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Lessons Learned

University at Buffalo (SUNY)

Pedagogical Improvement Techniques

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

Undergraduate Learning Assistants (ULAs). One of the most effective changes involved using ULAs rather than GTAs. Not only was the number of assistants in each lab doubled, but also the ULAs turned out to be better at assisting their peers than were the GTAs. Both faculty and students reported that the ULAs were more effective than the previous GTAs because of the ULAs’ better understanding of the course content, their superior communication skills, and their better understanding of students’ common misconceptions about computers.

Increased lab hours. Increased lab hours enabled the students to have more one-on-one assistance. In addition, students could complete all of their projects during the labs and thus could make use of the ULAs and their peers.

Use of self-paced learning materials. Students found the use of self-paced tutorials provided by the textbook publisher to be effective. They reported that the materials were easy to use and enhanced learning.

Cost Savings Techniques

What techniques contributed most to reducing costs?

Use of ULAs instead of GTAs. The most significant cost saving was the use of ULAs instead of GTAs. Not only was the number of assistants in each lab doubled, but as reported above, the ULAs turned out to be more effective at assisting their peers than were the GTAs.

Use of Self-Paced Learning Materials. The effectiveness of the self-paced materials meant that there were fewer questions that needed to be dealt with in the lab, in office hours and in class, leading to savings in time for faculty and ULAs. In addition, faculty and staff did not have to create the materials themselves. By using commercially available learning materials, the team saved what would have been considerable time to develop, test, implement and maintain the materials.

Use of more-appropriate technical staff. In the traditional course, the departmental technical staff trained in UNIX supported the Windows NT-based lab. This meant that the staff had to spend many hours on the course, since they had to learn the Windows environment as they went along. In the redesigned course, university support staff with expertise in Windows were used; thus, they had to spend fewer hours supporting the course.

Implementation Issues

What implementation issues were most important?

Off-the-shelf software. Because the maturity of the off-the-shelf software was not as anticipated, the course-redesign team believes that the redesign was slightly ahead of its time in that the software needs a little more time to mature to the stage where it will be robust enough to be used effectively. The team believes that this time will come in the not-too-distant future.

Course-management system. The faculty encountered several problems in using Blackboard, the course-management system. First, the system required the instructor to determine in advance exactly how many assignments would be required and the relative weight of each assignment. Second, it was not possible to input the grades from the online testing software automatically into the system. Third, faculty were not able to make desired modifications and improvements. As computer scientists, the instructors felt constrained by not having access to the source code or the file formats for the software.

Online testing. Several problems were encountered with the online testing software and question set obtained from the publisher. The question set was not large enough, and the questions were not categorized such that the set could be used to create multiple, equivalent versions of a single exam. Thus, the instructors could not create different exams to be used in different lab sections that met at different times. In addition, the faculty did not perceive the overall quality of the questions to be high enough. Finally, server problems prevented using online testing in the existing UNIX-supported lab. In the end, online testing was dropped from the redesign.

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