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Improving the Quality of Student Learning

University of Central Florida

Based on available data about learning outcomes from the course pilot, what were the impacts of re-design on learning and student development?

The following results correspond to the classes taught in spring 2000. (Data for the fall 2000 classes are currently being analyzed.) For the pilot phase of this project, conducted in spring 2000, the political science department offered four redesigned sections of its American National Government course. The redesign is based on a fifty percent reduction in face-to-face interaction, or fifty percent "reduced seat time." For its online component, the course employed a range of mixed-mode learning modules, a complete repertoire of 50+ were available for the main study conducted in Fall 2000. In order to determine the effects of the reduced seat time model on student outcomes, the redesigned course was paired with a traditional version of the same course. Both courses had the same instructor, the same text and substantive emphases, but slightly different exams.

The pilot project was to evaluate three types of course and student attributes:

1. Gauge the amount and efficacy of interaction and communication–among students, between students and instructor, and between students and the assigned material. Measures are based on various student perceptions of the opportunities for (and usefulness of) free discussion, the sharing of ideas, contact with the instructor, the ease and clarity of assignments and overall satisfaction.

Students evaluated the redesigned format more favorably in the helpfulness of discussions with other students, ease-of-contact with the instructor, and in opportunities for expressing and sharing ideas. And, though student assessment of the ease or difficulty in following and completing assignments was the same in both formats, students in the redesigned format found course assignments to have much greater benefit in understanding course content. Additionally, students enrolled in the redesigned course expressed greater willingness to take another political science course employing the same format, and their level of overall satisfaction was somewhat better as well.

2. Assess substantive knowledge. The key measure of knowledge is an objective 18-item political information questionnaire, administered to students in the pre-course survey and re-administered at the end of the term. However, student self-assessments of whether the course enhanced their critical thinking skills and their general knowledge of course content also are analyzed.

When asked how much the course increased their knowledge of American politics, students in both formats expressed roughly similar views. A more precise and objective measure is provided by our political knowledge index, which allows a before-and-after gauge of students' acquaintance with important features of American institutions and processes.

Students who selected the redesigned format sections returned lower average scores than traditional students on the 18-item pre-course questionnaire. The initial difference in group means–9.1 items correct for traditional enrollees versus 8.4 for redesigned format students—is large enough to be statistically noteworthy. In the post-course retest, however, both groups scored identically, averaging 10.0 correct responses.

This average increase is, of course, gratifying from a pedagogical standpoint, but it does not tell the whole story. To get a better idea of pre-post change, each student's pre-test score was subtracted from his or her post-test score, resulting in a measure of absolute change.

Beyond some peculiar similarities, the two formats clearly produced different results. Students in the traditional, face-to-face setting showed encouraging, if not especially dramatic, gains in objective knowledge. Two-thirds of these students are clustered in the one-to-three point range: About twenty-eight percent posted a 1-point increase on the 18-item survey, and another thirty-eight percent gained two or three points. Accordingly, the upper tail of this distribution is sparsely populated–just over thirteen percent of the traditional students showed increases of four points or better.

The redesigned section distribution, by contrast, is centered noticeably higher on the change axis. Twenty-two percent of the respondents are on the plus-three mark (the primary mode), and well over a third of them (37.8%) scored at least four points higher on the post-test than on the pre-test. These differences, of course, are captured as well by a mean-comparison: traditional students posted an average increase of 1.67 points; redesign students a 2.92-point pre-post average change. These findings, though preliminary, suggest that the learning modules, which require a higher level of interaction between the student and the material, may foster more thorough and meaningful learning than standard lecture delivery.

3. Student civic orientation was the third area evaluated. An important goal of the introductory American Government course is to increase student attentiveness to politics, to enhance political trust, and to engender a sense of political effectiveness. These goals need not be (and often are not) expressly pursued by the instructor. Instead, two sorts of civic orientations—attentiveness to politics and feelings of political efficacy—frequently are unintended consequences of increased knowledge and heightened interaction with others who hold differing political views. A third orientation, political trust, bears a less certain relationship with knowledge. At best, trust may be only weakly related to political information and discussion.

Standard social science measurements of these orientations were included in the pre- and post-survey instruments. Large percentages of students in both settings professed high levels of attentiveness to public affairs, both at the beginning and at the end of the course. The patterns for efficacy, on the other hand, are rather different. Students in the traditional setting show a predictable increase in feelings of political efficacy, while students in the re-designed section show a decrease. Encouragingly, compared to their pre-course numbers, students in the redesigned sections did report higher levels of political trust in the post-survey.

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