Session 3

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Foundations of Self-Learning Materials


Home | Preface and Introduction | Distance Education and Instructional Design | Understanding Distance Learners | Foundations of Self-Learning Materials | Course Design | Preparing Structure of a Unit | Writing Introduction and Objectives | Content Presentation | Preparing Activities | End Matters | Finalizing Your Unit | References | Templates


In distance education, we use learning materials in various forms – print, audio, video, multimedia, web, etc. In order to help distance learners study these and learn in their own time and at their own pace, these materials are designed in such a way to have the teacher built in to facilitate the learning process. We call these the characteristics of self-learning materials. In fact, the basic characteristics are the foundations of any distance learning materials, and any learning material that exhibits these characteristics can be attributed as self-learning, irrespective of their format, textual design and presentation.

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Textbook vs. Self-Learning Material.

At this stage, compare a chapter of a textbook and a lesson / unit of a distance learning course to identify major differences.

Your response above could include the following:

Textbooks Self-Learning Materials
  • Layout is dense
  • Layout is more open with wide margins
  • Objectives, if any, are written from the perspective of the teacher
  • Objectives are written as what the learners will be able to do at the end of studying the unit
  • Written in impersonal style
  • Written in personal style, using I, we, you, etc.
  • Little or no self-assessment
  • Lots of emphasis on self-assessment
  • Assumes interest
  • Creates interest, and motivates
  • Designed for wider market
  • Target group is specific

Characteristics of Self-Learning Materials

The self-learning materials are designed based on learning theories, to a large extent on the basis of an eclectic approach combining behaviouristic, cognitive, and constructivist learning theories. Without going into these theories, we list five characteristics of self-learning materials: self-explanatory, self-contained, self-directed, self-motivating, and self-evaluating.

Self-Explanatory: The self-learning materials are written in a way that does not require any intermediary (teacher) to explain the content. This means, the content is written in simple language and in small chunks to help distance learners assimilate the content by reading and working through the instructions. Thus, a teacher is built in, into the text. But, these are different from instructional manuals that come with electronic gadgets or home appliances.

Self-Contained: The self-learning materials are prepared in such a way that the distance learners normally do not require additional materials to learn the concepts/ subject matter. This is highly important for the distance learners, since they are isolated and dispersed; they may not have access to good libraries and learning resources. Therefore, it is necessary that the learning materials supplied to them are detailed and self-contained in nature. This is also related to the nature of the ‘curriculum’ in distance education, which is open, whereas in face-to-face education, the curriculum is hidden in the syllabus. An open curriculum envisages that the content is clearly detailed, leaving nothing to the imagination of the learner and interpretation. Also, if a course requires the use of external source materials, these are supplied along with the course. For example, if a course requires the student to listen to an audio cassette then it should be supplied in the course pack to make it self-contained.

Self-Directed: As distance learners study in isolation, it is important that the self-learning materials are designed in a way that provides necessary directions to the learners to study and progress. This is done in the self-learning materials by using a variety of techniques including the use of hints, notes, graphics (icons) and explicit directions on how to do, what to do and what is expected of the learner. The use of learning objectives, guidance in introduction, and a conversational style of writing text, instructions to do and how to answer the self-assessment questions are elements of self-direction that are used in self-learning materials to facilitate learning.

Self-Motivating: One of the major roles of a teacher in the face-to-face education system is to motivate and encourage the learners towards study and research. Teachers are role models and students generally try to emulate their teachers. They create interest and curiosity towards a subject. In distance learning materials, all these features should be included, and good self-learning material should arouse curiosity, and interest, encourage the learners towards in-depth study and critical thinking, motivate them to question and reflect on their own experiences and practices, and also provide reinforcement on learning progress. These are provided through the use of a personalized style of writing, use of anecdotes, examples, illustrations from real-life, feedback on self-assessment questions, etc.

Self-Evaluating: It is important for the distance learners to know how they are progressing in their studies, particularly because they are quasi-permanently separated from the teachers and others in their peer group. The separation of teachers and learners inhibits two-way communication, and the learners may not get timely feedback or can’t even compare their performance with other peer group members. Thus, the self-learning materials should provide self-assessment questions and their personalized feedback to allow the students to evaluate themselves and learn from their action (correct/ incorrect). The self-evaluating characteristics of distance learning materials envisage that the distance learners use the learning material in an active manner. Learning activeness is the key, where use of in-text questions, self-assessment questions, unit-end exercises, reflective action-based activities and feedback all play significant roles. The use of learning objectives in behavioural action verbs to measure the achievement of learning is also another way to empower the learner.

Types of Self-Learning Materials

By using the five basic characteristics, any learning materials in distance education can be prepared. There are three types of self-learning materials (Lockwood, 1998):

  1. Tutorial-in-print
  2. Reflective Action guide
  3. Dialogic

Tutorial-in-Print: These are often called ‘tell and test’ type of learning materials that simulate a situation where a tutor is teaching a student through print. The lesson actually predicts, a priori, the possible responses of the learners while studying and working through the in-text questions and self-assessment questions. Thus, tutorial-in-print provides feedback to students. These materials are highly conversational in nature and are based on principles of ‘guided didactic conversation’ (Holmberg, 1986).

Reflective Action Guide: These self-learning materials depend heavily on the use of reflective-action-based activities that the learners are expected to do. These types of self-learning materials encourage the learners to think critically and use skills of reflection to develop their own construct or conceptions of knowledge. These activities demand more time and effort on the part of the learner and are more learner-centric. Thus, this type of self-learning materials allows scope of increased personalization of learning experiences.

Dialogic: This type of learning materials is based on the principles of multiple perspective dialogue between the teacher and learner. Dialogic self-learning materials are presented in such a way that they allow the learner to critically question what is presented and simulate a real form of communication with commentaries from the course writers to interpret the viewpoints and thinking of the teacher and the learner. Pask’s (1975, 1976) conversation theory of learning is at the root of dialogic materials. Conversation theory considers learning as a process of meaning-making through conversation of two individuals through natural language, symbolic language and meta-language. The process of conversation is an iterative process including ‘why’ and ‘how’ type questions in both the minds of the student and the teacher. A good conversation in the dialogic type of self-learning material should cover:

  • Conversation about the why and how of the topic
  • Conversation about the how of learning the topic
  • Conversation about improving the personal autonomy and responsibility of the learner.

Components of Self-Learning Materials

Ideal self-learning materials are those written in a way to accommodate the features of all the three above categories and include the five characteristics of self-learning materials. At IGNOU, the format of self-learning materials used covers the following:

Beginning of the Unit

  • Title
  • Structure / Contents
  • Introduction
  • Objectives

Main Body

  • Sections and Sub-Sections
  • Illustrations
  • Self-Assessment Questions

End Matters

  • Summary / Let’s Sum Up
  • Glossary / Keywords
  • References and Further Readings
  • Answers and Feedback to SAQs