The study examined the influences of a student's prior knowledge and desired goal on the difficulties and benefits associated with learning from hypertext. Twelve students from an undergraduate course in educational psychology participated in the study. Students used a hypertext program (SKEIM, Kelly, 1993) to explore course content related to tests and measurements. The program automatically collects information about students' choices of topic, subtopic, and time on topic. Students were assigned to either a high or low prior knowledge category, based on whether they had prior exposure to the material, and were further assigned to subgroups with strong or weak goals. Students with strong goals were required to use the program to find the answers to specific questions whereas students in the weak goal condition were simply required to use the program for the general purpose of acquainting themselves with the material. Students were interviewed about their reactions to the program. They were also shown the pat h they had taken through the material and were asked about their choices. Results indicate that prior knowledge and goal strength are important contributors to students' cognitive and affective reactions to the hypertext system.
Vast, yet centralized, online hypermedia systems that can provide enormous amounts of information are now readily available within and outside of education, yet their design, particularly for learning, is not well understood. The hypermedia. environment is generally structured so that a user can click on a hot word or icon and explore a related topic. A user can potentially investigate an extensive amount of information in a relatively short period of time by simply following a path of interconnected concepts, creating a sort of journey (McAleese, 1989). In hypertext systems, a text-based form of hypermedia, the user reads a screen of text, decides what topic to explore further, and then attempts to pursue that topic.
Acquiring knowledge from a hypertext database can be a complex activity, placing great demands on a learner's capacity to understand new material white simultaneously navigating through a system. A commonly recognized difficulty with hypertext is the possibility of getting disoriented within a morass of data and information (Conklin, 1987; Dias & Sousa, 1997; Dias, Gomes, & Correia, 1999; Edwards & Hardman, 1989; Hammond & Allison, 1989). Navigational disorientation often occurs when a user suffers from cogritive overload as a result of being confronted with a mass of links through which to navigate with little structural support (Girill & Luk, 1992). A number of different approaches have been adopted to reduce the risk of navigational disorientation (Dias et al., 1999). Many of these efforts have focused on designing the hardware or software to minimize overload (Dias et al., 1999). Recent research showed that a more treelike or hierarchical text structure limits navigational difficulties as compared to a p urely heterarchical structure (Girill & Luk, 1992; Lin & Davidson-Shivers, 1996; Stanton, Taylor, & Tweedie, 1992; Billingsly, 1982).
While carefully structured hypertext can alleviate some navigation difficulties, disorientation is not just a function of the size or complexity of a database. Design characteristics of the hypertext environment (e.g., linking structures) interact with learner characteristics to enhance or limit performance (Beishuizen, Jeskijk, & Zanting, 1996; Dias & Sousa, 1997; Lin & Davidson-Shivers, 1996; McGregor, 1999). Among the variables known to interact with structural characteristics of software such as linking structures are users' prior knowledge and cognitive styles (Beishuizen et al., 1996; Lin & Davison-Shivers, 1996; McGregor, 1999).
Kelly (1993) showed that disoriented search behavior could be observed even when students were provided with a strict hierarchical hypertext structure and a very narrow choice of topic. …