Enhancing student learning using Decision Support Tools across the curriculum

Jim Scott


A sophisticated commercially available computer Decision Support Tool, GrassGro, has been integrated into the curriculum to enhance teaching and learning at The University of New England (UNE). This computer program permits the simulation of the climate-soil-pastureanimal-economic interactions within grazed ecosystems over long time frames in Australia. This innovation was developed under a national CUTSD-funded (Committee for University Teaching and Staff Development) project called the GrassGro Teaching Project (1999 2001).

The GrassGro software was adapted from a stand-alone application to one which is now implemented through a central server to provide for the efficient control of the software and to maximise its availability. In this way, access privileges are provided for trained staff and all students enrolled in units using the software. A total of 15 teaching staff have been trained by CSIRO in the use of GrassGro and modules have been developed for teaching in 16 complementary teaching units. The software can now be served out 'live' over the Internet, allowing for much broader interest and usage of such Decision Support Tools in education.

Evaluations of student and staff responses have been, and continue to be, carried out. In spite of the relatively limited exposure to this software by the time of their examination, a cohort of senior students in 2000 were found to have a somewhat greater level of understanding of complex ecosystem interactions than their counterparts in 1999, presumably due to their exposure to this project.

Surveys of staff and students were also carried out to determine in what ways the project was succeeding and to identify areas requiring improvement. The first surveys in 2000 found a generally positive response. In response to changes made based on findings in 2000, results in 2001 showed a further improvement in the level of positive response to 26 out of the 29 questions.

Those teachers who had used the software for teaching, reported favourably on its use and especially on its ability to engage students in active learning. Students also reported a substantial level of interest and desire to learn more from the use of simulations. In spite of students' limited experience with the software to date, the survey results have confirmed the encouragement of
problem solving, active learning, engagement, building on prior learning and skill development. The approach has been shown to possess many desirable attributes for enhancing student learning including a capacity to: engage and motivate students, provide realistic and interesting scenarios, be suited to experiential learning, create meaning, and enable self-directed and peerdirected learning.

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