Third International Conference on the Teaching of Psychology
Lorenzo Vigentini,
The University of Edinburgh,
Scotland, UK


Introductory Psychology courses at university are popular, generally oversubscribed and often have many students who do not intend to pursue a degree in psychology, but are taking the course as an outside subject. Even though classes are kept large, in our University admission is very competitive and selection requirements are very high. This doesn’t guarantee success in the course, and the heterogeneity of the students’ cohort (degree subjects), their different abilities and motivations as well as the limited contact hours with a large teaching team, make the organization of teaching very challenging for effective delivery, and a very common one for similar institutions. A contextual feature of our University is that it is perceived as a research-intensive institution; all academic staff in the department are strongly involved in research activities in their area of expertise and teaching responsibilities are shared across courses with large teams rather than a single individual leading a specific course.

In the past five years, and with special attention to the two core foundation courses in year 1 and 2, we shifted from a traditional teaching model to a blended system of delivery in which technology and innovation guided change toward a student-centred and subject-centred teaching philosophy. We already showed (Hardy & al 2006, Vigentini 2007) that a gradual change, rather than a sudden shift, supported by a research-driven approach aimed to bridge teaching and research, was a very successful way of working and adapting to the new generations of learners, however, more work is needed to justify instructional methods. Recently, Graff (2003, 2005) conducted lab-based research which showed how cognitive styles related to browsing strategies as well as website structure. Cook (2005) also argued that learning and cognitive styles should be carefully considered by educators when designing web-based learning. And while there are a number of studies investigating the relationship between cognitive and learning styles and academic achievement (Cano-Garcia & Hughes 2000, Diseth 2003), to date, there isn’t a comprehensive study which takes into account styles, the use of web-based support material in a real course and the effect that these elements together have on academic performance.

In this paper we focus on a specific aspect of our methods of delivery: the use of self-directed learning tools to support traditional lectures in the first year. Using a longitudinal sample of over 500 students, we collected a number of measures (thinking styles, cognitive styles and approaches to learning) as well as tracked in great details students’ activity in the virtual learning environment available to our students around the clock.

The combination of these measures has not been used before and will produce a rich picture of the usage of the e-learning support tools which can be prospectively explored using the students profile information. This rich characterization affords a rare insight in how these students learn and use resources available to them, but more importantly, we hope it will provide some evidence to differentiate successful and unsuccessful students, allow us to diagnose potential student failure and help to inform the effective design of support material.

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