|State University of New York: SUNY Course Redesign Initiative
Course Title: Introduction to Biology
SUNY Canton plans to combine two developmental introductory biology courses into one course, Introduction to Biology. There is significant overlap in material between the two courses which currently enroll ~ 400 students annually in eight sections. The courses have historically been taught in a traditional lecture format, meeting three times a week, plus a weekly two-hour lab.
The traditional biology courses suffer from a common problem of low success rates. They average a 13% withdrawal rate, a 28% failure rate, and low average grades (1.63 on a 4.0 scale). These high failure and withdrawal rates result in students often taking the course multiple times.
SUNY Canton will redesign these courses using the Replacement Model, merging the two introductory level courses into one course and increasing section size from 60 to 80 students. One of the weekly lecture periods will be replaced with a weekly online tutorial. Students will be required to complete this monitored and graded tutorial which will introduce the major concepts to be covered in the subsequent lectures. Low stakes assessment will be embedded in the tutorials to identify problems that will then be addressed in the lecture. In the one weekly class meeting, students will be broken into smaller learning groups for discussions and problem-based learning activities. Peer tutors will provide individualized assistance, both online and face-to-face. A new course coordinator will be responsible for designing and running the online tutorials, monitoring student progress and working closely with the instructor to plan the lecture material based on student performance and online tutorial assessments.
The redesigned course will enhance the students’ educational experience by making them active and engaged learners. The online tutorials will provide immediate feedback, helping both students and faculty to focus on areas that need improvement. Tracking software will identify students in need of help. Introducing concepts through computer-assisted activities and creating small learning groups will provide opportunities for students to engage in more active learning and team based problem-solving.
The impact of the course redesign on student learning outcomes will be assessed using a common final examination developed by department faculty. In the pilot phase, performance data from traditional and redesigned sections will be compared. Students will be randomly assigned to either section. The data collected during the pilot phase will then be used as baseline data to assess student performance in the full implementation phase of the redesign. Student performance will also be tracked in subsequent higher level biology courses.
Cost reduction strategies include combining two courses into one, reducing the number of sections from eight to five and increasing section size from 60 to 80 students each. One full-time faculty member will be replaced with a lower-cost course coordinator position and eight undergraduate peer tutors. The cost-per-student for the two traditional courses is $107 and $153, or a weighted average of $120. The redesigned course cost-per-student will be $98, an 18% cost savings. The savings will be used to increase the science department’s course offerings.
In the redesign, did students learn more, less or the same compared to the traditional format?
The team administered a pre- and post-test to compare student learning outcomes between the traditional and redesigned formats of the course. The pre-test was administered on the first day of classes, and a selection of questions from the pre-test was embedded within the final exams of both the traditional and redesigned courses. Students in the fall 2009 redesigned course (N = 244) gained 18 points on pre/post-test performance compared with students in the spring 2009 traditional course (N = 78) who gained 12 points.
During the spring 2009 redesign pilot implementation, the percentage of students earning a final grade of C or better was 52% compared with 57% in the spring 2009 traditional course.
During the fall 2009 full implementation of the redesign, the percentage of students earning a final grade of C or better was 50% compared with 46% in the fall 2008 traditional course.
Other Impacts on Students
Instructors observed increased student engagement during class as students responded well to the learning activities incorporated in the redesign. The online component of the redesign proved to be a valuable resource for students. The availability of content material and assessments on a 24/7 basis was well received and appreciated by the students. Evaluative feedback provided by students at the end of each semester was positive overall and reflected the appreciation students had for the amount of work, the level of faculty involvement and the availability of resources provided to them by the redesign team.
Were costs reduced as planned?
The plan to increase section size from 60 to 80 and reduce the number of sections offered from eight to five was carried out. However, one of the primary cost saving measures of the redesign was not implemented. The original plan called for the hiring of a course coordinator (CC), who would monitor the online learning environment; proctor the computer lab sections; maintain, update and handle all problems associated with the online learning modules and assessments; grade and analyze assessments; assist the instructor in one lecture period per week; read and respond to student emails, forwarding those that required faculty involvement to the instructor; and, act as mediator between the instructor and the students.
Unfortunately, the person appointed to this position left the college for another job two weeks before the start of the semester. The state imposed a hiring freeze at about the same time; therefore, the team was unable to refill the position. The tasks of the course coordinator fell to the lead instructor. While this increased the planned work load of the lead instructor, the load was equivalent to that of teaching the traditional course. The replacement of one lecture period a week with online learning activities and the resulting decrease in hours needed to prepare for class offset the loss of the course coordinator. The computer lab sections are currently monitored by a peer/professional tutor, with assistance from the instructors.
Pedagogical Improvement Techniques
What techniques have contributed the most to improving the student experience?
Group work in large-class setting. The use of student learning groups, an integral part of the redesign, accomplished two things: they helped students, especially first-year students, form study teams and they encouraged student responsibility for contributing to the learning environment in the classroom.
Instant feedback assessment tool. The redesigned course was centered on the power of quizzing, both in class and online. The Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique (IF-AT), developed and marketed by Epstein Educational Enterprises, is a quizzing and testing tool that provides instant feedback for students. It was used within class to administer 5-10 question quizzes as a simple method to check for understanding, which enabled instructors to receive instant feedback on student understanding of basic concepts just covered in class. Using the IF-AT also challenged and motivated students by providing them the opportunity to receive partial credit on quizzes. Students responded very well to this assessment method.
Clickers. Turning Point clickers were used to structure learning activities of student groups. Groups answered simple concept questions using clickers, which both fostered discussion among the students and provided instant feedback to the instructors.
Online learning modules. Instructor-developed learning modules facilitated a change in how content was transferred from the standard lecture model to one that directly engaged students with the content and made them responsible for their own learning. For instructors, the ability to track student progress was greatly enhanced through regular monitoring of the online learning modules. This allowed instructors to intervene with students who were not meeting the online requirements.
Cost Reduction Techniques
What techniques contributed most to reducing costs?
Consolidating sections. The redesign involved consolidating sections and increasing section size from 60 to 80 and reducing the faculty by almost half. By increasing section size and converting one lecture hour per week to an online computer section monitored by peer tutors, faculty contact hours were reduced by half.
Using online learning modules. The use of computer learning modules dramatically enhanced the delivery of the course content and reduced faculty labor indirectly by forcing more student learning to take place within the classroom, thereby reducing some faculty time normally spent in office hours and extra student appointments. The use of online lecture notes, review quizzes and videos were often used by students rather than faculty office hours.
What implementation issues were most important?
Developing online material. The team initially believed that online learning modules could be purchased through the textbook publisher, but this proved to be cost prohibitive. Also, the material associated with the textbook chosen for the redesign was thought to be inadequate for online learning. Therefore, the lead instructor personally designed and built the weekly learning modules, which proved to be a monumental task involving many hundreds of hours. However, this “frontloading” allowed the instructors to fine tune the modules and tailor the content as needed.
Loss of course coordinator. The loss of the course coordinator was a definite disadvantage as the team moved into the full implementation phase of the redesign. The person designated for the position worked with the team in the development phase and through the pilot implementation. The team was looking forward to a smooth full implementation, but instead was left scrambling to find tutors just to fill the hours in the computer lab left vacant by the departure of the course coordinator. Those tasks which were part of the course coordinator’s position were left to the instructors to accomplish as best as they could. While this certainly placed a large load on the team, the motivation to provide students with the best possible experience with the redesign carried the team through the difficult adjustments that were necessary. This was possible due to the total buy-in of the team members and the department.
Will the redesign be sustained now that the grant period is over?
The team is steadfast in its belief in and its intention to carry on the redesign in its current form. The current economic climate in New York State higher education is dictating higher enrollments and larger class sizes taught by fewer faculty members. The redesign has fulfilled both of these criteria. Further, the redesign team is committed to introducing technology into the lecture as well as creating and presenting more engaging learning activities in the classroom. After two semesters of teaching in the redesigned format, the team has no thought of going back to the traditional lecture format.