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University System of Maryland: Maryland Course Redesign Initiative

University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Course Title: Introduction to Psychology
Contact: Eileen O'Brien

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

Project Abstract

University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) plans to redesign Introduction to Psychology, a four-credit course that serves as an entrance into the psychology major and also provides general education credits in the social sciences. Each semester, up to 600 students enroll across three or four sections of this survey course. Unfortunately, Introduction to Psychology has a reputation among students of being heavily laden with complex material, and the failure rate of up to 15% in the last five years has raised questions about the teaching methods used in the course. Class attendance has been poor.

In an effort to deal with the course’s reputation of being “overwhelming,” faculty added computer lab assignments to help students to master key concepts in introductory psychology. This created additional problems such as students having less than adequate computer problem-solving skills, poorly organized plans for meeting computer assignment deadlines, lack of adequate computer classroom space, non-use of supplemental computer-based resources, and poor exam preparation strategies. Even with these changes, class attendance remained at 60% to 70%. During class time, students who attend use their laptops to engage in work related to other courses, and many students have not prepared for class by reading content prior to the lecture.

The planned course redesign, using the Replacement Model, will significantly alter both class and lab activities and structure. Weekly class presentations will, on average, use a 40% presentation format, 25% application of content using small interactive learning groups, 15% summarization of concepts learned in that session, and 20% question and answer or further elaboration period using a Classroom Performance System (clickers). Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) will alter their activities to increase support to students by conducting weekly discussion sessions, exam preparation study groups, and small-group activity facilitation during classes. Peer tutors will be added to provide individualized study assistance through an existing Learning Resource Center on campus.

This redesigned introductory psychology course will enhance both content and methods targeting enriched active learning. Labs will ensure interaction with content at a mastery level. The altered class time will promote a more interactive milieu to promote motivation and assist students to make psychology more relevant to their lives. The addition of technology will allow selective time for value-added activities with the faculty and will capitalize on the best of both pedagogical methods. The redesigned course will help develop faculty-student research relationships early in undergraduate education by offering research participation opportunities through the UMBC research pool.

The evaluation of this redesign will involve outcome and process evaluations. Learning outcomes from parallel traditional and redesigned sections will be compared. Comparison data will include common content items selected from final exams, student work using common rubrics, and course grades using common criteria. Course grade distributions, number of students dropping the course by midterm, students' satisfaction, passing rates, numbers of students choosing or maintaining psychology as a major after taking the course will also be compared. Focus groups of students will be held to identify key redesign requirements and to verify that the proposed activities will be expected to result in higher student motivation and engagement. During the year, classroom observations, data from lab utilization and small group activities will be reviewed at intervals to determine whether the redesign is being implemented as planned.

Cost savings will be realized by decreasing the number of fall semester sections from four to three and the number of spring semester sections from three to two. Section size will be increased from ~150 to 200 students each. The redesign will reallocate faculty time to more advisement and counseling of students, decrease time for administrative tasks, leverage existing university resources to support students and provide the opportunity for research faculty to be involved in foundational courses. These changes will decrease the cost-per-student from $86 to $49, a 43% reduction. An additional benefit will be the savings in classroom space. Cost savings will be used to support psychology learning labs and faculty development.

Final Report (as of 6/1/09)

Impact on Students

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

Improved Learning

The percentage of students scoring an average grade of C or higher on four common exams was 83.5% in the spring and fall 2008 redesigned sections compared to 72.3% in the spring 2008 traditional sections.

Improved Retention

During spring 2008, both the traditional section and the two redesigned sections had similar withdrawal rates at 8.5% and 8.3%, respectively. However, the full implementation semester had a rate of 3.2%. This was the lowest withdrawal rate documented since 2000, when rates have ranged from 4.1% to 10.3 %.

Other Impact on Students

Students were able to cover more content than could be presented in the traditional lecture. By virtue of time limitations in class, content was often omitted. In the redesign, students could use online resources to augment the text and seek assistance from peer mentors during study sessions.

By using online interactivities and student work groups, students learned to understand social sciences research, including design and interpretation and its implications. Students in small groups were given research project abstracts and asked to determine the research design used. Completing online mastery quizzes demonstrated successful understanding of this content.

Impact on Cost Savings  

Were costs reduced as planned?

The redesign decreased the number of sections required each year from seven to five. This allowed the reassignment of two faculty each semester to teach other courses, freed up classroom space for other courses and decreased the need for graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) from two to one. Drawn from existing resources on campus (the Learning Resource Center ), undergraduate peer mentors provided support to students on a weekly basis.  

Lessons Learned

Pedagogical Improvement Techniques

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

  • Using small groups or dyads in large classes. Small-group activities provided a strategy for exposing students to concepts in psychology. Working in pairs, students could use their books, dialogue about questions and reinforce learning with other students. Faculty and peer mentors observed that small-group work was more productive when students worked in dyads. More in-depth discussions and completed worksheets were submitted. The worksheets included essay responses so that students did more than answer simple questions or blindly choose responses. More discussion and comments arose from the essay format for small-group assignments.
  • Using contemporary films or short videos. Using short clips in class that contained contemporary examples of psychological concepts was well received and contributed to more discussion in class. Students were more attentive to video and enjoyed relating their experiences to those discussed in film.
  • A classroom performance system (clickers). Clickers provided instructors with immediate feedback on student comprehension. Students who participated in the pilot semester requested more difficult clicker questions in their evaluation comments. Feedback from students during full implementation based on the changes made was positive.
  • Utilization statistics to assess student effort. Faculty could see how well students were doing in online work by viewing utilization statistics, which showed the amount of time each student invested in completing activities, how many times a quiz had to be repeated before the concept was grasped and how much time each student spent working in each content area. It was helpful to be able to respond to the student who said, “I am doing everything I can,” by showing them how little time they spent on each lab. For freshman students, the realization that it takes significant time to study for college courses is truly a rough learning experience. The capacity to show students anonymous time data from the online labs allowed for comparison across students. This showed that students who were doing better in the course spent more than one hour a week online and informed the students of expected effort.
  • Using online activities to augment or review content. Online labs were used to augment content or to serve as the only source of content. The labs broadened the students’ exposure to psychological concepts and research. Time constraints limit what can be discussed in class, and the online activities provided an option for covering more concepts. For students who required repetition to learn, the opportunity to replay interactivities or review quizzes helped to meet their learning needs.
  • Using a multi-method evaluation. This survey course has an overwhelming amount of information in each textbook chapter. Historically, Introduction to Psychology has had a moderate failure rate (as high as 15%), poor class attendance and a general reputation of being heavily laden with complex material. Course evaluation was predominantly conducted using lengthy in-class exams or small weekly quizzes. The redesign based the final grade 50% on in-class exams, 40% on online work and 10% on small-group work. In the redesigned sections, 30% of the students would have had a lower grade under the traditional grading rubric. While not relinquishing in-class exams, allowing students to self-pace and test their learning online assisted many in improving their grades.
  • Undergraduate peer mentors. With the increase in class size to 200 students, peer mentors were critical to the success of small-group activities. As peers, they could enter the small groups and facilitate their progress, keep them on task without threat of evaluation from the instructor, answer student questions and provide immediate feedback to the faculty regarding clarity of the exercise. The peer mentor role was critical to the effectiveness of running the course with larger enrollments and managing the group interaction noise. Peer mentors also became a recognized source of support for students in helping them understand content and in providing assistance with studying for exams.
  • Redefining GTA support. The GTA role was converted from supporting the faculty and proctoring exams to providing student assistance. GTAs were available to assist students online in real-time and to help them solve their technology issues. They provided support during office hours twice a week, covering a student free hour and one evening. Office hour sessions included assistance on using technology, downloading software, reviewing practice quizzes and exams, and proctoring make-up exams.
  • State-of-the-art lecture halls. UMBC’s new lecture hall, which accommodates more than 200 students, is designed so that small groups can be monitored. The technology built into the classroom space and its location near media assistance facilitates this new pedagogy. The psychology course redesign required that the technology functioned consistently in the classroom. Not every classroom on campus can accommodate this type of course. The UMBC pilot was conducted in three types of classrooms, each deficient in space, technology or interface with the classroom performance system. Students were frustrated with the unreliable classroom technology, often thinking that faculty deficiencies in using technology were the problem. All sections in the full implementation were taught in the new lecture hall. Even with minor glitches, the new hall provided a more reliable and comfortable classroom experience for students and faculty.

Cost Reduction Techniques

What techniques contributed most to reducing costs?

  • Reducing the number of sections. Introduction to Psychology moved from seven sections to five sections per year, which reduced staffing needs by two faculty each year.
  • Reducing office hours. As the technology becomes more precise and the faculty become more savvy, the number of office hours scheduled for students who are performing poorly can be reduced. Because faculty can access hard data from the database that indicates utilization and proficiency, an initial meeting to ascertain student effort is no longer necessary and an intervention meeting can be planned.
  • Sharing resources with the Learning Resources Center (LRC). Undergraduate student tutors are prepared by this existing unit on campus, and the redesign was able to take advantage of the LRC preparatory course and the pool of trained tutors. Peer mentors were recruited from the LRC existing pool of tutors and from former Introduction to Psychology students who had received an A in the course. All recruits either registered for the LRC tutoring course or completed the LRC self-paced, computer-assisted tutorial. The peer mentors were paid through the LRC for all tutoring and student supported activities.

Implementation Issues

What implementation issues were most important?

  • Faculty buy-in. Faculty were pleased with the redesign and the ability to cover content that otherwise would be limited due to time constraints. However, the redesign limited individual freedom by requiring common texts and exams. For some faculty this was too restrictive. The importance of willingness and preparedness of faculty to move into a redesign curriculum cannot be underestimated. When frustrations over restrictions arose, and technology was not readily working at 100%, it was easy for the redesign to be blamed. Based on their experience, the team recommends that only technology-savvy faculty should attempt these courses, with full understanding that technology is not always perfect. Faculty frustration can spread to students, and this has an impact on student satisfaction. Faculty need to be sufficiently trained and tested in using technology in the classroom, with ongoing support from Faculty Development if needed. IT also needs to work with faculty readily to remedy any problematic technology issues in lecture halls.
  • Covering common content. Although introductory textbooks provide common chapters and content coverage, this redesign forced those who teach introductory psychology to determine which content was critical for students and what order of presentation provided a gateway to learning more complex concepts. The redesign gave the team the opportunity to draw on knowledge gained from years of teaching experience and apply it across all sections of the course. Although not a team-teaching approach, the redesign facilitated the sharing of faculty experiences, which enhanced course content planning and encouraged all sections to cover specific psychological concepts in all sections of the course. Often when adjuncts or part-time faculty teach, they have the discretion to limit certain content areas and expand others. The redesign experience added a more cohesive approach to exposing students to common content.
  • Publisher product technological issues. During the planning phase the team reviewed several publishers’ products. A company that believed it could interface well with Blackboard was chosen. The team identified high quality interactivities covering a broad range of psychological concepts and was able to review all the labs and quizzes. They were assured that Blackboard’s grade book would receive data from the activities. However, much to their dismay, they encountered multiple instances where labs failed to work, and staff from the publisher were not able to resolve these issues in a timely and effective manner. Many lab activities had technical errors, which created issues with the Blackboard platform.

An additional concern is the accuracy of publishers’ test banks and online quizzes. The team has worked with two different publishers and encountered errors in online test banks with both. The existing publisher is now running quality assurance checks on all chapters and working with UMBC to assure a quality product. A related issue is the production of new editions of textbooks every few years since technology assets need to keep up with new book editions, which requires ongoing quality assurance checks of supplemental online material. Relying on faculty to identify errors or misplaced content is burdensome.

  • Clicker problems. The classroom performance system (clickers) was unreliable due to both campus and publisher issues. Choice of clicker technology was determined by the campus. Faculty had no warning of upgrades to company software or projected compromises to uploading data from the clicker use. Every lecture hall did not provide reliable support. This proved to be problematic when the lecture hall technology was not functioning properly or when the publisher’s software was upgraded and interface issues were profound (e.g., duplicate pad numbers for students’ identification, difficulty enrolling in the class list, failing to upload clicker data to Blackboard.) Due to these unresolved issues, the clickers were removed from the post-implementation semester, but they may be added back as the technology is further field-tested and proven.
  • Managing grade files and lab database. GTAs maintained the grade database for all labs and exams. Sometimes students experienced browser or internet failure while working on an assignment, and they needed the GTA to put them back into the activity since when the system shuts down a completion grade is recorded. Faculty provided oversight for this task but relied heavily on GTAs to maintain the integrity of the database. This is an essential role for a large class and preferably needs one person to manipulate the very large data set.

Sustainability

Will the redesign be sustained now that the MCRI project is over ?

Redesign faculty are currently committed to maintaining the redesign, and one is assigned to teach the course in the fall 2009 schedule. Faculty teaching this course in the future will benefit from the efforts of the redesign initiative. Specifically, the online labs have been developed, small-group activities have been tested and established for use in future semesters, and the role of undergraduate peer mentor is now in place. Moreover, the class time commitment for faculty each semester has decreased by 15 hours, from 60 to 45 hours. These factors should make the redesigned Introduction to Psychology an attractive course for full-time faculty and reduce the need for part-time faculty hires. Benefits for students include greater coverage of content, flexibility and autonomy in choosing their own schedules for completing required labs, exposure to an IT-rich course environment, less time in class and access to peer assistance during and after class.

 

 

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