Public Release: 

Students need strong multimedia comprehension skills to succeed in web-based courses

American Psychological Association

WASHINGTON -- Students skilled at multimedia comprehension get higher grades with Web-based than lecture courses -- but they still don"t like them. Psychologists at Texas Tech University compared how well students did in the same course presented in traditional classroom lectures and online, and found a critical difference in students who did better Web-based work. The findings may help educators searching for effective means of moving coursework onto digital media, to provide "distance learning" and enable more students to enroll. According to the research, which appears in the June issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, special skills preparation may help level the virtual academic playing field. The Journal is published by the American Psychological Association (APA).

William Maki, Ph.D. and Ruth Maki, Ph.D. extended five years of research into online course effectiveness by investigating why some students do better online. At Texas Tech in Lubbock, they evaluated outcomes for 143 women and 55 men in actual introductory psychology courses offered online or in lecture format, for each semester of two academic years. Maki and Maki also tested the same students to see how well they comprehended stories presented in a variety of media formats -- on audio tape, as computerized text, or as pictures on slides. The psychology professors assessed subject-matter knowledge both before and after the course, with three to four difficult multiple-choice questions related to each chapter covered in the course. They also looked at grades from mid-term exams, which were the same for lecture and Web-based students.

Comprehension skill level and course format interacted significantly to affect how well students learned the course content of introductory psychology. As comprehension skill increased, there was a significantly greater advantage for the Web-based course. Higher-skilled Web students did better than two groups: lower-skilled Web students and all lecture students. Thus, Maki and Maki discovered an individual-difference variable, measured comprehension skill, that appears to explain why some students in the Web-based courses had an edge.

That medium-to-highly skilled students tended to do better in the Web-based format raises the question of whether students with lesser multimedia comprehension skills would benefit from instructional intervention. The authors speculate about the potential for "intelligent tutoring systems" to help boost those skills. The authors also speculate that higher levels of comprehension skill enabled students to learn more independently, a crucial factor in success in the fast-paced, highly structured Web-based course.

Although testing predicted performance, student self-reports about their multimedia comprehension skills did not. At this point, says William Maki, "We know of no quick fix, no rapid direct measure of comprehension skill that would reliably predict differential likelihood of success. But we doubt that self-assessments are going to be very effective."

Interestingly, comprehension skill did not predict course satisfaction. Generally, students of all skill levels preferred the lecture courses, a finding that echoes the pair"s prior research. Maki and Maki discounted lower performance as a source of dissatisfaction, because even the high performers liked the online course less. And it wasn"t the Web-based interface per se: Students rated the Web-based course components highly. The psychologists suspect that instructor enthusiasm and/or coaching for exams might have led to greater satisfaction with the lecture courses. For the Web courses, they point to the high degree of structure, with many weekly deadlines, as a possible culprit in lower satisfaction -- regardless of how much was learned.

Given that a few students do seem to prefer Web-based courses, William Maki comments, "The question for future research is to determine the characteristics of the highly satisfied students."


Article: "Multimedia Comprehension Skill Predicts Differential Outcomes of Web-Based and Lecture Courses," William S. Maki, Ph.D., and Ruth H. Maki, Ph.D., Texas Tech University; Journal of Experimental Psychology - Applied, Vol. 8, No.1.

Full text of the article is available from the APA Public Affairs Office and at

William Maki can be reached by email at or by phone at (806) 742-3711, ext. 243.

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world"s largest association of psychologists. APA"s membership includes more than 155,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 53 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.

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