University of Colorado at Boulder
Pedagogical Improvement Techniques
What techniques contributed most to improving the quality of student learning?
Undergraduate Learning Assistants (ULAs). While the employment of ULAs was driven by the need to reduce costs, the redesign team found that this provided one of the most important benefits of the project. The ULAs were more effective than most GTAs in introductory science classes. They are highly motivated to make the course a success. Because the students regard the ULAs as peers, they tend to be more open about their difficulties in comprehension than they would be with graduate students, and this leads to better feedback to the instructor. In meeting with their learning teams, ULAs were expected to help the students understand how to use the computers and software and to guide the students’ collaborative work. They were instructed specifically not to tell the students "the right answers" but were given guidelines to teach students how to find the answers for themselves. One evening each week, the instructor met with the ULAs for about an hour to discuss upcoming work and to review successes and failures. The ULAs developed a strong esprit de corps. They were assertive and provided much creative and detailed advice about how to improve the course. The ULAs reported that their experience in this capacity was one of their best experiences as an undergraduate. About one-third of them changed their majors from humanities and social sciences to natural sciences as a result of the experience, and some of them changed their majors to pursue careers in education. This suggested that the ULA experience is an effective mechanism to induce talented people into careers in education. In fall 2001, the university began to augment the ULA experience with more-formal training by offering them a concurrent seminar course in education, which addresses inquiry-based education, collaborative learning, and the design and appropriate role of information technology in education.
Team learning. Although there is plenty of literature showing that collaborative learning can be very effective, students will not engage in the practice automatically. A few will, but many students need prodding to overcome their ingrained habits to study alone. To ensure that the members of the learning teams actually worked together, the course was designed so that 40% of a student's grade is attributed to the team's performance. Thus, every student on a team had an incentive to help every other student prepare good written and oral answers to the discussion questions. Likewise, grades for collaborative homework projects were assigned to teams, not individuals. The instructor also permitted team members to divide the cumulative team score among themselves as they saw fit. Supported by software, each team member rated each of his or her teammates on performance. Each student could see his or her average performance rating by the rest of the team and could compare it with the average ratings of all other members of the team. Team scores were then divided among the members according to a simple algorithm based on these ratings. Before posting the results of the team ratings, the instructor asked the ULAs whether the students had rated each other fairly, and 90% of the time the ULAs said that they had. The students perceived the system as fair. In addition to preparing answers for the discussion questions, the teams worked collaboratively on team projects. Many of these team projects were inquiry-based exercises based on powerful interactive Java simulations. Another kind of team project was to prepare Web pages on some special topic in astronomy (e.g., life in the universe). Students learned to use search engines in a discriminating way, to embed images, hyperlinks, and other multimedia features. The best of this work was incorporated into the hypertext.
Interactive class sessions. About a dozen discussion questions were posted on the Web each week along with a matrix displaying which questions had been answered, which questions still needed answers, and who was responsible for providing the answers. All teams were expected to post written answers to all questions, and every member of each team had to sign up as a designated answerer for one or two questions. Questions ranged from those requiring the students to retrieve facts from the hypertext or an external link to those requiring the students to draw a conclusion from a variety of facts and principles. Following the team meetings, the instructor led a discussion session in which he directed questions to the learning teams. Before class, he reviewed the posted written answers to each question. If all the teams had approximately the same correct written answers to a given question, the instructor skipped that question. Instead, he devoted the class discussion time to questions for which the written answers were dissonant among teams, either because the students had misconceptions or because the question was intended to elicit controversy. The discussion sessions reinforced the students' learning and cleared up misconceptions.
Online delivery. The tasks of delivering facts and concepts were moved from the lecture to the hypertext. Thus, these tasks were shifted from the "broadcast" mode (the students listen to lectures) to the "asynchronous mode" (the students must read and interpret the hypertext). With all course content posted on the Web, the instructor can use class time to probe the students' understanding of the material rather than to broadcast content.
Cost Savings Techniques
What techniques contributed most to reducing costs?
Undergraduate Learning Assistants. The employment of ULAs in lieu of GTAs and the replacement of one weekly meeting of the entire class with a small group meeting with a ULA was the main cost-saving device of the redesign. By replacing expensive labor (faculty and graduate students) with cheap labor, the course-redesign team actually increased the person-hours devoted to the course while cutting costs.
What implementation issues were most important?
Software development. The most challenging implementation issue was the development of custom course software, which was a bigger job than anticipated. The software works pretty well now, but there are still glitches to be repaired and opportunities for further improvement. The redesign team believes that it might have been a mistake not to try to adapt a standard software package, such as WebCT, to provide the necessary functionality for the course. Now that the team has software that works pretty well, it does not want to undertake the development effort necessary to adapt a standard package.
Adequate classroom space. A second implementation issue is the problem of providing adequate classroom space to offer the course in the redesigned format to all students in the department. The missing ingredient is a sufficient number of laboratory classrooms equipped with a server and terminals so that the learning teams can meet in small groups. Currently, there is enough space to provide the redesigned format to only about half of the enrolled students. The university has plans to provide more smart classrooms.
Program in Course Redesign Quick Links: