|State University of New York: SUNY Course Redesign Initiative
SUNY at Potsdam
Course Title: History (Europe 1500-1815), History (Europe 1815-Present), History (US to 1877) and History (US 1877-Present)
SUNY Potsdam plans to redesign four history courses. All four courses are currently offered each semester in multiple sections meeting three hours per week, capped at 40 students. In AY 2007-2008, 586 students enrolled in 15 sections of European history and 875 students enrolled in 23 sections of US history. The redesign plan will combine four courses into two. History (Europe 1500-1815) and History (Europe 1815-Present) will be combined into a single European History course. History (US to 1877) and History (US 1877-Present) will be combined into a single American History course.
These history courses face four distinct academic and resource problems. 1) The current courses serve three primary audiences (general education students, teacher education majors and history majors), each with different learning objectives. 2) First-year general education students have a significantly lower successful completion rate (65%) than advanced students (77%) or history majors (83%). The redesign will target the general education students (~1100) who comprise 70% to 85% of the enrollment in the four courses. The two new courses will better serve this audience while allowing the department to tailor other introductory courses to education and history majors. 3) The department frequently cannot meet the current demand for these courses. 4) The department wants to move toward the college’s goal of reducing faculty teaching loads from 24 to 18 hours per year.
The college’s redesign plan, using the Replacement Model, collapses the 27 sections of European and US History historically needed to serve General Education students into a single European history section and a single US History section, each serving 300 students per semester. In-class time will be reduced from three hours to one hour per week. Students will spend a minimum of two hours per week in a computerized History Learning Center dedicated to the two courses. At least one hour will be spent completing online publisher provided quizzes, map exercises, and chronology worksheets. One hour each week will be spent in online discussion groups of 20 students each, moderated by virtual preceptors. Students will be able to test their own skill at historical argument and interpretation.
The redesign will improve the quality of student learning in several ways. First, interactive learning will be substantially increased with online assignments, weekly work in the dedicated History Learning Center and increased participation in the discussion groups. Second, students will receive immediate feedback on their online work and individual assistance from the virtual preceptors and the instructor as appropriate. Staffing the computer center with undergraduate learning assistants (ULAs) for 60 hours per week will also increase on-demand availability of assistance. Third, the redesign will eliminate variation in content and assessment, bringing greater consistency to the student learning experience.
Strategies for assessing learning outcomes will be twofold. The courses are, and will continue to be, regularly assessed by the college’s general education committee using standards that have been in place since 2001 for American History and Western Civilization. In addition to the committee’s assessment, student learning will be assessed by comparing common content items selected from exams, students’ essays using common grading rubrics, and final grades using common criteria.
Cost savings will be achieved by reducing the number of sections serving general education students from 27 to 4 and increasing section size from 40 to 300. Full-time faculty will be reduced from nine to four and part-time faculty from two to none. Ten ULAs and six virtual preceptors will be added for each course. These actions will decrease the cost-per-student in US History from $168 to $128, a 24% reduction. The cost-per-student in European History will decrease from $170 to $118, a 31% reduction. The savings will be used to improve teaching quality by reducing teaching loads, funding undergraduate research, library acquisitions and student travel.
In the redesign, did students learn more, less or the same compared to the traditional format?
Assessment data indicates considerable improvement in student learning in the redesigned courses.
Learning outcomes in the American History course were compared using common multiple choice questions and essay exams with common rubrics. In the American History course, average scores on comparable essay questions, graded by the same rubric, improved from 2.22 in the traditional course to 2.58 in the redesigned course. Improvement was greatest in learning objectives related to understanding common institutions in American society (from 2.00 to 2.64) and least in learning objectives related to understanding American history in world context (from 2.49 to 2.56).
Measured by responses to common multiple-choice questions, similar improvements in student learning are apparent. Overall, correct responses increased from 55% to 76%. Improvements were greatest in response to questions about the world context of American history (from 43% correct to 74% correct) and least (but still significant) in response to questions about common institutions in American society (from 64% correct to 76% correct).
Learning outcomes in the European History course were compared using common multiple choice questions and essay exams with common rubrics. Averaging factual (multiple choice) learning with interpretive and analytical (essay) learning yields a measure of overall learning that compares very favorably with the traditional course. Scores at the top of the distribution more than doubled (from 5% to 11%), while those in the “B” range rose significantly (from 39% to 46%). “C”-range performances diminished substantially (from 27% to 18%) while “D” scores plummeted (from 23% to 4%).
Clearly, in the redesigned European history class marginal students cannot coast to a passing grade, for the depletion in “D” scores is made up for by the much greater number of outright failures (from 6% to 24%). The team interprets this bi-modal distribution as an indication that students who put forth even moderate effort in the course enjoy much better learning outcomes, whereas students who do not work effectively cannot squeak by. Taken as a whole, the redesigned European course has fulfilled its promise to improve student learning.
Student success rates (grades of C or better) declined in both the American History and European History. In American History, 73% of traditional students received a grade of C or better compared with 61% of redesign students. In European History, 75% of traditional students received a grade of C or better compared with 63% of redesign students.
Retention is defined as students who earned a grade of “D” or better and who remained enrolled to the end of the semester. By this measure, both the American and European versions of the course redesign experienced decreased retention rates. The withdrawal and failure rates for the European course increased from 14% to 24% in the baseline averages over the period 2005-2007. Corresponding withdrawal and failure rates for the American course rose from 16% to 19%. In each case, decreased retention was due to rising failure rates as well as to stable or increased rates of withdrawals. Withdrawals jumped from 5% to 10% in the European course but held steady at 5% in the American course. Failures rose from 9% to 14% in the European course but less dramatically from 11% to 14% in the American course.
The team cannot yet attribute a definite cause to this drop in retention. Comments made by students on course evaluations in both courses were too various to single out clearly discernable factors. However, the evaluations indicated that a sub-population of the students did not like the reduced professorial contact or the removal of the personal guidance that contact represented for them. While some students reveled in the flexibility and freedom these courses offered, others found it difficult to assume more independence and to take greater responsibility for completing their assignments.
It may be that decreased retention is the paradoxical result of the course redesign’s pursuit of other goals to make the department’s instruction in history surveys more uniform and to foster greater student engagement. Since generally less demanding adjunct faculty have been eliminated from the American and European survey courses and grading has become more uniform, it may be that past grades were higher because the grading was easier. Because the redesigned courses required a greater degree of weekly engagement by every student than traditional course formats, it may be that less motivated students washed out more readily.
Other Impacts on Students
While student evaluations of the redesigned courses were so varied that they defied easy summary, it is clear that these hybrid classes enabled more students to take a history survey than would be the case were they offered in a traditional format. Students could fulfill many course requirements at a distance, enabling those with families, jobs, or living far from campus to enroll in the redesigned classes. This had particular merit given Potsdam’s geographical situation in a large, sparsely populated, and poor region of New York State.
Were costs reduced as planned?
The redesign plan projected a cost savings of between 20% and 25% for the new courses. Although the cost savings plan was followed as proposed, when measured by cost-per-student, the redesigned courses did not realize their potential to reduce instructional costs during the 2009-2010 academic year.
The fundamental reason why savings were not achieved as projected is because enrollments in the redesigned courses ran well below capacity. The team had projected enrollments of 300 for each of the two courses each semester. Actual enrollments were considerably lower as, in the entire academic year, only 384 students enrolled in the American history course and only 228 students enrolled in the European history courses. Judging from anecdotal evidence and from responses to the comprehensive course evaluations, many students exhibited considerable anxiety about enrolling in a hybrid course that was different from anything they had experienced before. As both redesigned courses are stand alone general education courses, the first- and second-year students for whom they were designed could put off taking them for several semesters.
Enrollment trends suggest that student hesitancy to take the redesigned courses will be quickly overcome. Between fall and spring semesters, enrollments in the European course increased by nearly 60%. In the American course, they increased by over 10%. The department expects enrollments much nearer to capacity in the 2010-11 academic year, which will yield real savings.
In addition, the history department was able to develop and offer two freshman writing sections and one freshman speaking section in support of the general education program. Both sorts of offerings allowed it to better serve both its majors and teacher education students. The department plans to offer nearly 20 sections of writing and speaking courses during the 2010-11 academic year. These courses will allow students to complete the four-credit speaking or writing requirement and the three-credit American History or Western Civilization requirement in a single four-hour course.
The redesign has also allowed the department to make real progress on a college-wide goal of reducing faculty teaching loads from 24 to 21 hours per year.
Pedagogical Improvement Techniques
What techniques have contributed the most to improving the student experience?
Cost Reduction Techniques
What techniques contributed most to reducing costs?
What implementation issues were most important?
Will the redesign be sustained now that the grant period is over?
The redesigned history courses enjoy departmental as well as college-wide support and the commitment of relevant faculty to teach these courses in the foreseeable future. Additional faculty members are preparing to assume responsibility for the redesigned courses, thus providing a deeper bench of instructors. The department has also assembled an extremely strong team of virtual preceptors (VPs) and undergraduate learning assistants (ULAs), many of whom are now quite experienced in the various facets of course delivery and whose continued service guarantees effective course management and delivery in the future.
In addition, the team’s hybrid course design fueled interest beyond the department. SUNY Potsdam’s School of Education has solicited the history department to prepare courses redesigned on the same hybrid model, in American and European history that would be specially tailored to New York State teacher certification standards and so directly meet the needs of its students. The department will develop these courses over the summer, and deliver them in the 2010-11 academic year. With their launch the college will realize substantial economies of scale since the History Learning Lab and ULAs will already be in place and can be shared among the (now) four redesigned courses. The team therefore faces the pleasant prospect of catering more particularly to the curricular needs of various student sub-populations while doing so at even lower costs.
There are, however, some dark clouds on the horizon that may auger less sunny weather ahead. The SUNY budget crisis has prompted Potsdam’s administration to reduce expenditures by severely cutting the temporary services budget, from which the VPs and ULAs are paid. While the team’s redesigned courses have been funded for the fall semester 2010, there is no guarantee that the VPs and ULAs that are essential to the course redesign will be funded thereafter.
The ongoing delivery of the redesigned history surveys is also complicated by SUNY’s recent decision to require that campuses require only seven of the ten categories of the common general education curriculum. Prior to the 2000-01 revisions of general education, Potsdam had a single history requirement. Some sentiment exists for folding the current American History and Western Civilization requirements back into a single history course. Without the demand generated by current requirements, there would be little reason to continue to offer large-enrollment, cost-efficient courses.Finally, a compelling rationale behind the plans for course redesign arose from SUNY Potsdam’s stated goal of reducing teaching loads from a 4-4 to a 4-3 and ultimately a 3-3 load. As the college as a whole moved towards this goal, the course redesigns would pay higher and higher dividends, not least because the history department could continue to provide service courses and meet the needs of its majors without the need to hire additional faculty. In these financially trying times, the administration has moved faculty teaching loads back up to 4-4, and it is no longer clear whether a reduced teaching load remains a college goal. The cost savings postulated in the redesign proposal were predicated on the assumption of reduced teaching loads. In their absence, whether there are cost savings, and how they might be retained by the department (as provided for by the conditions of the original course redesign grant) remains an open question.