Findability & Student Motivation in an Online Course Context

1 Feb findability-primer-wordle-300x228

Introduction

The Pedagogical Innovations Journal club met in January to discuss “The Impact of Findability on Student Motivation, Self-Efficacy, and Perceptions of Online Course Quality,” 2015 article published in The American Journal of Distance Education. The authors – Bethany Simunich, David B. Robins, and Valerie Kelly – looked at the effect of findability of important items in an online course on student’s attitudes about the course.*

Findability describes the ease of finding course elements. Specifically, the authors attended to these elements:

  • instructions for getting started,
  • learning objectives, and
  • the grading policy.

A course with high findability has easy-to-find elements that take less time to locate; in a low findability course, locating the same elements is difficult and takes more time.

This study involved 81 students randomly assigned to one of four groups for an online English course:

  • one of two high-findability (control) courses, or
  • one of two low-findability courses.

These low-findability courses were the same courses used in the control, the only difference being that several elements in the course were purposely made difficult to find.

Overview of Instruments & Responses

All students were asked to complete a pretest featuring questions about their attitudes toward online courses in general. Questions included “If I study in appropriate ways, then I will be able to learn the material for this course,” and “I expect to do well in this class.” Next they were directed to complete a 7-item task list asking them to find various elements in the course, such as specific learning outcomes and reading assignments. Following this task, student participants completed a brief survey on their experience, and responded to a post-test composed of the same questions from the pre-test.

This was a “lab study”, meaning that the students did not actually enroll and take the courses, rather they went through the experiment in a lab setting and were told to approach all of the tasks as if they were actually taking the course.

Students in the control (high-findability) class showed no difference in the pre-and post-test scores. Students in the low-findability courses, however, showed a significant decline in their post-test scores compared to their pre-test scores, indicating that they rated their self-efficacy and motivation lower after interacting with the course. Since both self-efficacy and motivation influence student performance in a course, this result has implications for all online instructors and suggests that making course elements easier to locate may benefit student learning.

Students were also asked five experience questions after engaging with the course. These asked them to rate their level of agreement with such things as “I would recommend this course to friends,” and “This course instructor would be good.” For all questions students in the low-findability courses provided more negative responses than the students in the control courses. For instance on a scale of 1 – 5, students in the control (high-findability) course scored a 3.9 in agreement with the statement “this course instructor would be good” whereas students in the low-findability course scored a 2.8. This was a full point drop in how students evaluated the instructor, whom they never met, based on the difficulty of finding a few items in the course.

So what does this mean for those of us who teach online? The authors offered some effective practice suggestions to improve course navigation. Our discussion audience comprised instructors and several online instructional designers and developers. Their general reactions to each of these suggestions are included below.

Effective Practices
Ideas for Improving Findability 

  • Use chunking to group navigation items into logical categories. There was a great deal of discussion about this, specifically the definition of “logical”. As one participant put it “What may seem logical to me as the instructor may not be logical to instructional designers or students.” One of the conclusions of the authors was that guidelines for findability should be created for online courses. It was suggested that as a group we may be able to come up with some guidelines to share.
  • Match naming of onsite resources with target file names. Make sure that the files uploaded use the exact same naming/phrasing that is used on the course management system (CMS). Many instructional designers in the audience agreed that this was a critical step. Some instructors admitted that they didn’t always do this because it was time-consuming, but indicated they would make an effort to do so in the future.
  • Place links in logical locations. Again, participants wanted a definition of “logical” which brought us back to the idea of establishing guidelines. It was suggested that instructors within a department, or multiple instructors of a same course, work to develop a shared practice for locating links across online course sites.
  • Don’t bury content with multiple clicks. Follow, for instance, the 3-click rule: it should take no more than three clicks to find any material on the CMS.
  • Draw on visual cues to highlight page elements. The authors suggested the use of color or visual icons to contrast items you want students to see against the page background. Drawing on this planned use of colors, lines, formatting options, and specific icons throughout the CMS can help students recognize – locate and navigate to – specific information more quickly.

A result of our discussion was a proposal to devote a future journal club to the display and sharing of good examples of CMSs with the ultimate aim of creating a shared repository. This will become an update in a future blog post.

* We’ll make the direct link to the article available for one week – until 8 Feburary: The impact of findability on student motivation.

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