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Lessons Learned

Penn State University

Pedagogical Improvement Techniques

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

Computer-studio labs. There are two computer-studio labs per week. The instructor and/or a GTA and an undergraduate student intern conduct the activities in the computer-studio labs. Students work individually and collaboratively on prepared activities. Approximately 30% of the lab time is used for elaboration of concepts, 60% for computer-related work and class discussion of the results, and 10% for online quizzes on concepts related to the activities. These quizzes account for 10% of the student’s grade and serve two important purposes: (1) to provide instant feedback on students’ understanding of concepts and applications and (2) to motivate students to attend class. The course-redesign team was pleasantly surprised that students welcomed the reduction in lectures and the opportunity to work in groups in the labs to apply what they had learned from the resource materials.

Readiness Assessment Tests (RATs). Students are regularly tested on assigned readings and homework using Readiness Assessment Tests (RATs), short quizzes that probe students’ conceptual understanding. RATs are given five to seven times during the course and involve several steps. First, students prepare to take the RATs outside of class by reading the textbook, completing homework assignments, and using additional resources available through the course Web site. Then the students take the tests individually. Immediately following the individual effort, the students take the same test in groups of four, with weights of 2/3 and 1/3 on the individual and group parts, respectively. RATs constitute approximately 30% of the student's grade. In addition to motivating students to keep on top of the course material, RATs provide powerful feedback to both the students and the faculty member. RATs have proven to be very effective in detecting areas in which students are not grasping the concepts; the tests thereby enable corrective actions to be taken in a timely manner and prepare students for higher-level activities in the computer labs.

Cost Savings Techniques

What techniques contributed most to reducing costs?

Online quizzing. Online quizzing is conducted at the end of about two-thirds of the lab sessions. These quizzes, which cover the concepts covered in the lab activities, involve no manual grading, in that they are administered using TESTPILOT. This has substantial pedagogical value and sharply reduces the amount of time that GTAs spend on grading and recording quizzes. One result is a substantial reduction in time spent on the course by GTAs.

Machine-grading of RATS. RATs are given five to seven times during the course and are graded using machine-scanners at University Testing Services and a commercially sold machine that was purchased, so no manual labor is involved.

Shared resources. Faculty class contact time has remained at three periods per week, but time devoted to preparing for classes and composing quizzes and exams has been reduced considerably by eliminating duplication of effort. A reasonably sophisticated but easily navigated Web site contains not only the management aspects of the course but also a large number of student aids and resources (solutions to problems, study guides, supplemental reading materials for topics not otherwise treated in the text, self-assessment activities, etc.). Having assignments, quizzes, exams, and RATs on the community Web site saves a considerable amount of instructional time, for both instructors and GTAs.

Undergraduate interns. Undergraduate students were hired to grade homework assignments, relieving GTAs of this chore, as well as to assist in labs. One intern and one grader are used for two lab sections. The intern assists in the lab, and the grader grades homework for 120–160 students, under GTA supervision. This change reduced the number of GTAs required for the course.

Implementation Issues

What implementation issues were most important?

Using prior course materials. Many course materials from prior years lent themselves for use in the redesigned course. However, these materials had to be revised (sometimes substantially) in order to be used appropriately in the redesigned course. In addition, the course-redesign team initially anticipated that the main resource material for the course would be Web-based courseware called Cyberstats. However, the quality of Cyberstats turned out to be highly variable, ranging from a few excellent units to several that were regarded as unsatisfactory (from both the faculty members' experience and the students' perspective, as voiced in focus groups). Use of Cyberstats was dropped in the redesigned course.

Developing additional course materials. The course redesign was aided substantially when the team learned about RATs. Since no prior items for RATS were available, the development of RATs was a new effort. Seven RATs and accompanying “Study Guides” were prepared. Faculty collaborated in the development of the questions, which were designed to assess students’ understanding of the material. Prototype RATs were used in the pilot tests and were modified. Subsequently, additional questions have been prepared. The task of creating and packaging lab activities (about 70) properly linked to independent learning and RATs was thought- and time-consuming. Although it was initially believed that the RATs were closely linked to lab activities, students did not perceive this to be the case. As a result, a large amount of time had to be devoted to clarifying this.

Sequencing of topics. Reaching a consensus on the sequencing of topics to take advantage of the opportunities provided by utilizing technology (but not on the selection of topics themselves) was a major problem. There was general agreement on both the sequencing on a broad scale and the depth of understanding to be sought by students but not on the final details. This was a "good" problem, however, in that it led to exciting discussions and efforts to design a course freed of past conventional wisdom and restraints imposed by traditional texts.

Determining Web site content. There was a lot of naïveté about the extent of effort required to develop an easily navigated Web site that would simultaneously accommodate 4 instructors and 1,000 students with a new set of resource materials and approaches. The task required the resolution of details about terminology and interactivity on the part of both students and faculty. There were communication problems with the programmers, but in the end there was an excellent resolution of the difficulties.

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