|State University of New York: SUNY Course Redesign Initiative
Course Title: First-Year Spanish
SUNY Fredonia plans to redesign two basic Spanish courses and combine them into one course. The annual average enrollment of the two courses is ~450 students with ~300 in the fall semester and ~150 in the spring semester. They are offered as a one-year sequence to satisfy the institutional language requirement for all but the Bachelor of Science students who are required to take only the first course.
The traditional courses are not structured to meet the diverse needs of students in level of preparation and learning styles. They include too many false beginners (students who have taken two+ years of Spanish in high school). The majority of students have some previous background in Spanish, and the level of the course is too easy for them. The rest of the students have no previous language experience and need the basic course. A second problem is that the current number of sections cannot accommodate current student demand, thus creating an academic bottleneck.
The course redesign, using the Replacement Model, will combine the two three-credit courses into one intensive, five-credit Spanish course. The first five weeks of the term will consist of intense review using online materials; the second part of term will be devoted to material previously covered in the second semester. The new course will satisfy the language requirement for students with two or more years of Spanish in middle school or high school and allow them to complete their language requirement in one semester rather than two. One section of the traditional course will continue to be offered for true beginners, students who have no previous language experience.
The redesigned course will enhance the quality of the student learning experience. The course will have two components, online and in-class. Practice of grammar, vocabulary, listening, reading and writing will take place online with assignments completed before each class. Students will be able to repeat online exercises as often as necessary, receiving automatic feedback and references to material for further study. The instructor can then focus on meaningful communication activities such as conversation and oral practice during class. Section size will be reduced from 30 to 22 students, which will allow a greater level of student active participation. Students’ progress will be monitored to identify specific problems which the instructor will address either in class or with the individual student. Language lab staff will be available to provide assistance in grammar and vocabulary.
Student learning outcomes will be assessed by comparing student performance on common embedded items that address listening, reading comprehension, writing and grammar skills in the final written examination as well as performance on a common final oral examination. Student success in the subsequent Intermediate Spanish course will also be tracked.
The redesigned course will reduce instructional costs by combining two, three-credit courses into one, five-credit course and increasing annual enrollment from 300 to 384 students. The cost-per-student will decrease from $256 to $143, a savings of 44%. The savings will be used to serve more students on the same resource base.
In the redesign, did students learn more, less or the same compared to the traditional format?
Student learning outcomes were assessed using common final exam questions in both the traditional and the redesigned courses. The questions addressed different components of language learning: reading comprehension, listening comprehension, writing and grammar. The reading, writing and grammar components were assessed using multiple-choice questions to facilitate neutrality in grading with no partial credit allowed.
The team believes that the assessment tool was inadequate in that it addressed a more traditional way of learning rather than the innovations that the redesigned course included such as more communication/conversation during class time. The instructors believe that students from the redesigned course were more prepared than was demonstrated by the assessment scores. They have communicated more in class, and they performed well on oral tests.
This perception is supported by the fact that the percentage of students receiving a grade of C or better in the traditional course was 84%, and the percentage of students receiving a grade of C or better in the online portion of the redesigned course was similar (83%). The percentage of students receiving a grade of C or better in the in-class portion of the redesigned course (communication/ conversation), however, was 93%. In addition, 95% of students in the redesign received a cumulative grade of C or better on four oral examinations (77% received an A, 13% received a B, and 5% received a C.)
The percentage of students receiving a grade of C or better in the traditional course was 84%. The percentage of students receiving a grade of C or better in the online portion of the redesigned course was 83%, and in the in-class portion of the redesigned course the percentage was 93%.
Were costs reduced as planned?
The projected cost savings of more than 40% for the students who needed two semesters was achieved as planned. One intensive semester fulfilled the requirement usually completed in two semesters. Therefore, the following semester all the resources (instructors, classrooms) were committed to serve an entirely new group of students. For those students only needing one semester, the cost was similar but their proficiency in the language was much deeper.
The fact that most students were able to take this high demand course was very important for the department and the university. In the past, many students have had problems finding a seat in the course, and sometimes this has set back their academic plans and jeopardized their graduation plans.
Pedagogical Improvement Techniques
What techniques have contributed the most to improving the student experience?
Blending online and in-class activities. Students participating fully online and in class benefited from the ability to prepare for class at their own pace, taking as much time as they needed and repeating activities if necessary. Students were able to go back over the online activities, even after the due dates, and take them again to prepare for the exams. Since students came to class after working with the vocabulary and the grammar, speaking practice started immediately during class time.
Cost Reduction Techniques
What techniques contributed most to reducing costs?
Combining two courses. Cost reduction was straightforward: merging two semesters in one using the same resources freed resources to serve a higher number of students, thus significantly reducing the cost-per-student.
What implementation issues were most important?
Students’ willingness to work and learn outside of class. Students needed to go online on their own everyday to practice. Some of them fell behind or completed the work only partially. Not completing the online work meant that those students were not prepared for class and were not able to take full advantage of the contextual practicing. Students need to adapt to the different learning culture this course offers in that it is more hands-on. They need to be responsible for their own pacing and learning. Most students did that, and the team believes that it will only be a matter of time before all students come to the course with the right attitude and frame of mind.
Training and guidance for instructors. Since not every instructor was familiar with the technology involved in the redesign, training was provided. Instructors attended a workshop during the summer of 2009 to get ready for the course. Instructors were introduced to the online material and had the chance to become familiar with it, while also developing some materials collaboratively and establishing the standards and general framework for the full implementation. Once the redesigned courses began, the project director supervised the full implementation and assisted the instructors when needed. The addition and improvement of the online material was smooth during the semester, and no substantial problems arose.
Students’ access to technology. The team was concerned that some students did not have a powerful enough computer or a high-speed internet connection. To address this concern, the language lab was updated with 16 new computers, and students could go there to complete the online work. Only a relatively small number of students took advantage of the facility.
Student satisfaction. Students enjoyed the online part of the course, and they understood that it allowed more time for speaking or cultural practice in class. Only a few expressed their dislike for the online portion. Some misunderstood the purpose of the online part: to practice the vocabulary and basic grammar concepts in preparation for talking and listening in class. But most students have expressed their satisfaction and approval for the redesigned course, both verbally and on their evaluations.
Will the redesign be sustained now that the grant period is over?
Now that the full implementation has been completed without any extraordinary problems, it will be easy to continue the course. It will be necessary to update and maintain the language lab to prevent the computers from becoming obsolete. The lab is a great asset to the department since it can be used for other courses as well. The team plans to make some changes in the structure of the course, the way it is taught and the number of chapters covered to improve student learning outcomes and close the gap with the traditional courses.