Traditional textbooks now come with some really cool online supplements. The goal for many who use these supplements in their courses is to increase student learning. While supplements vary in their offerings, most include some kind of quizzing component based on learning and memory principles like spacing and testing effects. Principles that we know can be effective for learning and retaining information. The purpose of these textbook supplements is great, but they often come with a pretty hefty price tag; especially when students need to buy the accompanying textbook new in order to get the access code. I am a passionate supporter of the trend in higher-ed toward cheaper (or free) textbook options, so I have wondered about the utility of these supplements in the face of the high price tag that often accompanies them.
Regan Gurung (2015) provided some insight to this question in his article Three Investigations of the Utility of Textbook Technology Supplements. Over the course of three years, Gurung tested the relationship between different assignments (pre-lecture quizzes and mastery type assignments) and performance on exams for three different technology supplements while controlling for GPA. Overall using the supplements was significantly correlated with exam performance after controlling for GPA (r’s = .10 to .47). Gurung also probed student’s use of the supplemental programs in a survey and predictably, students limited their use due to time restraint, forgetfulness, and motivation to do them. With thoughtful changes to how the assignments were incorporated into his course, Gurung was able to see a drop in the mean responses over time on these items.
Although this result was positive, showing that the supplements are useful for students, I still wonder if the effect is enough to justify the cost. Gurung himself remarks in the discussion that “learning platforms are now ubiquitous and focused research comparing platforms with adequate control…is critical for the advancement of teaching and learning.” Here are some things I would like to see from future research (or perhaps it already exists…let me know if it does) that would help me make a decision about cost vs. improved learning:
1.) I would like a better understanding of just how much scores increased (Gurung does have additional unreported analyses available in supplemental material that I have not reviewed). Some correlations presented were quite strong (r’s > .40), whereas other relationships were much weaker, but still significant (r’s < .20).
2.) I also wonder whether some of the practices used by the technology supplements can be replicated by a professor to similar effect. For example, Gurung’s study looked at pre-lecture online quizzes, which I myself have created and implemented in my courses. Is the quiz itself the key to improved exam performance or is there something special about the textbook supplement platforms that increase student learning?
3.) I am similarly interested in comparisons between the types of assignments examined in Gurung’s study. Looking at the correlation table, there is no clear trend that shows that one kind of assignment has a stronger relationship to performance than the other. This is likely due, at least in part, to the different platforms examined. But it may also suggest that implementing one or the other kind of assignment might be comparably effective for improving exam scores.
All-in-all, reading and thinking about this article has given me some insight into why instructors use and like these supplemental platforms. More importantly, I have new ideas for conducting research in my own classroom.
If you have done research formally or informally on textbook supplemental programs, let me know…I’m intrigued!
Written by Ciara Kidder
*In addition to the research presented, this article is a great example of writing. I enjoyed the use of first person and how Gurung described the informed consent process in detail!