February 1997 // Volume 35 // Number 1 // Research in Brief // 1RIB5

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An Evaluation of Two Modes of Self-Paced Agent Inservice Training

Little attention has been paid to evaluating modes of in-service training for county agents. This article describes an evaluation of agent in-service training comparing written and audiotape approaches. The primary purpose of the study was to evaluate whether one approach would have an advantage over the other in self-paced training situations. Step-families were the topic of the training. Data were collected from 119 Alabama Cooperative Extension agents. Results indicated that written approaches were more successful than the audiotape approach in producing knowledge gains. Implications for the training of Extension agents are discussed.

Jacki N. Fitzpatrick
Assistant Professor
Texas Tech University
Lubbock, Texas

Stephen F. Duncan
Family and Human Development Specialist
Montana State University Extension Service
Bozeman, Montana
Internet Address: uhdsd@msu.oscs.montana.edu

Sally A. Williamson
Family Therapist
Children's Harbor, Alabama

Thomas A. Smith
Associate Professor
Auburn University
Auburn, Alabama

Extension agents are called upon to provide accurate information to their clientele on a variety of topics. To this end, county agents receive in-depth training through statewide in -service meetings conducted in person by state specialists. Specialists also use a variety of "distance education" strategies, sending a substantial amount of material for programs through mail packets, electronic mail, etc. This material is commonly designed for self-paced learning in the agents' natural work environments.

Written and audiotape materials are two commonly used modes of delivering learning materials to county agents. Each mode can be a concise and effective means to promote self-paced learning. One unique advantage of audiotape is that it can be used during the agents' extensive driving time.

Extension strongly emphasizes the importance of evaluating the quality and effectiveness of educational programs offered to the community (Astroth, 1991; Butler, 1991; Johnson & Verma, 1990; Rockwell & Kohn, 1990). However, agent in-service training evaluation is not as strongly emphasized. In fact, a literature search of Extension articles found no evaluations of in-service educational programs.

The primary purpose of this study was to evaluate the influence of two modes of presentation, written and audiotape, on self-paced in-service training effectiveness. Past research in laboratory studies of communication effectiveness has reported mixed results on the effectiveness of each mode (Chaiken & Eagly, 1976; Nugent, 1982). Therefore, the first hypothesis was that there would be no difference in the effectiveness of the two modes of an educational program.

The secondary purpose of this study was to evaluate the effectiveness of a specific educational program. The program was developed to provide information about step-families. A measure was developed to test the gains in knowledge of step-family challenges after using the program. The second hypothesis was that all agents exposed to the program would have greater gains in knowledge of step-family challenges than agents not exposed to the program.



All agents in the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (N=277) were contacted for the study; 119 agents completed both phases of the study and were included in the data analysis. Twenty-nine% were home economics agents; 35% were agriculture/natural resources agents; 28% were 4-H agents; 8% did not identify a specialization. Eighty-two% were not members of step-families; 18% had past/present step-family membership.

Design of the Educational Program and Measure

The program discussed seven common step-family challenges: (a) creating a unique family style; (b) combining two families and meeting everyone's needs; (c) creating a solid marital relationship; (d) defining a stepparent's role; (e) managing discipline among step-family members; (f) developing relationships with extended kin; and (g) managing money for all step-family members. The program was prepared in two modes, written and audiotape. The content of the two modes was identical.

The measure contained 14 vignettes and 42 questions. Each vignette described a typical step-family dealing with one of the challenges. The vignettes were followed by questions in which agents had to identify the nature and resolution of the challenge. This format was chosen because vignettes create a realistic representation of the Extension agents' contact with stepfamilies. The questions were designed to test application, rather than mere memorization, of the program's content.


A pre-test-post-test control group design was employed. All agents who completed and returned the pre-test were randomly assigned to the written group, audiotape group, or control group. One week later post-test packets were mailed to all groups. The audiotape group and written group were instructed to review the program and then complete the post-test. The control group was instructed to complete the post-test. Follow-up postcards were mailed to non-respondents at each of the study.


Results of a series of ANOVA and Scheffe statistical tests suggested that only those agents exposed to the written mode of the program had significantly greater gains in knowledge of step- family challenges. Agents exposed to the audiotape mode of the program had less gains in knowledge than the agents that used the written mode. Therefore, the first hypothesis of the study was not supported. The written mode was more effective than the audiotape mode of the educational program in increasing agent awareness.

The second hypothesis of the study was also not supported. All of the agents exposed to the program did not have greater gains than the control group agents. The gains for the written group agents were significantly greater than the gains for the audiotape and control group agents. There were no significant differences in the gains of the audiotape and control group agents. (See Table 1 for means, range, and standard deviation for pretest-posttest scores of each group.)

Table 1 Means, Ranges, and Standard Deviations of the Pretest- Posttest Scores for the Experimental and Control Groups
Group Mean Range SD
Pretest 21.46 14-28 3.53
Posttest25.90 17-33 4.70
Pretest 20.72 12-31 4.21
Posttest 22.53 13-34 5.52
Pretest 22.16 14-28 3.11
Posttest 22.14 12-31 3.89

Implications for Extension Agent Training

This study appears to be the first evaluation of both the content and mode effectiveness of a self-paced in-service education program for Extension agents. Results show that the written mode of the educational program was more effective than the audiotape mode in increasing agents' knowledge about step- families. Thus, the educational program appears to be an effective source of distance education, but in this case only if it is presented in a single mode (written).

Improved technology has allowed for the development of an ostensibly more convenient distance education method (the audiotape). In this study, the audiotape was a less effective teaching tool than the written material. Thus, notwithstanding their attractiveness, audiotapes may not be as effective as more traditional methods of in-service information delivery. However, this doesn't mean that audiotape is an inferior teaching mode. There were several unique characteristics of this educational program and its use of audiotape which may have hindered the observed effectiveness of this mode.

First, the program provided detailed information about complex step-family issues. Although specific instructions were provided, agents may not have taken enough time to review and learn the material prior to completing the post-test. The length of the recorded program was 70 minutes, such that repeated reviews of the tape could take several hours. Second, the agents may have had difficulty relocating sections of the program on the audiotape if they chose to review specific aspects of the step- family challenges. Third, if agents used the audiotape while driving, the need to divide their attention between driving and listening tasks may have hampered learning.

The usefulness of the audiotape for this and other distance education programs could be improved in a number of ways. First, each unit of an educational program could be recorded on one side of a tape. This would improve access to the information and make details easier to locate. Second, a written guide to accompany the audiotape could be included. This guide could provide an outline of the content of each unit, which could be read while listening to the tape.

The guide could also provide a space to write the numerical location on tape of specific concepts taught in the individual units. This notation would make it easier for agents to rewind the tape to review small sections of the program. Third, perhaps obviously, the audiotape may be more effective if it is not used while driving or attending to other stimuli.

State Extension directors are expecting an increase in the use of electronic instructional devices in in-service education during the next five years (Agnew, 1991). There are key questions that must be addressed about in-service education. Will the increased use of electronic devices improve the effectiveness of in-service training? Is there no adequate substitute for traditional written materials and in person training? Are some modes of communication effective with some educational programs, but ineffective with other programs?

As we work to empower county agents, it would be fruitful to evaluate the effectiveness of a variety of inservice educational methods across content domains: audiotape, videotape, computer programs, satellite programs, newsletters, and in person traditional methods. It makes sense to first assess the effectiveness of any educational medium before its widespread adoption, so that specialists can provide agents with the best training per dollar spent.


Agnew, D. M. (1991). Extension program delivery trends. Journal of Extension, 29 (3), 34.

Astroth, K. A. (1991). Prevention education programs: Can they be effective? Journal of Extension, 29 (2), 38-39.

Butler, S. W. (1991). Integrating evaluation into teaching. Journal of Extension , 29 (2), 35-36.

Chaiken, S., & Eagly, A. H. (1976). Communication modality as a determinant of message persuasiveness and message comprehensibility," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34, 605-614.

Johnson, E., & Verma, S. (1990) Are extension publications readable? Journal of Extension, 28 (2), 35.

Nugent, G. (1982). Pictures, audio, and print: Symbolic representation and effect on learning. Educational Communication and Technology, 30(3), 163-174.

Rockwell, S. K., & Kohn, H. (1989). Post-then-pre- evaluation: Measuring behavior change more accurately. Journal of Extension, 27(3), 19-21.