Guided Surfing: Development and Assessment
of a World Wide Web Interface for an
Undergraduate Psychology Class

Richard Hall
University of Missouri - Rolla



Although the World Wide Web has great potential as an educational tool, and many educational practitioners have begun utilizing the Web in many ways (e.g., Dodge, 1995; Logan, 1996; Mounts, 1996; Weiler, 1996), as yet, there has not been much systemat ic, theory based, research aimed at examining these methods. The principal purpose of this experiment was to begin to address the issue of how best to structure an interface between learners and the vast jumble of resources at their disposal on the Web. The need for the development and investigation of such an interface is indicated by research, which has found that some degree of learner guidance is particularly important in effective web learning (Anderson & Joerg, 1996).

Guide Development

Seventy-five sites were selected, within the domain of Sensation and Perception. The guides consisted of a series of node-link maps. The map designs were strongly based on the work of Novak and colleagues (i.e., "concept maps"; e.g., Novak, 1993; 19 90a; 1990b; Novak & Gowin, 1985 ), and Dansereau and colleagues ("knowledge maps"; e.g., Patterson, Dansereau, & Newborn, 1992; Rewey, Dansereau, & Peel, 1991).


Twenty students participated in the assessment. Half studied the pages presented in a map format (Figure 1 is an example) and half studied in a list format (an example is displayed in Figure 2). After studying, students filled out a questionnaire consisting of Likert-style and open ended items. The principal findings that emerged from the analyses of questionnaire items were: Students in the list group tended to focus primarily on two of the four areas, while those in the Map group were more balanced (see Figure 3). Those in the list group also agreed to a much larger degree with the statement that their search was focused, as opposed to broad (see Figure 4). Students in the list group were more likely to see studying as a "positive" experience and reported lower levels of anxiety (see Figure 5).

In general, with respect to the guides, those who were in the map group had more positive comments. (see representative comments below.)


The finding, that students in the map group tended to report a more broad search, indicates that students in this condition were able to, more quickly, note the breadth of the domain, as represented by the web pages included, and subsequently to broad en their exploration of the pages, relative to those in the control group. In this sense, the maps may have acted to enhance the students' metacognitive knowledge of the domain.

The more negative affect reported by those in the map group may have been due to a number of factors, the most likely being that the map format was unusual/unfamiliar compared to the more traditional displays of links. Previous research, which involv ed affect associated with studying from knowledge maps, indicates that this is very possibly the case (Hall & O'Donnell, 1996). It's also important to note that students' open ended responses clearly favored the guides, in terms of rating their educational effectiveness, indicating that any reported negative affect, did not carry over into students' perception of the educational efficacy of the technique.

  • Project supported by Education and Training Funds; College of Arts and Sciences; University of Missouri - Rolla

    Keywords:Education and the World Wide Web; Web Interfaces; Guided Learning; Knowledge Maps; Concept Maps; Hypermedia Instruction


      The three primary goals of the project were:
    • To identify a group of world wide web sites relevant to an undergraduate class in Sensation and Perception.
    • To develop an interface/guide for the display of these sites.
    • To carry out a preliminary assessment of the guide.


    The World Wide Web represents a revolution in the display and dissemination of information, which has been likened to the development of the printing press, with the exception that the growth of the Web is occurring at a much more dramatic pace (Flake, 1996; Glister, 1996). In particular, the web has great potential as an educational tool, considering the breadth of information available, the accessibility of the information, and the multi-media types of displays that are possible (Anderson & Joerg, 1996; Shotsberger, 1996). It is no wonder, that a number of educators have begun utilizing the World Wide Web in a number of ways (Anderson & Joerg, 1996; Dodge, 1995; Kinzie, 1996; Logan, 1996; Mounts, 1996; Weiler, 1996). In fact, an entirely new mode of education "distance education" has been introduced into the education community, based on courses presented via the World Wide Web (Dodge, 1995). However, despite the phenomenal growth of the Web in general, and its implementation in educational settings in particular, very little systematic, theory based, development of instructional methods, or assessment of these methods has been conducted. In fact, very little assessment has been carried out at all with regard to Web based instruction. Indeed, some have suggested that this is true with respect to the use of multi-media instructional tools of all kinds (Jacobson, 1994; Jacobson, Maouri, Misra, & Kolar, 1995). The research that has been conducted indicates that some degree of learner guidance is important (Anderson & Joerg, 1996). This, again is particularly important with respect to educational hypermedia, in general (Jacobson et al., 1995; Jonassen ,1991).

    Guided Surfing Project

    Theoretical Basis

    Situated Action

    The selection of World Wide Web sites, and the development of the Guide for this project were based on principles gleaned from a number of educational theories. First, situation action theory as laid out by a number of researchers (e.g., Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989; Collins, Brown, & Holme, 1991; Greeno & Moore, 1993) served as an over-riding impetus for the project. Perhaps the fundamental principle of this theory, which in many ways has become the over-riding metaphor for educational research and theory, is that all learning is strongly imbedded in a given context, and this context should be meaningful, practical, and relevant to "real life" (Brown et al., 1989; Jacobson et al, 1995). The Web certainly has the potential to provide such a context. The basic information the instructor is attempting to convey in the class, can be greatly enriched by the information available via the World Wide Web. However, it is important that the student is directed or guided towards the appropriate information sources, which leads to a second theoretical principal which strongly influenced the current project, guided discovery.

    Guided Discovery

    During the 1960s, discovery learning, a term introduced by Jerome Bruner (1960) became a popular educational practice. In general, the fundamental idea behind discovery learning, was that the learner should be left on their own, with the appropriate tools, so that they would eventually "discover" the appropriate answer/method, and this discovery would constitute a much more long lasting and meaningful learning than traditional direct instruction techniques. While research has born out Bruner's basic notion that active learning is much more effective than passive, studies that have examined discovery learning indicate that the technique is often ineffective. It is important that the instructor strike some sort of balance between giving the learner the freedom to actively engage the material, while also providing the learner with enough guidance and feedback that he or she learns efficiently and effectively (Gagne & Brown, 1961; Mayer, 1987). Many students' experience with the World Wide Web is analogous to an episode in discovery learning, in that there is so much information available, yet finding relevant information, and knowing what to do with it, is often far less obvious (Anderson & Joerg, 1996). The notion that the learner should be supported through coaching or "scaffolding" is also one of the tenants of situation action theory (Brown et al., 1989; Jacobson et al., 1995).

    Cognitive Flexibility

    A third theory, which served as a framework for this project was cognitive flexibility theory (Feltovich, Spiro, Coulson, 1989; Jacobson & Spiro, 1995; Jacobson et al, 1995; Spiro, Vispoes, Schmitz, Samarapungavan, & Boerger, 1987). Cognitive flexibility theory is a theory of complex knowledge learning. The theory is based on the metaphor that the learning of complex knowledge is analogous to criss-crossing a conceptual landscape. The theory has been applied effectively in self contained hypermedia learning environments (Jacobson et al., 1995; Jacobson & Spiro, 1995), so it extends readily to the present project. Some of the basic principles of the theory that are relevant to this project are: a) Introduce the learner to the complexity of the to be-learned domain up front; b) Stress the interconnected, web-like nature of complex knowledge; c) Introduce the learner to multiple representations of the knowledge domain; and d) Tie the information to be learned to case examples.

    Spatial-Verbal Processing

    A fourth set of theories that were particularly important in the development of the guides in the present experiment, were a general class of theories that I'll refer to as spatial-verbal processing theories i.e., contiguity Theory (Mayer, 1997; Mayer & Anderson, 1992); spatial-verbal processing model (Dansereau, 1989; Lambiotte, Dansereau, Cross & Reynolds, 1989); and conjoint retention (Kulhavy, Lee, & Caterino, 1985;)). All of these theories borrow heavily from Paivio's dual-coding model (Paivio, 1971). Paivio suggests that some type of information are learned much more quickly and readily since the lend themself to a dual verbal/abstract and imagic/concrete code, so that the information is stored diffusely/redundantly. A host of research has, since that time, supported Paivio's theory (e.g., Clark & Paivio, 1991; Mayer, Bove, Bryman, Mars & Tapangco, 1996; Paivio, 1986; Schwartz & Kulhavey, 1981). The spatial-verbal processing theories extend dual-coding, in that they apply not just to verbal information that lends itself to verbal and imagic storage, but to pictorial/spatial and verbal (i.e., multi-media) displays. Research based on these models has supported the idea that spatial-verbal presentations can indeed greatly enhance retention, and subsequent application (Abel & Kulhavy, 1986; Hall, Dansereau, & Skaggs, 1992; Mayer & Anderson, 1992; Mayer, 1997; Rewey, Dansereau, Skaggs, Hall, & Pitre, 1989 ). Dansereau's spatial - verbal processing model is particularly germane to the present project, since it was developed as a framework for research in map-like node-link displays such as the guides developed for the present project.

    Site Selection and Guide Development

    Site Selection

    The first step in the current project was the selection of appropriate web sites for a Sensation and Perception class (to be taught by the principle investigator in the fall of 1997). An outline for the class was developed and then a number of search engines were used, and many web pages examined, and eventually a set of seventy-five web sites were selected, within four broad categories: vision, audition, smell/taste, and somatosensation. These sites were selected based on five criteria: 1) The site is relevant to the framework of the course as specified by the instructor; 2) The site ties the basic information to be learned in the course to "real life", "meaningful" information; 3) The information contained in the site appears to be accurate, as determined by the class instructor/domain expert; 4) The information is presented in an interesting way, making effective use of the hypermedia tools available to the site developer; 5) In the case of sites that were relevant to what the instructor considered "core" concepts, a number of sites, which presented different perspectives/representations of the information, were often selected.

    Guide Development

    The guides consisted of a series of node-link maps. The map designs were strongly based on the work of Novak and colleagues (i.e., "concept maps"; e.g., Novak, 1993; 1990a; 1990b; Novak & Gowin, 1985 ), and Dansereau and colleagues ("knowledge maps"; e.g., Dees, Dansereau, Peel, Boatler & Knight, 1991; Patterson, Dansereau, & Newborn, 1992; Rewey, Dansereau, & Peel, 1991), which have indicated that these types of displays can enhance learning relative to traditional linear text. The domain expert/principal investigator constructed these maps by forming categories of the web pages, based on the class outline, and on the nature of the sites selected, and then noted interrelationship among groups. From this, ten different guide maps were constructed. The vision and smell/taste groups of sites were each represented by two levels of maps - a map, and more specific "sub-maps". When a students clicked on a node on the main maps a second, more specific map would appear on the screen. All of the other nodes on the maps served either as place keepers to aid in the accurate representation of the information displayed within a given map, or were a direct link to one of the seventy-five World Wide Web sites selected. Audition and somatosensation sites were represented by a single map. Click here to view program



    Twenty Students, enrolled in either General Psychology, Theories of Learning, or Theories of Motivation participated in the pilot assessment of the guided surfing program. Those in the General Psychology Class participated as a regular part of their class, and those in the other classes participated outside of the regular class time, for extra credit in the class. All sessions were conducted, using Netscape, on Power Macintosh's in the Language lab (room 202) and the Macintosh computer learning center (105a) of the Humanities Social-Science Building.

    Students read a set of directions displayed on the screen, after which the experimenter reiterated these instructions. Students were randomly assigned to two conditions. Ten of the students then studied the selected sites for thirty minutes using the guide maps, ten studied the sites using 4 different guides which listed the links for each of the four highest level categories (i.e., vision, audition, smell/taste, and somatosensation), in an outline format. Click here to view the program used by the "list" group

    After studying, students completed a questionnaire, presented on the computer, including specific questions, with Likert scales, and one open ended question.


    Site Categories Visited

    The analysis began with a two-way repeated measures analysis of variance. Group (map versus list) served as a between subjects independent variable, and the first four questionnaire items (time spent on: vision vs audition vs smell/taste vs somatosensation), served as a within subjects independent variable. Students ratings served as the dependent variable.

    The effect for site category was marginally significant F(3, 54) = 2.29, p = 2 = .07. The means for the three category groups were, M = 4.70, M = 2.35, M = 4.65, M = 3.35, respectively. In addition, the group X site category interaction was suggestive F(3, 54) = 1.73, p = .17, 2 = .03. The cell means associated with this interaction are displayed in Figure 3.

    Focus of Search

    In order to examine how focused vs broad the students' rated their searches a two way repeated measures analysis of variance was computed with group (map versus list) as a between-subjects independent variable, and questionnaire items #5 & #6 ("My search was very focused..." vs "My search was very broad...") serving as a within-subject independent variable, and ratings as the dependent variable.

    A significant main effect was found for focus, F(1, 18) = 17.03, p < .01, 2 = .38. The means for the focus variable were M = 7.70, and M = 1.60, for concentrated and broad search respectively. A significant group X focus interaction was also found, F(1,18) = 5.82, p < .05, w2 = .12. The means associated with this interaction are displayed in Figure 4.

    Effectiveness of Guide Pages

    Questionnaire items #7, #8, & #9 ("I found the guide pages, helpful ..." "for learning" vs "...for helping me to get an overview..." vs " aiding me to remember information while I was completing my essay...") served as a within subjects independent variable in the third, two-way, analysis of variance. Group (map vs list) again served as a between-subject independent variable.

    A significant main effect was found for guide, F(2, 36) = 8.79, p < .01, 2 = .28. The means for "learning", "overview", and "remembering for essay" were M = 5.4, M = 6.6, and M = 3.3 respectively.


    Lastly, a two-way repeated measures analysis of variance was conducted to examine students mood while studying. Questions #10 & #11 ("I found the ... studying to be a positive experience" versus "I was anxious and nervous as I studied the web pages.") served as a within subjects independent variable, group was the between subjects independent variable, and ratings were the dependent variable.

    A significant main effect was found for affect, F(1, 18) = 20.35, p < .001, 2 = .46. The means for the "positive experience" versus "anxious and nervous" items were M = 7.2, and M = 3.4, respectively. In addition, the affect X group interaction was suggestive F(1, 18) = 2.38, p = .14, w2 = 03. The cell means associated with this interaction are displayed in Figure 5.

    Students' Comments

    In general, with respect to the guides, those who were in the map group had more positive comments. For example, some representative comments from the map group:

      The guide pages helped to make the huge amount of information more manageable. It was helpful to have fewer choices and to narrow down the subject.

      I found them to be very effective in helping me to find information I wanted. The nodal guides were effective in localizing my searches.

      I liked the guide pages because you could see how everything was connected. It let you see everything that was associated with one major topic.

      I found the guide pages to be effective because they aided in going through the various information that was supplied.

      Representative comments from the control group:

      I found the guide pages to be fairly helpful, although I mainly just stumbled upon the topics that I thought to be the most interesting.

      Some of the guide pages were not helpful simply because I did not know what some of the things listed were

      I found the guide pages to be somewhat effective and useful. They directed me in the direction that I wanted to go, so I guess you could say they served their purpose.

      Personally, I found the guide pages to be only somewhat helpful. I used the guide page to find a basic topic and only went back to it if I ran out of links, or at least interesting links.

      The guide pages were not very helpful to me. The reason is that I never look at them (usually).



    One of the first lessons learned in the development of the web guides was the importance of including a domain expert. No matter how skilled the programmer, the information contained in the web sites is ultimately of the most importance. Initially a programmer was hired to select the sites and develop the program, with the subject matter expert as a reviewer, but eventually the subject matter expert/principal investigator took over the selection and development of the program himself. While it's certainly true that all subject matter experts can not be expected to have a working knowledge of World Wide Web programming techniques, such as the principal investigator in this project, they certainly will need to spend a lot of time carefully reviewing the web sites and the nature of their representation in the guides. Thus one important finding based on the present project, is that the pedagogical effectiveness of the guides and sites, will be directly proportional to the amount of time and effort that a subject matter expert spends with the program. In fact, the basic idea that the content is paramount, rather than the medium, has become somewhat of a "mantra" among instructional designers (Clark, 1983; 1994; Clark & Salomon, 1986).

    Continuing on this same general theme, the amount of time and effort required for the development of an effective guide is also an important lesson learned from this project. An instructor who wants to utilize such a guide should recognize that to find truly accurate, interesting, and relevant sites takes a lot of time, given the amount of information, and the
    nature of World Wide Web Search engines. This is probably not due to ineffective search engines, but due to the lack of over-riding structure in the Web. Whichever is the case, the principal investigator spent a great deal of time, using number of different search engines, in order to come up with the pages for this class. To continue searching for relevant pages will be an ongoing process. Of course the positive side of this is that this activity, will aid the instructor in being on top of information relevant to the class. Moreover, any good instructional tool is only as good as the effort the instructor is willing to put out in it's development and/or application.


    One of the most clear findings which emerged from the analyses of students questionnaire data, was that those who studied from the guides in the concept map format, tended to study in a more broad fashion, while those in the control group, whose guide simply consisted of a list of web pages, tended to be more focused (see figures 1 and 2 in Appendix 1). These findings provide some support for the purported function of the maps to serve as a model for the complexity of the domain structure up front, which is consistent with one of the tenants of cognitive flexibility theory (Feltovich et al., 1989; Jacobson & Spiro, 1995; Jacobson et al, 1995; Spiro, et al., 1987). Apparently students in these conditions were able, more quickly, to note the breadth of the domain, as represented by the web pages included, and subsequently broadened their exploration of the pages, relative to those in the control group.

    The questionnaires items which asked students to rate the effectiveness of the guides did not indicate any differences between the two groups. It was clear, however, that students felt that both the map and list guides were most effective as a tool for learning the information, rather than a memory aid while writing the essay. In information processing terms, the most important impact of the guides appears to be in acquisition, rather than retrieval/utilization. However, students' subjective responses clearly favored the map guides, in that the majority of students in the map groups made positive comments about the guides, while those with the list guides were much more neutral, in terms of the guides' effectiveness. (See representative comments in the results section.)

    Over all students tended to have a very positive attitude about the, regardless of which type of guide they had. This was indicated by the analyses of students' ratings involving their positive feelings, and feelings of anxiety while studying. This was no doubt partly a function of the purposeful and careful selection of web pages that were interesting, motivational, and relevant to everyday life. Although none of the other effects in this analysis were statistically significant, there was a very interesting, suggestive, group X rating interaction (see Figure 3, in appendix 1). Those in the map groups reported lower ratings of the session as a "positive learning experience" and higher ratings in anxiety. There are a number of potential explanations for this, initially counterintuitive, finding. First, those in the concept map groups were viewing web interfaces that were unusual/unfamiliar compared to the more traditional lists viewed by those in the control group. In fact, a previous experiment involving students studying knowledge maps on paper found that those who studied materials in these formats experienced higher levels of anxiety. However, in this same experiment, those in the map groups still reported significantly higher levels of motivation, and scored higher on recall tests, than those who studied traditional text (Hall & O'Donnell, 1996). In addition to the novelty of the map guides, the results of the focus-of-search analyses may partly explain the higher levels of anxiety for those in the map groups. Perhaps their increased metacognitive awareness, with respect to the extensive and complex nature of the domain structure, acted to increase their anxiety levels.


    Figure 1: Map Guide for Vision Links
    (Click on green nodes to links, and yellow nodes for other maps.)


    Figure 2: List Guide for Vision Links


    Figure 3: Reported Time Alloted to Study as a Function of Group and Category

    Figure 4: Rating of Search Focus and Broadness of Search as a Function of Group


    Figure 5: Rating of "Postive Experience" and "Anxiety/Nervousness" as a Function of Group


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    Richard Hall
    Associate Professor
    University of Missouri - Rolla
    Dept of Psychology; 1870 Miner Circle; Rolla, MO 65409-1270

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