¬†(6¬†=¬†Strongly¬†agree,¬†0¬†=¬†Strongly¬†disagree).¬†We¬†found¬†that¬†students¬†preferred¬†the¬†focused¬†resources,¬†enjoying¬†the¬†class¬†more¬†and¬†experiencing¬†less¬†stress,¬†than¬†students¬†in¬†a¬†class¬†with¬†traditional¬†resources.¬†For¬†example,¬†students¬†with¬†the¬†focused¬†resources¬†reported¬†a¬†4.9¬†of¬†6.0¬†for¬†enjoying¬†the¬†class,¬†which¬†was¬†significantly¬†higher¬†(pvalue¬†<¬†0.001)¬†than¬†students¬†with¬†the¬†traditional¬†resources¬†reporting¬†4.1¬†of¬†6.0.¬†Further,¬†this¬†paper¬†includes¬†concrete¬†suggestions¬†for¬†focusing¬†class¬†resources,¬†including¬†a¬†curated¬†list¬†of¬†suggestions¬†from¬†a¬†few¬†dozen¬†instructors¬†and¬†course¬†designers,¬†and¬†a¬†stepbystep¬†process.¬†

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