Innovating a traditional university curriculum towards guided independent learning : potential, effects and congruency problems in relation to learning styles and other student characteristics

Tammy Schellens & Martin Valcke,   Ghent University,  Belgium.

During three consecutive academic years a redesign of a course in the curriculum of students studying Psychology and Pedagogical Sciences has been researched. This paper reports mainly about the third year.

Dominant characteristics of the redesign focus on: the guided independent learning format, on-line study and a task-based orientation. In this study the research analyses the interaction between learning environments variables (e.g., online discussion), student variables (e.g., learning style, appreciation of learning paradigms, 'study culture',levels of computer literacy) and task variables.

The main research question can be formulated as follows:
What is the level of congruency between the learning style modes of the student, other student characteristics and the characteristics of innovative re-design of the freshman course ?

The instrument used was administred at the start (version I) and at the end of the experimental period (version II). This instrument consisted of several subparts.
1. A questionnaire to determine a computer literacy level of each individual student. Responses to the questionnaire items are clustered to get a quantitative measure.
2. A questionnaire to determine the level of appreciation for the task based learning environment.
This instrument confronts students with the major characteristics of TBL as implemented in the re-engineered course (e.g., online discussion, application orientation, collaboration, self-assessment, etc.).
3. An instrument to determine the learning styles of the individual students.
In order to measure learning styles we adopted for an approach based on preferences for specific learning environments and personality traits (an instrument developed by the 'learner centre' of the capital Community College, Hartford, Connecticut along with the ASSIST (short version) and a subscale of  the inventory of learning styles,developed by Vermunt(1987)). The main reason for choosing and adopting this combined approach towards learning styles is related to the way in which the learning style dimensions could easily be linked to features/characteristics of the innovative learning environment in which students are expected to work and study.

The results of the studie reveal the problem of incongruencies between the dominant study culture and innovative designs of learning environments, the impact of learning styles, the role of information and communication technologies and the tension between course design versus curriculum design. The results help to formulate guidelines for the design of learning environments in higher education and guidelines for the implementation of such innovations.

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