|The Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning: Mississippi Course Redesign Initiative
The University of Southern Mississippi
Course Title: General Psychology
The University of Southern Mississippi (USM) plans to redesign General Psychology, a large-enrollment course that fulfills the decision-making and responsibility component of the university core requirement. General Psychology is a traditional, lecture-based course taught primarily by tenure-track faculty with the assistance of one graduate teaching assistant (GTA) per section. There are no recitation sections. Fall and spring enrollments average 1200 students in six sections, each with ~180 students, plus four honors sections with 30 students per section.
General Psychology faces several academic and resource problems. As currently taught, the course is very labor intensive, requiring eight full-time faculty and a minimum of 400 hours of GTA support. This is a resource drain on the Department of Psychology, which has five graduate programs and an undergraduate curriculum to support. Although instructors use the same text, there is no standardization of content delivery, requirements or support materials across sections. The students have a poor attendance record and do not prepare for class. Many are first-generation college students who struggle with the challenge to absorb and apply information in an anonymous setting without any active learning opportunities. The DFW rate in the large lecture sections is approaching 30%.
USM will redesign General Psychology using the Supplemental Model. Lecture classes will be supplemented with interactive activities via an audience response system. Students will be required to attend a one-hour lab session every two weeks where they will engage in online, lab-based experiential activities and access course supplements. Undergraduate peers and GTAs will staff the sessions, providing guidance and feedback on written assignments prior to students handing them in for grading. Student progress will be monitored; students performing below satisfactory levels will receive remediation assistance from an undergraduate peer or a GTA depending on the severity of the situation.
The redesigned course will enhance the students’ educational experience, changing the course from a passive, lecture-based format to one which actively engages the students through online activities. The Annenberg Foundation’s Discovering Psychology online video instructional series will be incorporated into the course. Weekly quizzes will provide immediate feedback. Monitoring activities have been designed to increase engagement and target students for remedial help. Each section will be delivered in a similar manner to eliminate course drift.
Student learning outcomes will be assessed by comparing student performance in both traditional and redesigned sections. Common content questions embedded in exams will provide benchmarks for comparison. Pre- and post-tests will be administered, and student writing samples will be evaluated using common rubrics. Student samples have been evaluated using these rubrics for the past two years which will provide baseline data.
USM will reduce the cost of instruction by decreasing the number of large fall and spring sections from six sections of 180 students each to four sections of ~300 students each. All fall and spring small sections will be eliminated; summer sections will not change. The annual number of faculty teaching the course will be reduced from 10 to six, thus releasing four full-time faculty to support upper division and graduate level courses. These actions will reduce the cost-per-student from $105 to $56, a 47% savings.
In the redesign, did students learn more, less or the same compared to the traditional format?
When comparing overall student performance between traditional and redesigned sections, there were no significant changes in student performance. Student performance in the traditional and redesigned sections was measured by comparing identical embedded questions in the midterm and final exams. The questions were selected to assess specific concepts taught in the course. The average midterm scores were 69.2% and 71.6% respectively. Average final exam scores were 82% and 70.6% respectively.
In the fall 2009 redesigned sections, 62% of students achieved a C or better (completion) in the course compared with 60.9% of students in the fall 2008 traditional course.
Non-psychology majors can earn a final grade of a D and satisfy a general education core requirement. 78% of students earned a D or better (retention) in the course compared with 69% of students in the fall 2008 traditional course.
Were costs reduced as planned?
USM reduced the cost of instruction by decreasing the number of large fall and spring sections from six sections of 180 students each to four sections of ~300 students each. The annual number of faculty teaching the course was reduced from 10 to six, thus releasing four full-time faculty to support upper division and graduate level courses. These actions reduced the cost-per-student from $105 to $56, a 47% savings.
The constant drain of resources by the General Psychology course had become a rather pressing issue for the department. The significant cost savings achieved was most welcome, especially during a time of economic crisis.
Pedagogical Improvement Techniques
What techniques contributed most to improving the quality of student learning?
Shared resources and greater course consistency. The redesign standardized course objectives, curriculum, requirements and resources, thus creating greater consistency of course content. The team used common PowerPoints to better reflect course content, reorganized chapter order into integrated units, created a syllabus that outlined and encouraged immediate and informed student involvement. All sections used the same materials (e.g., textbook, quizzes, exams) and required the same amount of work.
Quizzes. Students were required to complete online quizzes prior to class. This had two direct benefits: 1) students were required to familiarize themselves with material prior to attending class, thus reducing the amount of instructor time spent introducing basic concepts and increasing the time spent on integration and further explanation of psychological concepts, and 2) students received immediate feedback about their understanding of course content.
Online psychology laboratory. Applied written assignments, which are part of USM’s general education requirement, were tied directly to online, lab-based activities. Activities included viewing a psychology experiment and subsequently critiquing and summarizing the methods, data collection and results. In another activity, the student became the subject (e.g., taking an online personality test) and subsequently described the experience.
Cost Reduction Techniques
What techniques contributed most to reducing costs?
Increasing the size of sections and reducing the number offered. The team reduced the number of sections offered from 10 to two. Each semester four full-time faculty members have been released from teaching this course, allowing the department to propose courses that increase the breadth of offerings (e.g., Psychology of Music, Forensic Psychology, Sensation and Perception.)
What implementation issues were most important?
Partnering with the right publisher. The team suffered a major setback in spring of 2009 that was directly due to the shortcomings of a software package that was central to the redesign. Since fall 2009, the team has partnered with a different publisher who has delivered a useable and viable product.
Finding sufficient space. The university has only one lecture hall that can accommodate 300 students. Initially, the department chair had to intervene in negotiations with the registrar to secure this room. Thus far, the team has been able to secure this room for the redesign.
Student technology problems. Many USM students are first-generation college students and lack basic computer skills. The majority of students enroll in this course during their first or second semester. The team did not factor this in when planning the redesign. They did not anticipate the learning curve that was associated with navigating WebCt and McGraw-Hill’s Connect. It was a daunting task to get a class of 300 students up to speed on the technology associated with the course. For the future, the team has developed a document entitled, “Read Me First” that will aid the student in successfully navigating WebCt and Connect. Included in this document are “frequently asked questions” and links to the helpdesk, along with screen shots of login pages. The team now sends this document to the entire student roster one week prior to the start of classes. The document is also available online for continued reference during the first few weeks of the semester.
Will the redesign be sustained now that the grant period is over?
The psychology department is convinced that the redesign is absolutely sustainable and is committed to the continued offering of this redesign. The increased availability of faculty to teach other courses has led to an increase in student credit hours that generates additional university/department revenue.
The sustainability of the redesign is dependent on the availability of a lecture hall big enough to hold a section of 300 students. Thus far, the team has been able to reserve Joseph Greene Hall, the only facility on campus that will accommodate the redesign.
In the future, the team plans to systematically address ways to better prepare students for the demands of the course. The key is to address some of the unique characteristics of USM’s student body, namely the issue of first-generation college students who are acclimating to the college culture. Successfully addressing this issue should allow the team to realize enhanced learning outcomes.