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University System of Maryland: Maryland Course Redesign Initiative

Salisbury University

Course Titles: Fundamentals of Biology
Contact: Ronald Gutberlet

Project Abstract
Final Report (as of 6/1/09)

Project Abstract

Fundamentals of Biology is a course offered in a traditional lecture and laboratory format: three hours of lecture and two hours of lab per week. Annually, approximately 40 laboratory sections of 24 students each enroll in the course. These laboratory sections are grouped into lecture sections of 72–96 students each. Enrollment at the university is expected to increase in the coming years, and it is reasonable to think that there will be pressure to increase the number of available seats in the course. Fundamentals of Biology fulfills a general education requirement and also fulfills a state requirement for life sciences in the elementary education certification program.

Fundamentals of Biology has been targeted for redesign because the course enrolls a large number of students each semester and commands a large amount of faculty resources. The faculty involved in the course note a general lack of student engagement with the course material as it is currently taught. The department also realizes that the course is ready for a serious update of its curriculum.

Significant changes to the course format and the curriculum characterize the redesign, which will use the Replacement Model. The three hours of traditional lecture will be reduced to 1.5 hours. These classroom hours will be used mainly for active student work (e.g., problem-solving, group discussions) with limited introductory and closing remarks from the instructor to address questions and to help students synthesize information and recognize connections among topics. Online learning modules, delivered through WebCT and created around the Biology for Non-majors ePack from McGraw-Hill, will provide instructions and materials (e.g., video clips, animations, tutorials, quizzes) to support active student learning prior to class meetings. The modules will also include additional activities to be completed after class. The two-hour lab will include time devoted to discussion in addition to lab activity.

Because Salisbury is changing both the format of the course and its content, direct comparisons between the traditional and the redesigned course could be problematic. Thus, assessment of the impact of the redesign will consider multiple sources of data. During the redesign pilot, the team will compare student performance throughout the course with the performance of students in the traditional sections, looking at assessment items dealing with areas of overlap between the two courses. Once the redesign is launched in the entire course, we will compare student performance across semesters. We will also compare student course evaluations before and after the redesign.

The redesign of the course will produce cost savings in several ways. The course is projected to grow from 840 to 960 students annually. The number of sections will decrease from 12 to 10 and the section size will increase from 72 to 96 students. The number of full-time faculty teaching the course will remain the same, and the number of lecturers will decrease from eight to six. Faculty time will also be reduced because classes will only meet for 1.5 hours per week rather than three. The cost-per-student will be reduced from $329 to $192, a 42% decrease.

Final Report

Impact on Students

In the redesign, did students learn more, less or the same compared to the traditional format?

Improved Learning

Students in the redesigned course outperformed students in the traditional course on common exam questions. The average percentage correct for the traditional students was 74% whereas for the redesigned students, the average was 82%.

Improved Completion

The percentage of students (N = 648) earning a grade of C or better was 77% in the traditional course (fall 2007) compared with 72% of students (N = 513) in the redesigned course (spring 2009.) Some fall 2007 sections, however, used a grading method that inflated the final grade distribution whereas no sections used that method during spring 2009 and in subsequent semesters.

Other Impacts on Students

Redesign students spent more time outside of class working on course material. Surveys and end-of-course evaluations suggested that students spent more time reading the textbook and doing additional coursework (online learning modules) under the redesigned course format. On end-of-course evaluations from traditional sections, students often commented that they did not use the textbook very much or at all. 

Student engagement was greatly improved in the redesigned course.  Students showed greater interest in class, asked good questions, made thoughtful comments, and—according to surveys—found the course material both interesting and relevant to their lives.

Students in the redesigned course asked a greater number of content-related questions (both inside and outside the classroom) than students in traditional sections. The questions themselves and the discussions surrounding them also suggested greater mastery of the material by students in the redesigned course.

Impact on Cost Savings

Were costs reduced as planned?

Cost reduction was greater than originally planned. By reducing class time to one hour per week instead of the 1.5 hours projected and by increasing enrollment in lecture sections to 120 students instead of the 96 projected, the team has reduced the number of lecture sections from 12 to eight annually rather than 10 as originally planned. One full-time faculty member and three lecturers each teach one section each term. The cost-per-student has decreased from $329 in the traditional to $155 in the redesign, a 53% decrease. Since the course serves approximately 1,000 students per year, a savings of $174 per student is substantial.

Lessons Learned

Pedagogical Improvement Techniques

What techniques contributed most to improving the quality of student learning?

  • Online learning modules that emphasize student-centered learning. The traditional model delivered content through lectures and assigned readings. These readings were not always completed, and student engagement was less than satisfactory. The new online learning modules—delivered through Blackboard and incorporating narrated lessons from McGraw-Hill and study guides prepared by course instructors—allowed students to work on the material themselves and at their own pace.  An online quiz, graded automatically, was completed by students at the end of each learning module. The learning module and quiz were completed prior to devoting any classroom time to the subjects addressed in the module. 
  • Revision of course content. Biology instructors used the redesign as an opportunity to discuss and update the content of the course. The topic sequence was revised, and the lab manual was rewritten. This work reversed course drift, facilitated sharing of ideas and fostered positive interactions among the course instructors.
  • Improved use of lab time. In the redesigned course, lab time was used to the fullest. Not only were experiments and other lab activities conducted, but time was also devoted to small group discussion and instruction. The small group setting was beneficial to the students, and the instruction naturally followed from the lab activities.
  • Use of student response system (clickers) for immediate feedback in the classroom and lab. Clickers allowed students to track their comprehension during classroom meetings and to show the instructor when a topic required more attention. Clickers were used in lab for “contest quizzes” which required students to work together in teams to answer questions about the day’s work. The contest quizzes served as a useful review and were enjoyed by the students.
  • Use of Blackboard to deliver online material and to post grades. The learning modules were delivered to students through Blackboard. Student grades were also posted to Blackboard to provide rapid feedback.

Cost Savings Techniques

What techniques contributed most to reducing costs?

  • Increased section size. Classroom sections were increased from 72 or 96 students to 120 students. Under the traditional model, six sections were offered per semester; only four sections were needed for the redesigned course.
  • Replacing classroom time with online learning modules. The redesigned course reduced classroom time from three hours to one hour per week. Traditional lectures were replaced with online learning modules.  A significant reduction in classroom space utilization is another cost-saving benefit of the redesign.

Implementation Issues

What implementation issues were most important?

  • Using McGraw-Hill online materials. The availability of online biology lessons from McGraw-Hill made the redesign possible.  The time required to prepare these types of materials would have greatly delayed implementation.
  • Cost to students. A new goal is to reduce the cost of course materials for students.  Students must purchase access to the online lessons from McGraw-Hill, and when this cost is added to those of a textbook, clicker and lab manual, the course becomes somewhat expensive for students. The redesign team continues to work with McGraw-Hill to lower costs and has developed a new plan to achieve significant savings for students.
  • Instructor and departmental buy-in. The process of redesign was necessarily slow in order to build consensus as it progressed.  Not all instructors were equally comfortable with teaching technology like Blackboard and clickers, and many instructors were concerned about reducing lecture time. The pilot semester helped demonstrate the benefits of the new course model and showed that students continued to learn, even more effectively, when lecture time was reduced.
  • Institutional support. From the University of Maryland System through all administrative levels at Salisbury University, this project was supported.  Release time was provided for the course coordinator, and modest stipends were provided for the summer work conducted by the redesign team. The Office of Teaching and Learning Resources at Salisbury University was also a critical partner in this undertaking.

Sustainability

Will the redesign be sustained now that the grant period is over?

The combination of increased student learning, increased student engagement and cost reduction ensures that the redesigned course model is sustainable. Faculty teaching the redesigned course find it to be effective and enjoyable, even more so as they gain experience with the new model. While the redesigned course has now been implemented fully, the work is not considered complete.  Student success and engagement continue to be monitored, and further improvement is sought.

Not only will the redesign be sustained, redesign successes are being extended to other portions of the biology curriculum at Salisbury University. The Department of Biological Sciences at Salisbury University is currently discussing the application of course redesign principles to other large-enrollment courses like Anatomy and Physiology.  Another introductory course for majors has also benefited from approaches implemented in the course redesign.

 

 

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