By Transforming How Some Entry Level Classes Are Taught, FSU Is Breaking Down Roadblocks for Students
Improving graduation rates. Making teaching more student-centered. Incorporating more instructional technology. It seems like every day, there’s a new solution that surfaces in the sea change surging through higher education that aims to help institutions respond to today’s world, keep costs in check and improve the educational experience.
Could course redesign help Frostburg State University navigate these uncertain waters? Here’s a closer look at how FSU is taking a leadership role in making learning more effective, innovative and efficient for students and faculty.
In 2006, the University System of Maryland kicked off its Maryland Course Redesign Initiative, which issued a call to its member institutions to take at least one of their “bottleneck” courses – those introductory classes that tend to weed out freshmen early on – and revamp them so they better resonated with what former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’ Commission on the Future of Higher Education recommended:
“We urge states and institutions to establish course redesign programs using technology-based, learner-centered principles drawing upon the innovative work already being done by organizations such as the National Center for Academic Transformation.”
USM was selected as the first-ever state system in higher education to put this recommendation into practice through a partnership with the National Center for Academic Transformation (NCAT), an organization with educational resources in place to help colleges and universities succeed. USM Chancellor William E. Kirwan first learned about course redesign in 2004 from Carol Twigg, then-executive director of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Center for Academic Transformation and now president and CEO of NCAT. He realized that it had great potential to aid USM in improving effectiveness and efficiency. The USM’s Course Redesign Initiative was his call to action to get the ball rolling on what he and the USM Board of Regents saw as a promising success strategy that could help students complete college in a more timely manner, as well as improve student learning and reduce costs.
Shortly after USM and NCAT launched the initiative, Dr. Megan E. Bradley, a psychology professor at FSU, found herself at a table with other Frostburg faculty mulling over the possibilities of course redesign. The class she was considering for USM’s redesign initiative, General Psychology, wasn’t stricken with a serious failure rate, a point that her colleagues made to her.
“As I told them, ‘Let’s take a strong course and make it stronger to be a model for others,’” Bradley said.
Various aspects of course redesign appealed to Bradley: its evidence-based approach, the opportunity for her department to take a leadership role in the course redesign effort. The principles outlined in NCAT’s course redesign strategy, such as encouraging active learning, providing individualized assistance and building in ongoing assessment, were already strategies she saw as avenues of improvement for psychology courses. It was also a time of financial uncertainty, with faculty members retiring and no promise of refilling those empty positions. The Course Redesign Initiative, which included $20,000 in funding allocated by USM and matched by FSU, seemed like a viable way to “take care of ourselves,” she said.
Bradley and several of her colleagues went on to spearhead FSU’s pilot course redesign effort, creating two pilot sections for the General Psychology course that placed a portion of the class’ instruction online. The redesigned pilot sections shared a common syllabus with the traditional sections for measurable objectives. Bradley and her team developed online exercises that focused on mastery learning, which Bradley describes as being similar to what happens in an SAT prep course: students get self-guided online quizzes that allow them to test their knowledge over and over again, with different questions each time, until they master the material. They get immediate feedback on their performance through online assessment. The redesigned course sections also included more interactive activities and less time spent listening to lectures during the class.
“One of the techniques that course redesign emphasizes is creating active learning in students,” Bradley said. “The traditional model is that, as a student, you sit in a large lecture hall and you sometimes take notes and your mind sometimes drifts. ... And the faculty member feels secure because they see students smiling and nodding their heads ... but they really don’t know if the student gets it. ... In active learning, students aren’t just sitting there taking notes; they have to be doing something.”
Bradley and her colleagues also took student peer-to-peer mentoring, an idea introduced by NCAT, a step further by developing it into a professional development opportunity for FSU psychology majors, complete with a Leadership in Psychology certificate program. The students, known as undergraduate learning assistants (ULAs), supervise small-group online activities, review their fellow students’ assignments in advance and offer feedback. ULAs are typically promising psychology majors selected by the department who must enroll in an upper-level course that helps them develop professional behavior in their peer-mentoring roles for General Psychology.
“It may be hard for some students to ask professors questions or to get help in front of their class,” said Danielle Sheally, a senior psychology major who, after enrolling in the redesigned course, went on to become a ULA. “Being able to ask students who are closer to their own age may be more comforting.”
The results of General Psychology’s pilot course redesign effort? Students in the redesigned sections performed better on their final exams, with a mean test score of 75 percent, compared to 68 percent for the traditional sections. At the same time, the instructional technology component allowed the psychology department to reduce the number of instructors (full- and part-time) needed to teach the course and triple the capacity in class, reducing the cost-per-student by 71 percent, from $89 to $26. In other words, students performed better while the class cost the University less money.
“Results ... that’s what really convinces people,” Bradley said. “I think once they see and hear about other courses very similar to theirs or exactly like theirs going through course redesign and having success, that really helps. That’s how math got involved.”
It All Adds Up ...
FSU’s improvement with developmental math (DVMT), which began its pilot semester in spring 2011, is another success story. The program’s educators had relied on student instructors and instructional technology software for years, but changed their class format to better respond to student learning, combining the best practices of lecture instruction with computer-mediated practice. With the redesigned course format, participants attended a lecture once a week in a large setting, and then met twice weekly in smaller groups in a computer lab to work on online lessons.
The redesign initiative funding allowed the DVMT program to double its professional staff, including adding an instructional coordinator to cover challenging topics. This, in turn, freed up more student instructors to serve as lab assistants available to provide one-on-one assistance. The redesign team also added more content to help students pass their next math course. By spring 2012, DVMT saw a decrease by 50 percent in the number of students who had not successfully completed the course – by withdrawing, failing or otherwise not receiving credit. The redesigned course also eliminated the gap in achievement in which male students failed at a higher rate than females, and it helped all the students do better in their subsequent math course.
Developmental math, which at one point was the 11th most-failed class on campus, illustrates how course redesign helps more students make it to graduation, Bradley said. The math department is now in the stages of redesigning Math 102 (College Algebra), one of the math courses students take after completing developmental math.
“We’re using a technique that will get your child through college,” she said. “Your son won’t have to retake developmental math, which is a prerequisite for our other math courses like Math 102 and Math 106 (Algebra with Calculus for Business). If we redesign Math 102, then your son won’t fail that, right? And then he’s graduating on time. So you’re talking about how your children enroll in courses that are using evidence-based pedagogy (teaching techniques) with good assessment plans in place to know how to get students to really learn the material. That’s the big difference. It’s not just passing them. We’re not just changing the way we grade to make things easier. We are changing how we teach, and the students are learning more.”
Faculty Creativity and Collaboration
Developmental math isn’t the only critical skills course getting a redesign makeover.
“Writing is really the core of a liberal arts education,” said Dr. Rochelle Smith, professor of English at FSU who is leading the course redesign team for Freshman Composition. “If we can improve the way we teach students to write through redesign, this will not only benefit the English Department but the University as a whole.”
Smith and her redesign team colleagues have been busy creating a standardized syllabus for the course that collects the best practices, and an online course repository that collects model units, sample lessons and course materials, all emphasizing student-centered, active learning.
“It’s been a wonderful collegial experience,” Smith said. “We’ve reviewed everything that has gone into the course repository very carefully and, as a result, all of the materials have improved because of the critical judgment of the six people on the redesign team. You put six minds together and you end up with something better than what you started with.”
A key part of the Freshman Composition redesign will be incorporating instructional technology to give students supplemental instruction through tutorials and self-directed practice.
“With writing, instructional technology is most valuable for what we call lower-level or sentence-level concerns. In other words, grammar and punctuation,” said Smith, who examined composition redesign efforts at other institutions to help her determine what would work best at FSU. “Moving some of the curriculum out of the classroom through instructional technology opens up the classroom for a greater focus on higher-level concerns: thesis, organization, support – how to build an academic argument.”
Like psychology and math, English is also training a group of selected students who will enroll in a special course on how to teach writing. These learning mentors will be available to help their peers with sentence-level concerns and provide feedback on their writing drafts. In the end, they will be able to add an “Emphasis in the Teaching of Writing” to their degrees. Smith already has 12 learning mentors lined up for the fall, when the pilot redesigned course will begin.
“The students who have signed up are all very excited about this,” Smith said. “And it’s not just intended for students who are going into education. Writing is such a universally valued skill in any profession. Imagine, for example, a student going into business or engineering – just think how beneficial this knowledge and experience would be.”
The Future of Course Redesign at FSU
The benefits of course redesign?
“Once you get tenure, once people are set in their ways in their department, everyone drifts into their own subjects. ... Course redesign forces everyone to get together and talk about teaching,” said Dr. Elesha Ruminski, chair of Communication Studies, whose department is redesigning CMST 102: Introduction to Human Communication. “It puts the focus on collaboration and creativity for teaching. ... Redesign really helped us recognize process.”
“We all use instructional technology, but course redesign has encouraged us to think about how to make better use of it,” Smith said. “Good educators are always looking at whatever resources are available and imagining making their courses better. Course redesign simply formalizes this process in a positive way.”
But such a far-reaching initiative with multi-faceted components is not without its challenges. Switching students over from passive learning to active learning is certainly an adjustment.
“Some of them are taking this very laid-back approach to their education. And we’re changing that and forcing them to be actively involved,” Bradley said.
“When you’re engaging in it, especially in a pilot semester where you have both traditional and redesigned sections, the students kind of complain initially because their friends in the traditional sections may be doing way less work. But at the end of the semester, they’ve learned more and appreciate it.”
Bradley is determined to improve and expand course redesign at FSU. She was recently named to a restructured position as course redesign specialist for Frostburg. She is now examining ways to create course redesign cohort experiences, where students would be grouped together and take redesigned courses as a learning community, with the focus being the link between academic performance and health and wellness.
“I think we are leading certainly within the University System of Maryland and I think nationally in several areas, such as the way the General Psychology redesign has developed our ULA program,” Bradley said. “I’d like this to continue.”