|Arizona Board of Regents: Learner-Centered Education Course Redesign Initiative
The University of Arizona
Course Title: A Geological Perspective
The University of Arizona (UA) plans to redesign A Geological Perspective, a general education course for non-science majors currently enrolling ~600 students each semester. The course is offered in three large lecture sections taught by different faculty members and includes optional, weekly study groups taught by graduate teaching assistants (GTAs). Lectures meet three times a week for 50 minutes, and the optional study groups meet once a week for 50 minutes.
Students often feel overwhelmed by the science and associated jargon, and many are prone to skipping lectures altogether. Optional study groups are only attended by ~50% of the students. Faculty members find the traditional course to be a lot of work, mainly due to the grading it generates. Lecture activities are often limited to short multiple-choice or true-false assignments, limiting evaluation of the depth of students' understanding. Many students lack math and critical thinking skills, and lecture time is spent reintroducing concepts students should already know from the text.
The redesign, using the Replacement Model, includes replacing one hour of lecture with break-out sessions run by undergraduate preceptors and graduate teaching assistants (GTAs). In the remaining lecture periods, lectures will be brief with a large portion of the class devoted to active learning in small groups. Once-a-week mandatory break-out sessions will also replace the optional study groups where small groups of students will complete activities that have been introduced in the lectures. Students will submit the majority of their work through the course web site. Software will track student progress, and those who are not succeeding will receive individualized assistance.
The redesign will enhance course quality by providing an active learning experience with individualized assistance. Students will spend more time interacting with their fellow students, undergraduate preceptors, GTAs, and their instructor, as less of their time will be devoted to passively listening to lectures. They will receive one-on-one help in break-out sessions on assignments designed to enhance the lecture material. Completing assignments online will allow students more flexibility in where and when they work on them. It will also provide immediate feedback on their submitted work. Online tutorials, virtual office hours, and a classroom participation system will give students more options for contacting the instructor and also allow instructors to monitor student progress.
The UA Conceptual Astronomy and Physics Education Research (CAPER) Team, who specialize in project evaluation, will lead the assessment effort. The team will compare pre- and post-test learning gains for content and process skills as well as common final exams before and after the redesign. The team will also inductively analyze student interviews or reflective writing that describe student satisfaction with the modified learning environment.
The redesigned course will reduce instructional costs by decreasing the number of GTAs each term from seven to four and replacing many of them with undergraduate preceptors who are not paid but receive academic credit for their teaching service. The number of hours spent by faculty and graduate teaching assistants on preparation, class time and grading will be greatly reduced. The cumulative impact of these efficiencies will reduce the cost-per-student from $437 to $185, a 58% decrease. The savings will be used to allow faculty more time to work on research-related priorities and advising their graduate students.
The Geosciences Concept Inventory (GCI v1.0) was given as a pre-test/post-test to students in the traditional course and the redesigned course to compare student learning in terms of gain scores. Only 36 of 78 items that most directly related to course content were used for analysis. Students in the traditional course had a pre-test GCI percentage correct of 28.67 (SD=11.45, n=96) which increased to 45.26 (SD=11.76, n=84) on the post-test. After course redesign, students had a pre-test GCI percentage correct of 38.62 (SD=8.42, n=144) which increased a post-test GCI score of 48.73 (SD=7.49, n=132). Although the gains from pre-test to post-test are statistically significant, the difference in post-test GCI scores between the two groups is not. Students’ knowledge levels, insofar as the GCI can measure, were equivalent in both courses. Also, an analysis of common four separate essay-style exam questions was conducted to compare students in both the traditional and the redesigned courses. In all categories, the student-supplied responses from the two courses were indistinguishable.
Based on the qualitative data reported below, the team believes that the selected common assessment instruments had insufficient resolving power to detect differences in student achievement or the student experience, rather than there were no actual differences in the student experience. Indeed, during this study, the GCI 1.0 planners started a major revision to the instrument.
Student success rates (C or higher in the course) were 90% in the traditional course, 87.2% in the pilot semester, and 89.6% in the full redesign. The differences are statistically insignificant.
Other Impacts on Students
The Likert-style Attitudes Toward Science Survey (ATSI) was given as an end-of-class post-test to students in the pre-modified course and as a pre-test/post-test the redesigned course to compare student attitudes between the courses. There were no statistical differences evident among the survey results. In contrast, interview and focus group transcripts reveal that students find the redesigned course to be relevant to their lives and educationally satisfying, both of which are only infrequently observed among traditional introductory science survey courses.
At the mid-point of the redesigned semester, a team of evaluators from the University of Wyoming ’s Cognition in Astronomy, Physics and Earth sciences Research (CAPER) Team conducted individual and focus group interviews with participating faculty, graduate teaching assistants, undergraduate peer mentor instructors, and students. Four recurring themes were prominent across the extensive qualitative data collected. These notions are 1) structured discussion among students was meaningful; 2) the interactive nature of the course engaged students and instructors; 3) the non-adversarial nature of the course climate was critical; and 4) the purposeful instructional activities directly support meta-cognition. Each of these recurring and dominant themes are consistent with the perspective of creating a learner-centered environment that supports learning and students’ meta-cognition.
The team did not make any significant changes to the planned redesigned course format, which reduced the cost-per-student from ~ $437 for the traditional course, to ~ $185 for the redesigned course. The bulk of the savings came from using twice as many undergraduate preceptors and fewer half-time graduate teaching assistants (GTAs.)
Pedagogical Improvement Techniques
Cost Savings Techniques
The sustainability of the project is not in question unless the general education program at the university sees some significant changes in the wake of budget cuts. During the spring 2009 semester, all sections are being run essentially as they were during the fully implemented redesign semester.
The redesign did not produce a significant improvement in student learning, which is still the team’s main goal. The team firmly believes that interaction with a human being is more useful than interaction with a computer. They will continue to look for ways to improve learning and that may require the use of more GTAs in the future. They will also consider whether student learning is affected by having a GTA or a preceptor running break-out sessions. A rough analysis of the data suggests that having a GTA leads to better quiz and exam scores. If this is the case, the team will strive to get more GTA support.