Using Learning Science to Design Digital Tools

The transition to college level coursework requires many students to step up their effort in order to stay on top of the different assignments and expectations required by their professors across subjects.

Students often find themselves lost in a sea of deadlines, readings, written assignments and examinations; couple that with the many other factors that make a transition to college stressful—like living away from home for the first time and financial aid—it’s no wonder that roughly 40% of US students fail to complete their 4-year degree even as long as six years after they first began1.

In examining higher education practice, the team at Pearson noted that there were a good number of systems designed to allow for practice problems and feedback in math and science; these are disciplines where practice problem sets build fluency and conceptual understanding. However, in areas such as humanities and social science disciplines, learning occurs more through reading and writing. In these disciplines, reading, reflecting, writing and processing feedback on that writing are the key means to building greater understanding. The question was, how could students get more opportunity to deeply engage in those activities? Moreover, how can that opportunity for learning be combined with learning supports designed to foster self-initiated learning inside, and outside of the classroom?

REVEL, a digital resource launched by Pearson in 2014, offers students 24-hour access - across all devices - to course materials across their subjects. The program includes different opportunities for students to engage more deeply in their learning. Tools such as embedded assessments, interactive components, and videos integrated within the narrative content help to reinforce key concepts. It also includes a host of practical learning support tools like embedded assignment calendars and reminders, study tips that help students stay on track, note-taking capabilities and more. To students, the functionality and features of REVEL provide the content, structure and support required to excel in college. But to Pearson researchers, REVEL is a research-based learning solution.

By functioning on any device, anywhere and anytime, students come to class better prepared to learn. Students have various opportunities to build on key skills, such as reading, reflecting, writing and processing feedback on writing, in order to build greater understanding. And, by increasing the likelihood that students will complete reading assignments prior to class time, REVEL is intended to make a measureable impact on defined learner outcomes related to educational access, completion, competence, and progression. The engaging content and tools within REVEL stem from research principles that help to transform students into self-initiated, independent learners.

In fact, the design of REVEL is underpinned by four learning design principles:

1. Reduction in cognitive load

In cognitive psychology, cognitive load refers to the total amount of mental effort being used in working memory. This includes extraneous cognitive load (mental effort spent on distracting elements that are not relevant to the learning). Research shows that if you can reduce extraneous cognitive load for students when they are reading or studying, you can improve the effectiveness of the learner’s ability to process the important information and move it from working memory to long-term memory, (Sweller, 1988; Miller, 1956). Put simply, if you remove distractions, learning is more likely to occur and students are more likely to achieve their desired outcomes.

2. Presentation of content

With REVEL, Pearson authors and learning designers reimagined the way students access content and learn concepts, applying new learning and assessment strategies that were not possible in the past with a printed textbook, following research-based multimedia learning principles (Mayer & Moreno, 2003).

For example, all content in REVEL courses are segmented into a consistent structure. Each chapter (or lesson) is composed of an introduction, content segments, and a summary, which support the learner to structure their thinking. Learning objectives help organize the content and help the learner to focus on important concepts. Even elements such as fonts, color palette, column width and the amount of white space a student sees on the screen have all been selected to reduce the extraneous cognitive load on students while reading the REVEL course content.

3. Embedded interactives and media

REVEL is designed so that narrative text is combined with interactive elements in order to improve learning. Information and ideas can often be presented more clearly via interactive content or media than via static text alone. The value of active pauses lies in the opportunity for learners to stop and process information more deeply, connecting the media to the text and building a richer knowledge base (Craik & Tulving, 1975; Mayer, 2002).

4. Embedded assessment

REVEL’s approach to embedded assessments aims to positively impact both learning and instruction. Students are prompted to more frequently check their understanding and receive immediate feedback, which is one of the most effective means for building long-term retention and increasing student confidence and motivation (Hattie 2009, 2012). The spacing of assessment opportunities reflects research on optimizing memory (e.g. Clark & Bjork, 2014). Embedded interim low-stakes assessments also allow instructors to gauge student comprehension frequently, provide timely feedback, and address learning gaps along the way.

Before the product was officially launched, Pearson conducted an exploratory study with instructors and students in both four-year and two-year institutions. Surveying the 193 students, findings suggests that using REVEL is associated with a student’s self-reported increased ability to learn effectively on his or her own and ability to give clear and informative oral presentations.

“[It] was very convenient for me to have access to my textbook at all times. This allowed me to pull up the textbook from where ever I was at and I never was late with homework because of it.” Student using REVEL

Note: This study does not allow for causal claims, but it represents the level of analysis needed to confirm that the learner outcomes are possible and will be tested more rigorously in the next phase of the product’s efficacy review.

1 US Graduation Rates: September 7, 2016.


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