Carmel McNaught
, Paul Lam
, Shirley Leung
and Kin-Fai Cheng
Centre for Learning Enhancement And Research
University Library System
The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong
Keywords: Specific facts, schematic knowledge, schema theory, knowledge retention, e-learning, copyright laws,
intellectual property.
Abstract: Various forms of knowledge can be distinguished. Low-level learning focuses on recognition and
remembering facts. Higher level learning of conceptual knowledge requires the development of some form
of mental structural map. Further, application of knowledge requires learners to put theories and concepts
into use in authentic and novel situations. This study concerns learning at a number of levels. The context is
a fully online module on copyright laws and intellectual property, designed as an introductory course for all
postgraduates at a university in Hong Kong. The paper also explores whether the knowledge learnt through
the web-based medium was retained after three to six months. Findings ascertained the effectiveness of the
new medium, not only in delivering facts but also for assisting the learning of higher level knowledge. As
expected, the performance of students declined in the delayed post-tests but not to any alarming degree.
Retention of factual knowledge, however, was much lower than retention of other forms of knowledge. This
perhaps suggests that the role of e-learning, just as in face-to-face classes, should focus on concepts and the
applied knowledge, rather than on memorization of facts alone.
Learning involves different levels of cognitive
activities. Levels of cognitive reasoning are often
described by Bloom’s taxonomy (Bloom, 1956),
namely: knowledge, comprehension, application,
analysis, synthesis and evaluation. The knowledge
level of the original taxonomy is concerned with the
retention of information. Comprehension refers to
the understanding of this retained knowledge. At the
application level, learners apply the theories and
concepts to practical situations. At the analysis
cognitive level, learners are able to break down the
knowledge and concepts in a scenario into their sub-
components. The last two levels of cognitive
reasoning are synthesis and evaluation. Synthesis
focuses on the assembly and putting together of the
learned knowledge in new ways. Evaluation is
concerned with learners making value judgments
about what they have learnt and produced.
There are has been a great deal of debate over
the ‘knowledge’ level which is somewhat
problematic because the word knowledge, in
common usage, has a broad range of meanings. The
revised Bloom’s taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl,
2001; Krathwohl, 2002) tackles this challenge and
contains two dimensions instead of one – a
knowledge dimension and a cognitive process
dimension. The knowledge dimension now clearly
classifies and distinguishes between forms of
knowledge: factual knowledge, conceptual
knowledge, procedural knowledge and
metacognitive knowledge (Table 1). Anderson and
Krathwohl (2001) described factual knowledge as
“knowledge of discrete, isolated content elements”;
conceptual knowledge as involving “more complex,
organized knowledge forms”; procedural knowledge
as “knowledge of how to do something”; and
metacognitive knowledge as involving “knowledge
about cognition in general as well as awareness of
one’s own cognition” (p. 27).
McNaught C., Lam P., Leung S. and Cheng K. (2007).
In Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Web Information Systems and Technologies - Society, e-Business and e-Government /
e-Learning, pages 273-280
DOI: 10.5220/0001265802730280
As educators we are interested in students
acquiring conceptual, procedural and metacognitive
knowledge, as well as factual knowledge. It is
somewhat paradoxical that formal education has
often overemphasized factual knowledge in
beginning classes, calling such knowledge
‘foundation knowledge’, and then expected students
to make the transition to other forms of knowledge
with little overt support. For example, Conway,
Gardiner, Perfect, Anderson and Cohen (1997)
remarked that students who achieve higher grades on
essay-based examinations show conceptual
organization of knowledge while simple listings of
facts and concepts are correlated with low grades.
The development of mental structural maps of
knowledge (Novak & Gowin, 1984) and
“accompanying schematization of knowledge is
what educators surely hope to occur in their
students” (Herbert & Burt, 2001, p. 633).
The use of the web as a strategy to deliver learning
activities has been of growing importance as
technology advances. Research studies have been
carried out to evaluate the effectiveness of e-learning
in achieving learning outcomes. While many studies
claimed that students learn well in the new media,
most of these studies did not differentiate or
compare the forms of knowledge being investigated.
This paper compares and contrasts students’
learning on four levels of knowledge in an online
course. The first objective is to investigate whether
e-learning can support the acquisition of higher
order knowledge. For e-learning to be an effective
learning tool, it has to be able to facilitate
acquisition of knowledge at the higher levels.
The second objective of the study is to explore
how well the knowledge acquired at these various
levels is retained.
The study of knowledge retention in non-web
settings in general tends to show that the retention
rate for specific facts falls behind that for a broader
base of more general facts and concepts (Semb &
Ellis, 1994). For example, Conway, Cohen and
Stanhope (1991) studied very long-term knowledge
retention by monitoring the performance of 373
students over ten years on tasks related to a
cognitive psychology course. They found that “the
decline in retention of concepts is less rapid than the
decline in the retention of names” (p. 401).
This finding supports Neisser’s (1984)
schema theory that describes how conceptual
knowledge is developed when students construct
linkages between specific facts in their minds. Such
linkages or webs or maps are called knowledge
schema. They are more resistant to forgetting than
isolated pieces of detailed knowledge. There might
be exceptional cases, though, if the specific facts are
involved in very personal contexts. Herbert and Burt
(2004) suggested that context-rich learning
environments (such as problem-based tasks or tasks
with connections to learners’ own lives) allow the
building of a rich episodic memory of specific facts
and this improves the motives of learners to pay
attention to learning. Learners are “more likely to
then know the material and schematize their
knowledge of the domain” (p. 87).
Relatively little is known, however, about
learning and knowledge retention patterns in e-
settings. Yildirim, Ozden and Aksu (2001)
compared the learning of 15 students in a
hypermedia learning environment with that of 12
students in a traditional situation. They found that
students learnt and retained knowledge better in the
computer-based environment, not only in the lower-
level domains that were about memorization of
declarative knowledge, but also in the higher
domains of conceptual and procedural knowledge.
Bell, Fonarow, Hays and Mangione (2000),
however, in their study with 162 medical students,
found that “the multimedia textbook system did not
significantly improve the amount learned or learning
efficiency compared with printed materials …
knowledge scores decreased significantly after 11 to
22 months” (p. 942). The problem with many of
these studies is that the design of the online module
does not provide any advantage over the printed
version from the students’ perspective (Reeves &
Hedberg, 2003). We were conscious of the need to
design for a learning advantage when deciding to
use a fully online module.
The present paper aims to provide further
information about knowledge retention in an online
course through analysing student performance levels
on a fully online introductory course for
postgraduate students on copyright law and
intellectual property. The course was structured to
include learning activities on four levels: (1) specific
facts, (2) more general facts and rules, (3) concepts,
and (4) applied knowledge. These are related to the
revised Bloom’s taxonomy in Table 1. For the fourth
category, we will use the term ‘applied knowledge’
but, as shown in Table 1, the tasks in this category
WEBIST 2007 - International Conference on Web Information Systems and Technologies
require some analytic skills. These categorizations
are only indicative.
Table 1: Knowledge levels in the online module and the
revised Bloom’s taxonomy.
Cognitive process
Rem Und App Anal Eval Cre
Factual (1) (2)
Conceptual (3)
Rem=Remember Und=Understand App=Apply
Anal=Analyze Eval=Evaluate Cre=Create
The topic of avoiding infringement of copyright law
is central to research ethics and includes issues of
honesty, credit-sharing and plagiarism. As the
computer is used increasingly to disseminate
information, teaching professionals also must have
knowledge of the applications of the law to this
developing technology (Van-Draska, 2003). There is
a growing need to introduce copyright policies into
university libraries (Gould, Lipinski & Buchanan,
2005). It is vital to equip students with knowledge
about copyright and intellectual property, and to
warn them against plagiarism. The situation is
particularly true in Hong Kong as the issue of
intellectual property and copyright law in research
and study-related environments is currently
receiving a great deal of attention in the academic
community. At present the Government is revising
the ordinances and laws governing copyright in
Hong Kong. These laws are being interpreted and re-
interpreted by many different people and interest
groups. The need to educate students properly on
these issues is thus particularly important.
The University Library of The Chinese
University of Hong Kong (CUHK) teaches all
postgraduate students a module titled ‘Observing
intellectual property and copyright law during
research’. This course is a compulsory module for
research postgraduate students; students need to
complete this online module before their graduation.
As the situation is very fluid in Hong Kong, the
course has been designed to tackle the issue in as
many practical ways as possible. Whatever the laws
in Hong Kong are, it must be clearly stated that
many of the issues surrounding intellectual property
in academic circles are universal, and not just
applicable in Hong Kong. There are two major
components on the online module: the learning
resources and the test.
The module was originally conducted solely
through face-to-face workshops organized by the
Library. The problem with this method was that
teaching was restricted to designated times and
places. In recent years, the Library has been
investigating the potential benefits of putting the
course online, similar to the University of Illinois at
Chicago (Rockman, 2004). An online version of this
particular topic was deemed to be an appropriate
strategy for the following reasons:
The course is an introductory course: Most of
the study materials are easy to understand. This
type of content is good for self-learning through
students’ individual reading and consideration
of the online materials.
Students are from various disciplines:
Gathering students physically for a lesson has
always been difficult, as they have conflicting
timetables. With e-learning methods, learning
can take place on-demand, and students can be
given greater control over their learning than
before (DeRouin, Fritzsche & Salas, 2004).
Online learning might be effective: Our reading
provided sufficient examples of studies where
higher level learning seemed to be supported by
an online environment. For example, Iverson,
Colky and Cyboran (2005) compared
introductory courses held in the online format
and traditional format. Their findings suggested
that online learners can gain significantly
higher levels of enjoyment and significantly
stronger intent to transfer their learning to other
With effect from 2004–05, the format of this
compulsory module was changed from lecture-based
to online-based. The online version of the course
was run the second time in the academic year 2005–
06. The online module is offered four times a year
from September to April each year and it is offered
under the ‘Research’ section of CUHK’s Improving
Postgraduate Learning programme (http://www.
cuhk.edu.hk/clear/library/booklet/29.htm). At the
time of writing, the module had been run eight
4.1 Procedure
All postgraduate students are entitled to enrol in the
course. In fact, they are required to take (and pass)
the course before their graduation. There are four
cohorts each year, and each cohort last for about two
months. Eligible students may enrol themselves into
any one of the cohorts; they then have to complete
the course and the course-end test within the two-
month duration.
Figure 1: Flow of learning activities of the online course.
The flow of the course is illustrated in Figure 1. In
order to complete the course, students are required to
complete the following four tasks in sequence within
the course period:
1) read ALL the course materials;
2) take the online exam;
3) fill in the online survey (not viewable until
the exam is submitted); and
4) view their own exam results (not viewable
until the survey is submitted).
Students can attempt the summative test only after
they have completed reading all the course
4.2 Course Content
The learning resources consist of 28 pages of course
content that focuses on five areas of issues:
copyright around the world and copyright in Hong
Kong cover specific facts such as history and the
enactment bodies of copyright laws in Hong Kong
and around the world; permitted act for research
and private study in Hong Kong introduces the more
general facts and rules governing the accepted
academic practices; avoiding plagiarism is a
conceptual section as it defines plagiarism and
explains various related concepts; lastly, intellectual
property & copyright focuses on the applied
knowledge by showcasing various real-life
situations and commenting on appropriate practices.
Each page contains easy-to-read materials; some are
linked to PowerPoint slides and/or further readings.
In all, the course gives students a clearer
understanding of the core issues of intellectual
property, copyright law and plagiarism in academic
research. The course provides advice about
compliance in ‘dealing with’ intellectual property
4.3 Course-end Test
The summative test consists of 20 questions
randomly selected from a pool of 29 questions. The
pass mark of the test was 10. Students fail the test if
they score 9 or below. If they do so, they need to
retake the course. The test questions followed the
course structure and asked students’ knowledge on
the five themes described above. The questions were
set at different levels of knowledge.
Specific facts are “facts that referred to details of
specific theories and findings highlighted in the
course” (Conway, Cohen & Stanhope, 1991, p. 398).
They are related to a restricted setting. Example test
questions include “Where was the Convention
signed in the 19th century which protects literary
and artistic works?” and “The Hong Kong
Ordinance on Copyright was substantially revised in
which year?”
General facts and rules are the “more global
aspects of theory” (Conway, Cohen & Stanhope,
1991, p. 398). Rules are general facts in this sense as
they are set procedures that are true in a wider
context. Questions that fall into this category
include: “Printing out any records or articles from
the electronic resources subscribed by the Library
will infringe the copyright; True/ False?” and
“Copying by a person for research is fair dealing if
the copying will result in copies of the same material
being provided to more than one person at the same
time and for the same purpose; True/ False”.
Concepts are explanations and definitions of
theories and ideas, and clarifications of the linkages
between these theories and ideas. They are “highly
familiar, generalized knowledge which students tend
to simply know” (Herbert & Burt, 2004, p. 78). Test
questions in the course concerning concepts include
“Which of the following actions is regarded as
plagiarism?” and “Leaving out some words in a
quoted passage without any indication is plagiarism;
True/ False?”
WEBIST 2007 - International Conference on Web Information Systems and Technologies
Lastly, there are questions that required
application of knowledge, and students were asked
to make decisions based on theories and concepts
learnt in highly-specific situations. For example,
there are questions “You want to set up a factory in
Shenzhen to make a black and gold-coloured pen,
and you want to call the pen a ‘MAN BLANK’.
Which of the following would you need to check?”
and “You want to use a photograph of a painting by
Leonardo Da Vinci (1452–1519) in your
dissertation. Who owns the copyright?”
Table 2 illustrates the relationships between the
content themes of the questions and their respective
knowledge levels.
Table 2: Categorization of the exam questions.
Content themes Questions
Copyright around
the world
6, 7, 8, 9, 11
Copyright in HK 5
facts &
Permitted act for
research & private
study in HK
13, 14, 15, 16,
17, 18, 19, 20,
25, 27, 28, 29,
Concepts Avoiding
12, 21, 22
property &
1, 2, 3, 4, 10,
23, 24, 26
4.4 Evaluation Strategies
CUHK is a strongly face-to-face university in its
teaching style and e-learning is not used extensively
(McNaught, Lam, Keing & Cheng, 2006). It is
therefore especially important to evaluate
innovations, especially in courses that are conducted
totally online. We devised an evaluation plan which
is composed of multiple evaluation instruments. The
evaluation questions that interested the course
organizers include: accessibility – whether students
can readily access the course; learning – whether
students can learn the concepts of the course
effectively through online means; and retention of
learning – whether the learning is retained.
Concerning accessibility, the research team kept
detailed records on the access and activity logs of
the students’ visits to the various pages on the site
and their attempts at the tests. We will illustrate this
aspect by quoting the logs kept in the eight cohorts
across two academic years (2004–05 and 2005–06).
Regarding students’ learning, the data came from
students’ test scores and their opinions elicited
through surveys conducted in the same eight cohorts
in the academic years 2004–05, and 2005–06. The
surveys collected students’ feedback on how much
they valued the course, and how much they thought
they learnt from the course.
Lastly, regarding retention of knowledge, two
attempts to invite students to take retests were
carried out. During the 2004–05 academic year, the
first trial of this study was carried out. The retest
was launched in June 2005 for both students in
Groups 1 and 2 in the 2004–05 cohort. Group 1
students originally took the online course test in
October 2004 and the original test period of the
Group 2 students was December 2004. Therefore,
there was a time gap of six to eight months between
the first time the students did the test and the retest.
The content of retest was the same as the original
examination, and consisted of 20 multiple choice
questions randomly selected from a pool of 29
The retest received a relatively low completion
rate in the first trial: 16.5% (52 did the retest out of
the 315 students who were in either Group 1 or 2
and had taken the original test). Thus, in order to
boost the response rate, a lucky draw prize ($HK500
– ~Euro51 – book coupon) was offered in the second
trial in the 2005–2006 academic year.
The second study was launched in March–April
2006. This time we invited students in Groups 1 and
2 of the 2005–06 cohort to take the retest. The
original test period of the 2006 Group 1 was 3–28
October 2005 and that of the Group 2 students was
21 November–16 December 2005. Thus, the time
gap between the exam and the retest ranged from
three to six months. The retest invitation was sent to
those Group 1 and Group 2 students who had taken
the course test. No retest invitation was sent to those
who did not take part in the examination. The
number of students who received the invitation of
retest was 387. Reminders were sent twice. At the
end, there were a total of 148 retest participants. The
completion rate for the second trial is 38.2%
The online course was readily accessed by students.
For example, in the academic year 2005–06, the 571
students who took the course and finished the online
test had visited the site (recorded by the counter on
the first page of the site) a total of 5,786 times,
meaning that each student on average accessed the
site 10.1 times. The counters on the 28 course
content pages, on the other hand, recorded a total of
119,034 visits. Thus, on average, each student
accessed these pages 208.5 times to prepare for the
course-end test. Most students who registered the
course actually finished it. A total of 1,278 students
registered for the course in all the eight cohorts, and
among them 1,134 successfully completed the
course-end test. The completion rate was 88.7%.
Overall, students answered 17.8 questions correctly
out of the 20 attempted questions, a percentage score
of 88.9%.
A total of 1,120 students answered the opinion
survey attached with the course-end test (out of the
1,134 students who completed the course; response
rate being 98.8%). The students were assured that
their feedback on the survey would not in any
manner affect their scores on the test. The survey in
general affirmed that the course was
overwhelmingly welcomed by students. For
example, the average score on the question “The
modules achieved the stated objectives” was 4.0 in a
5-point Likert scale in which 1 stands for strongly
disagree and 5 means strongly agree. This is very
high for a compulsory module.
The following sections explore the performance
of a subset of the students (the 200 students who
completed both the test and retest in our two study
trials) in their learning and retention of the
knowledge acquired in the course.
5.1 Learning of Knowledge
The learning outcomes of the students can be gauged
by the performance of the students in their original
course-end tests. The 200 students performed very
well in the original test, achieving a percentage score
of 93.4% among the questions they attempted.
Their scores of each of the knowledge levels
were slightly different, though still very high in
general. They scored, on average, 91.3% correct in
questions that were about specific facts, 93.7% in
the questions about general facts and rules, 97.4% in
questions on concepts, and 93.0% in questions about
applied knowledge. The distribution of the marks is
illustrated in Figure 2. It is also noted that the
performance of the 52 students in the first 2004–05
study trial in general showed the same pattern as that
of the 148 students in the second 2005–06 trial.
One-way ANOVA found that the between-group
differences were statistically significant at the 0.01
level. Post-hoc Scheffe tests were then carried out
which established that the main difference was from
the exceedingly high marks on the concepts
category. The differences between students’
performances on questions related to concepts and
those in questions related to other knowledge
domains were all statistically significant at the 0.05
5.2 Retention of Knowledge
Retention of knowledge was investigated by
comparing the 200 students’ performances in their
original tests and re-tests. Paired-sample t-tests were
used to test for any differences between the mean
scores of the examination and the retest.
Although the first trial of the study in 2004–05
had a much lower response rate than the second test–
retest study in 2005–06, the two set of results were
actually very similar.
In 2004–05, students scored on average 94.4% in
their original test while they scored 78.0% in their
postponed retest. In 2005–06, the scores were 93.0%
and 77.9% respectively. Overall, the 200 students
scored 93.4% and 77.9% in their original tests and
retests. The result from the paired-sample t-test
revealed that the differences between these original
test scores and retest scores are statistically
significant at the 0.01 level.
It is worthwhile to note that although the
students’ performance in the retest declined
significantly; nevertheless, their performances were
quite reasonable, with an average percentage score
of 77.9%.
A closer look at the data on the various
knowledge levels revealed the patterns portrayed in
Table 3 and Figure 3.
Table 3: Retention by knowledge domains.
Knowledge domains Exam Retest Diff.
Specific facts 91.3% 52.7% 38.6%
General facts and
rules 93.7% 81.2% 12.5%
Concepts 97.4% 87.1% 10.3%
Applied knowledge 93.0% 82.5% 10.5%
Specific facts General facts/
Concepts Application of
Figure 2: Performance in different knowledge levels.
WEBIST 2007 - International Conference on Web Information Systems and Technologies
Specific facts
Application of
Exam Retest
Percentage correct
Figure 3: Decline in performance by knowledge domains.
The data show the sharpest decline in performance
on question items that relate to specific facts when
compared with the other knowledge domains. This
was a 38.6% drop (91.3% to 52.7%) while the
declines in performances in the other three questions
levels were only 12.5%, 10.3% and 10.5%,
respectively. This represents more than three times
the percentage change when compared with the
other changes.
The online module appears to be an effective
learning tool. The scores on the original tests were
all very high, showing that e-learning is good not
only in delivery of facts, but also in explaining
concepts (in fact, students’ scores on the questions
related to concepts were the best), and teaching
applied knowledge.
Students performed slightly worse in the retests
than in the first tests. Compared with the very high
scores in the original test, students’ scores in the
retests were clearly poorer. This drop in scores,
however, is quite expected as time is always
regarded as affecting retention of knowledge. In fact,
students still managed to achieve relatively good
performance in the retests and this shows that e-
learning can have extended effects on students’
learning, contrary perhaps, to the observations of
Bell, Fonarow, Hays and Mangione (2000), who
found material learnt on computer is not retained;
but more or less in line with the position of Yildirim,
Ozden and Aksu (2001) that e-learning can produce
long-term learning. While this small study in no way
solves the ambiguity in the research literature, it
does contribute to our understanding.
While students generally found all categories
easy (above 85% of the answers in all categories
were correct), they found one category increasingly
more difficult as time passed. This is the category of
specific facts. Students differed in their retention of
different forms of knowledge. Knowledge of
specific facts tended to drop to a far greater extent
than learnt knowledge in the other domains. The
decrease of scores in this category significantly
outnumbered those in the other categories, dropping
more than 35% while the other declines were in the
10% level. Unrelated facts are difficult to remember
in traditional classroom teaching (Conway, Cohen &
Stanhope, 1991) and we now have evidence that,
although e-learning can be used to disseminate facts,
facts learnt in ‘e-classrooms’ are not retained over
time. There is thus a resemblance between
knowledge retention in the two learning
Education is concerned with the development of
the higher cognitive reasoning skills rather than
memorization of facts and unrelated concepts. The
findings of this study seem to support the role of
web-assisted teaching as not being limited to
delivery of isolated facts and information. The web
can be effective in facilitating learning at higher
levels. Knowledge of isolated specific facts is not
retained while acquired knowledge concerning more
general rules and concepts, and their applications,
appears to be more worthwhile as the focus of online
The findings of the study provided timely
feedback to the development team about which
questions in the module to consider for revision and
how we might refocus some of the information in
the module. There have thus been tangible benefits
from the study.
The present study has clear limitations. First,
the delayed retests took place after a relatively short
period of time (three to six months) and so the
retention pattern of these various forms of
knowledge in a more extended period of time is
largely unknown. Nevertheless, many previous
studies have shown that the period immediately after
the learning activity is actually the most critical as
this is when the decline in knowledge retained is
most serious (Bahrick, 1984; Bahrick & Hall, 1991;
Conway, Cohen & Stanhope, 1991). Second, we are
aware of the fact that many factors, such as
individual differences, prior knowledge of learners,
content organization and structure, etc., affect
learning and memory retention (Semb & Ellis, 1994;
Semb, Ellis & Araujo, 1993). The present study on a
single online module utilizing one specific way of
content design is far from being able to make any
general claims about retention of knowledge forms
in e-medium learning environments.
The study confirms that e-learning can be an
effective tool not only in the dissemination of facts,
but can also effectively explain concepts and assist
students in applying knowledge. Specific factual
knowledge is hard to retain. The findings of this
study suggest that the role of e-learning, just as the
role of traditional teaching, should focus on concepts
and applied knowledge rather than on memorization
of facts alone.
The data from this study come from one course
alone and so must be treated as indicative. Further
studies in a range of discipline areas are warranted.
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