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University System of Maryland: Maryland Course Redesign Initiative

University of Maryland University College

Course Titles: Concepts of Biology and Laboratory in Biology
Contact: Kathleen Barr Warner

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

Project Abstract

University of Maryland University College (UMUC) plans to redesign two introductory general education biology courses, Concepts of Biology which is a three-credit survey course, and Laboratory in Biology, a one-credit course. Together these courses provide an introduction to the concepts underlying the structure and function of living organisms including their organization, chemical foundations, metabolism, genetics, evolution, ecosystems, and interdependence. These principles, as well as the scientific method, are emphasized through a variety of hands-on at-home activities using commercial lab kits supplemented by everyday items. Concepts of Biology is used for UMUC's institution-level assessment of scientific literacy and reporting to the Maryland Higher Education Commission (MHEC). In spring 2007, 889 students enrolled in Concepts of Biology, 725 in 29 fully online sections and 164 in six fully face-to-face sections. During the same semester, 625 students enrolled in 25 fully online sections of Laboratory in Biology and 145 students were enrolled in six fully face-to-face sections.

These two traditional courses have two specific institutional problems. The first is a high non-success rate of 30% in Concepts of Biology and 38% in Laboratory in Biology. Multiple factors are thought to contribute to this problem. They include the difficulty that non-science majors experience in assimilating and grasping the unfamiliar content, and insufficient opportunities for practice and feedback, particularly in the online classes. Non-success may also be associated in part with the separation of the survey and lab experiences in two distinct courses. This separation is counter to national standards of best pedagogical practice in science education. It often causes students to have different faculty members and misaligned content in the two courses. In addition, it leads to inefficiencies for both students and faculty with respect to time, schedule, and class management. The second problem that the redesign will address is the inconsistency of the student learning experience, given the large number of sections (35) and faculty (30+) teaching these two courses each semester.

The goals of this redesign are 1) increased course completion rates, 2) improved learning outcomes, 3) improved content accessibility and integrity, 4) increased consistency of the student experience, and 5) decreased costs for students and the university. Given that the vast majority of enrollments in these courses are in online sections (81% of Concepts of Biology, 80% of Laboratory in Biology), UMUC will focus on the redesign of its online versions of these two courses. This strategy will maximize the impact on student learning and provide for the best utilization of UMUC's resources. The redesign project will adopt the principles of NCAT's Fully Online Model. First, the two courses will be combined into a single course, Introduction to Biology, a four-credit survey course plus lab, thereby reducing the overall number of sections from 138 to 65. Section size will be increased from 25 to 30 students per section. Second, automated grading and student feedback will be incorporated. This aspect will include a variety of innovations. Tiered-levels of self-check activities, interactive learning objects, review questions, and graded quizzes, all with automated feedback and scaffolding will be added. In addition, virtual lab activities with automated feedback will be created as replacements for a hands-on commercial kit. Third, NCAT's whole course redesign principle will drive a full alignment of the course with national scientific literacy standards, increased content accessibility through alignment of the overall reading level and target student audience, and the creation of exemplar assignments for faculty use.

This redesign will enhance quality in several ways. First, multiple benefits will be gained as a result of combining the survey course and the lab into a single course and single online classroom. Students will have the same faculty member and content sequence for both the survey and lab portion as well as a learning experience that integrates the survey and lab learning objectives and activities. Both students and faculty will have a more efficient classroom and learning management experience that allows more time for teaching and learning rather than duplicative classroom management activities. Second, consistency of the students' learning experience will be gained across multiple sections and faculty. The redesign will bring all aspects of Introduction to Biology into full alignment with national scientific literacy standards and practices, and create a clear and uniform path for all faculty and students. Consistency will also be achieved as a result of providing all students and faculty with a set of UMUC-created online modules, interactive learning activities, automated self-review materials, post-module assessments, virtual labs, and exemplary assignments. Faculty will be involved in the selection and design of these items, which will also build upon the expertise and best practices of the faculty themselves. Together, these approaches will focus the teaching and learning on the core general education content in all sections. Finally, the accessibility of the content and level of student engagement with it will improve by adjusting the reading level of the online modules.

The impact of the course redesign on student learning will be assessed via the common final exam process. A common final exam has been in use in Concepts of Biology since 2005, and in 2007 it was adapted by the biology department and the Office of Outcomes Assessment for use as the institution-level assessment tool for scientific literacy and reporting to MHEC. The information gained from the common exam process will be used to evaluate the curriculum and guide modifications to both teaching and content. UMUC will analyze and compare the final course grades using common criteria and the common final exam results in Concepts of Biology (pre-redesign) and Introduction to Biology (post-redesign).

The redesigned course will reduce instructional costs by combining two courses into one, reducing the total number of sections from 138 to 65 and increasing the section size from 25 to 30 students per section. The total instructional cost of the two traditional courses, ~$430,000, will be reduced to ~$346,000 for the redesigned course, a 20% decrease generating $84,000 in savings. UMUC expects to save costs in several areas: 1) annual academic administration management and oversight, 2) annual instructional support management and maintenance, 3) tri-annual online course revision and development, 4) faculty time and instructional personnel, 5) final exam administration, and 6) students' instructional materials. The administrative savings will allow the university to distribute workflow differently and take on additional activities, especially important for UMUC in its current environment of rapidly increasing institutional enrollments. The development/revision savings will allow UMUC to develop additional online courses earlier than otherwise allowable or planned due to limited resources. A savings of faculty time will allow for a shift of GTA duties to faculty. The consequential elimination of GTAs will result in lower personnel costs. The adoption of virtual labs will eliminate the need for students to purchase a lab kit and supplementary household materials. In addition, UMUC hopes to achieve additional cost savings through increased student success. A decrease in the number of Ws will lead to fewer tuition refunds. A reduction in the number Fs and Ws will free "need to repeat" seats for new students, shifting the composition of the classes towards more new students per class.

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

Two courses, a three-credit survey course and a one-credit laboratory course, were combined into a single four-credit course. Virtual labs replaced kitchen labs, and the content for the course was greatly enhanced.

Final exam questions were mapped to course objectives. Students in spring 2007 traditional sections scored correctly an average 26.62 of 40 test items on a common final exam. Students in redesigned sections in spring 2008 scored correctly an average 27.18 of 40. Students in the redesigned course did well on questions that mapped to the chemistry of cells and to the role of genes and the environment in evolution, topics which are difficult for the non-major to grasp. Opportunities for interaction and self-assessment on these two topics were significantly increased in the redesigned course.

Improved Retention

The percentage of students earning a C or better was 49% in the traditional laboratory course and 58% in the traditional lecture course. The percentage of students earning a C or better was 61% in the redesigned combined course.

The non-success rate (F-FN-W) was reduced from 38% in the lab course to 34% and has remained stable over two semesters.

The percentage of As and Bs increased from 42% in the lecture course and 38% in the lab course to 48% in the redesigned course and has remained constant for two semesters.

The percentage of Fs decreased for the redesigned course.

The number of withdrawals was 19% for the traditional lecture course, 28% for the traditional lab course and 19% for the redesigned course.

Other Impact on Students

In course evaluations, students rated the redesigned course higher than they had the two individual courses, particularly the lab course. Before the redesign, the average score for the lab course was 3.71 (out of 5) as compared to 4.05 for the redesigned course.

Students reported greater ease of use and satisfaction with the virtual labs than with the lab kits. Students were able to focus on the concepts demonstrated in the lab rather than on the mechanics of doing the lab exercises. Faculty reported a large decrease in the questions and complaints associated with the labs for the class.

Impact on Cost Savings

Were costs reduced as planned?

Increasing the enrollments per section from 25 to 30 and combining two courses into one meant that fewer faculty members were needed. Rather than the anticipated savings of $84,000, there was a reduction of $50,000 in instructional costs for the redesigned course.

The costs to the institution for the administering proctored final exams have been reduced since there is only one exam to administer. The combination of two courses into one resulted in a 50% reduction in the number of exams administered by Exams and Testing. Cost savings were also realized on final exam development. Exam chairs are paid $2,000 per year to design common final exams, and a single exam meant a savings of $2,000 in exam chair contracts.

Students no longer need to buy the laboratory kit, so student costs have been reduced by $40 per student.

The combination of two courses into a single course reduced the costs of course revision. Online courses are revised every three years, and typical revisions cost $30,000. Since only a single course will need to be revised, there will be a savings of $30,000 in course development costs

Lessons Learned

Pedagogical Improvement Techniques

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

  • Combination of two courses into a single online course. Several benefits were realized. Students had the same faculty member for lecture and laboratory, which improved the student learning experience. Students visited a single classroom instead of two separate classrooms, which was more efficient for the faculty member and for the students. The redesigned course allowed greater integration of survey and lab learning objectives and activities. The single classroom gave faculty members more time to devote to teaching activities while decreasing the time spent on management of two distinct classrooms. Finally, integration of lecture and lab content led to a more consistent experience for students across multiple sections.
  • Alignment of module objectives and learning activities with state and national literacy standards. UMUC’s participation in the MCRI coincided with the development of a tool for university-wide assessment of scientific literacy, a common final exam for Introductory Biology. Construction of the tool required alignment of the exam questions with course objectives, which were mapped to state and national standards for scientific literacy. This alignment was extended to all aspects of the course design. First, module objectives were mapped to course objectives. All of the learning activities within the module were mapped to the objectives, and the targeted objective was clearly stated at the beginning of the module exercise or activity. This approach brought the entire course into alignment with national science literacy standards and practices and provides a clear pathway for the student.
  • Improvement and expansion of existing learning objects. Students enter Introductory Biology with vast differences in their exposure to science courses, many having not been in a science classroom in over 10 years. Some online students need multiple opportunities to interact with the material. Expansion of the repertoire of learning activities allowed students to choose the amount and level of interaction they needed to understand the concepts. These activities were created in a tiered fashion, starting with simple concepts and slowly progressing to more difficult topics. The redesign individualized the instruction because students chose their specific path through the modules.
  • Conversion of four kitchen labs to virtual labs. The elimination of labs that required the use of the commercial lab kit was welcomed by faculty members and greatly improved the experience for the students. Students focused on the concepts embedded in the lab and not on the methods. The labs were graded and the results sent to the faculty member, reducing grading time. After implementing the virtual labs, faculty members reported that students showed a deeper level of understanding of the concepts as judged by their scores on the lab exam.
  • Embedded assessment. Quizzes were created for each of the five modules. Students received immediate feedback, and the quiz results were sent automatically to their faculty member. All faculty members teaching the course were required to include the quizzes in their assessments. Results were stored in a university database. Although the results were used only in calculation of the student’s grade, quiz grades could be used as an assessment tool.

Cost Reduction Techniques

What techniques contributed most to reducing costs?

  • Combining two courses into one. Two courses, a three-credit survey course and a one-credit laboratory course, were combined into a single four-credit course.
  • Conversion to virtual labs. The conversion of wet labs to virtual labs eliminated the need for students to purchase the commercial lab kit. This reduced student costs by $40. It also meant that students were ready to start doing labs when the class started rather than waiting for the lab kit to arrive by mail.
  • Administration of the final exam. A single final exam is now administered to all students, which eliminates the administration of two separate exams. It also reduces the number of students registering for exams and the number of seats at exam sites.

Implementation Issues

What implementation issues were most important?

  • Faculty communication and training. The majority of the biology sections are taught by adjuncts, many at a distance. It was crucial to keep the faculty informed throughout the revision process. Instead of a gradual rollout of new features, all of the features were put in place at the same time. These included a single classroom, revised modules, virtual labs and automatically graded quizzes in the modules. The pilot consisted of three sections in the summer 2007 semester. Lessons learned in the pilot were applied to the full implementation. Faculty members were given some time to preview all of the material before students had access to the classroom. The director was available by email and by phone before the semester started and throughout the semester to answer questions and to ensure that any technical problems would be addressed quickly. Faculty members were surveyed by email throughout the semester to address implementation issues. At the end of the semester, a week long conference was held in the virtual faculty classroom to discuss the course and the modules.
  • Fully online labs. The conversion of four labs to virtual labs meant that the students no longer needed to purchase the commercial kit. This required adaptation on the part of the faculty because many faculty members provided additional instructions on how to perform the labs, which had to be revised. Discussion in the classroom had to be modified also to align with the virtual labs.
  • Production of the virtual labs. UMUC made a decision to have an outside vendor produce the virtual labs for the redesigned course. While this saved time in the implementation phase, the university encountered a number of maintenance problems in subsequent semesters. The original design team from the vendor is not available so personnel within the university have had to troubleshoot and resolve the issues. This has put unexpected demands on the programming unit. Due to these problems, future conversions of hands-on labs to virtual labs will be done by the university and not outsourced.


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

The answer is a resounding yes. All aspects of the redesign are sustainable, and the benefits have been documented in this report. The university has been experimenting with variable term lengths, and a course like this one, which has rich online learning resources, is flexible enough to adapt to different term lengths. The only modification necessary is to change the syllabus and schedule. The model of combining two courses into one is being followed for the university’s Introductory Physical Science three-credit survey and one-credit lab courses, currently in course development. The model of aligning all aspects of online course development with course objectives has been adopted as a general principle for course development in the School of Undergraduate Studies.



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