Guest Contributor: Steve Joos, Product Director for 4LTR Press.

In 2007, a group of people at Cengage Learning launched the first campaign by a major publisher to gain an understanding of what students valued in their learning materials.  The publishing industry already had a strong handle on what instructors wanted, but it became clear that students weren’t getting the value from these tools that their instructors hoped to provide – especially from the traditional textbook.

This Cengage Learning group proceeded to conduct interviews and focus groups with hundreds of students and have collected user feedback from thousands more over the past eight years. The team learned that what students wanted was very similar to instructors, with one major exception. While students also wanted currency, relevancy and foundational coverage, they were lost in the details that stemmed from a depth of coverage that appealed more to their instructor. Students were comfortable with and often preferred a printed text, but they used it less and less in favor of more direct tools, like their instructor’s PowerPoint slides or their own notes.

Cengage Learning’s answer to this issue was to create the 4LTR Press brand – which features visually engaging textbooks and provides full course coverage in an average of fifteen (rather than forty) pages per chapter.  By removing the examples that students tended to skip over anyway, adding engaging visuals and consolidating the self-study resources into removable review cards, 4LTR Press created a new category of textbook based on the learning preferences of learners.

Initially, this print experience was packaged with a study center website, from which students could pick and choose the digital resources that they liked. Despite the success of this approach, the 4LTR Press team asked, “with the integrated nature of devices into their lives, what do students want from digital educational resources now?”

To answer this question, we executed extensive product and design research with hundreds of students over a span of eighteen months. After our first two research events, we had a good grasp of the wants and needs of a fully digital resource (the basic framework of the new 4LTR Press Online), but sensed there was something more to the way students studied with digital. To better understand, we went to Bunker Hill Community College, armed with only 8×10 notepads and pens, to dig in on how students study on their own, digitally.

We began with a single request: “Imagine that you have a test on Friday represented by the vertical line on this piece of paper. Now, this perpendicular line that runs back across the page is the time before that test. Draw for us how, when, where and what you study to prepare for this test, and talk through it.”
4LTR Press - Study Timeline

When the day was done, we had asked about forty different students to complete the same activity, and asked as many follow-up questions as our curiosity could muster.

We learned that as unique as students’ study preferences are (by individual student, by course, by experience in school, by age, by major/concentration, and so on), their activities followed a fairly consistent pattern:

  1. Collect what’s important: This could be their instructor’s PowerPoint, their own notes, or the bolded terms or chapter reviews from the textbook.
  2. Understand weak/important concepts: At this point, students sense what they don’t know or what to spend more time on, and begin to prioritize and deploy study tactics accordingly. Depending on their preferences, they may make flashcards, search the internet, re-read portions of the textbook or confer with friends.
  3. Quiz to increase speed and identify gaps in knowledge: Once they had an understanding of the concepts that they’d collected, students liked to take practice quizzes to make sure they could access that understanding within a 50 minute testing period. They might also see what questions they were getting wrong, to see if they needed to spend more time on them.

What’s more, these three steps happened regardless of how early the student started studying. The order of the steps could also vary (e.g. a student could take a quiz that identified something important missed earlier).

Ultimately, this learnflow, or the workflow behind learning, gave rise to the StudyBitsTM functionality within the new 4LTR Press Online experience:
4LTR Press Online - Student Experience
By mapping our product to the existing study practices of students, students encounter pedagogically validated and instructor-endorsed material in a convenient, intuitive experience. As a productive alternative to internet searching, students are able to study more efficiently and take more ownership of their own learning, leading to better class preparation and improved course outcomes.

As is the foundation of our 4LTR Press brand, we enjoy meeting with and learning from our student end-users. We take great pride in providing resources that delight and engage our students, and look forward to seeing the success achieved with our new 4LTR Press Online.

Steve Joos is the Product Director for 4LTR Press, and has worked on the 4LTR Press brand since 2009.