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Program in Course Redesign

Pennsylvania State University

The Traditional Course

At the Penn State University Park campus, Elementary Statistics is taught in the fall, spring, and summer semesters, with an annual enrollment of about 2,200. An additional 400 students take the course each year at the university's 20 other campuses.

In the traditional format, students attend three lectures and two recitation meetings per week. Experienced, full-time faculty deliver the one-hour lectures to groups of about 240 students. Graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) teach the one-hour recitation sections of about 40 students. GTAs also hold office hours and grade exams. The traditional structure is labor-intensive, requiring 980 hours of faculty time and 3,636 hours of GTA time per semester, thus creating resource problems for the department. More important, the traditional structure is not as effective academically as it could be.

There are four specific academic problems to be solved:

  • The traditional format does not address the broad range of differences in students learning styles and quantitative skills. Students with weak skills need more individual attention and more opportunity for group collaboration, whereas students with strong skills would benefit from having more opportunities to explore the material more fully.
  • The original format does not encourage active participation. It is difficult for students to ask questions, discuss the material, or collaborate with other students. There is not enough hands-on experience with data analysis and collection.
  • The traditional structure requires 12 GTAs each semester. It is difficult for the department to identify, much less allot, this many qualified assistants for this course. Most graduate students in statistics have undergraduate degrees in mathematics or a scientific discipline, limiting the effectiveness of the statistics instruction they can provide.
  • As initially designed, the course does not provide tutoring assistance for students. GTAs working with a particular faculty member have only two or three office hours for students within their own recitation section, so students receive little individual attention.

Clearly, there is a need for change in the traditional learning environment to enable students with a variety of learning styles to engage in classroom discussion, collaborate with fellow students, and participate in one-to-one interchange with trained instructors.

The Redesigned Course

The learning goals for the redesigned course require students to:

  • understand and apply basic concepts of statistics (e.g., variables, inferences, probability);
  • actively participate in data analysis and design;
  • critically evaluate reports containing statistical analyses of surveys and experiments; and,
  • actively engage with course materials and other students.

The course redesign involves reducing lectures from three to one per week, changing traditional recitation sections to computer-mediated workshops, adding technology-based independent learning materials and computerized testing to give students more practice time and feedback, and shifting instructional roles from information presentation to learning facilitation. The combination of smaller classes and computer-mediated data workshops will enable faculty to have more one-to-one contact with individual students. Faculty will be able to address students' different needs, and students can be challenged according to their own skill levels. Computer-based classes will enable students to work in teams, which will generate more active participation. Students will gain hands-on experience with statistical analysis and with the visualization of concepts.

Under the new structure, GTA roles will shift from instruction to guidance. Technology-based instruction and collaborative activities will enable students to independently explore material that is presently taught by GTAs. Reducing the number lectures will allow faculty to guide many of the sections that are presently led by teaching assistants. As a result, GTA roles will shift toward facilitating technology-based individualized and collaborative learning. GTAs will be paired with faculty and an undergraduate intern in the labs, enabling the faculty member to model ways to facilitate learning.

Traditional Course Structure

  • 15-week term
  • 4 lecture sections of 240 students each
  • 24 recitation sections of 40 students each
  • 5 contact hours per week: 3 (1-hour) lectures and 2 (1-hour) recitations)
  • Four professors each teach one section of the course. They deliver three lectures per week, hold two office hours per week, create examinations, and supervise GTAs.
  • Twelve GTAs assist in teaching the course. They attend the lectures, lead two recitations per week, and grade exercices and examinations.

Redesigned Course Structure

  • 15-week term
  • 4 lecture sections of 240 students each
  • 3 contact hours per week: 1 (1-hour) lecture and 2 (1-hour) labs
  • Four professors each teach one section of the course. They deliver one lecture per week, create examinations and review materials, provide assistance to students in the lab and supervise GTAs
  • Six GTAs assist in teaching by providing assistance to students in the lab and proctoring computerized tests.
  • Undergraduate interns assist students in the lab.


In summary, the redesigned course will implement the following changes:

  • Reduce weekly lectures from three to one
  • Change recitations to technology-based classroom meetings
  • Offer interactive, Web-based course materials and computerized testing
  • Offer collaborative and hands-on learning opportunities for students
  • Greatly reduce the time that GTAs spend grading exams
  • Shift faculty and GTA roles from instruction to learning facilitation
  • Provide additional help through a tutorial lab staffed by instructors, GTAs, and undergraduate interns



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