This paper presents an investigation of the effectiveness, for specimen identification, of a visual representation of a biological key. The example used in the investigation, the beetles database, is one of a number of resources developed under the STILE Project (Students’ and Teachers’ Integrated Learning Environment). This project uses hypermedia to provide greater opportunities for independent and flexible modes of learning both in a campus situation and for distance learning. The beetles database was constructed to aid final‐year project students’ in their identification of palaeo‐ecological field specimens. The development of this database was a response to a perceived need to reduce time spent on the time‐consuming skill of identification, and to focus students’ efforts on the significance of their field data. Four third‐year student undergraduates, two experienced and two inexperienced users of paper keys, were presented with a range of field specimens to identify using either the paper key or the STILE visual database. Our results show that the visual database was both the preferred way of operating and more effective than paper keys for all students
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