Program in Course Redesign

University of Southern Maine

The Traditional Course

Introductory Psychology is taught every semester, at least twice during the summer, and occasionally during the three-week winter session at the University of Southern Maine (USM). Thirteen sections of the course serve approximately 875 students per year. The course is in high demand because it fulfills a core distribution requirement for nursing, psychology, sociology, and other social science majors. Redesign of the course has the potential for affecting a large number of students.

The course faces a number of academic problems because of its structure. Since the university does not offer a graduate degree in psychology, there are no graduate assistants available to assist the full-time faculty who teach the course, although some fourth-year students act as tutors. Large lecture sections and the absence of recitation sections do not support individualized instruction. There are no ways other than the traditional lecture format to aid students’ understanding and their retention of course material. Not surprisingly, about 30% of the students fail the course. Because of the way in which test answers are scanned for large groups of students, feedback on tests is generally limited to the total score. Except in one course section where tests are administered by computer, no feedback is provided about which material was incorrect or where to turn to learn the correct information. Students who pass the course often fail to retain course material for future use. In addition, the course in lecture format is not fully accessible to all students (e.g., disabled students, students who cannot attend on a regular basis). Finally, the course drains faculty resources by using too many faculty for introductory-level teaching (2.17 of the total 9 faculty positions in the department).

The Redesigned Course

Course redesign has three primary, interrelated goals: (1) increasing students’ understanding and retention of the course material, (2) increasing the course retention rate, and (3) reducing costs. Other goals include making course materials more accessible and useful to handicapped students and to those who have difficulty attending a regularly scheduled, campus-based class. USM believes that computer-based technology, specifically computer-based tests and Web-based activities, will enable it to achieve these goals.

The learning goals for the redesigned course will require students to learn the material of the course as well as to

  • use activity-based learning modules to interpret and interact with text information;
  • use Web-based technology to interact with peers and faculty for a fuller understanding of the concepts of introductory psychology; and
  • direct their own learning by using feedback from computer-based tests.

To achieve these learning goals, the redesign will move Introductory Psychology from a lecture-based course to one in which there are many opportunities for active learning. Half of the present lecture format will be replaced with computer-based activities, and multiple modules will be provided for each chapter of the text. Multiple modules provide a mechanism to match tasks with the various learning styles of the students. Multiple activities also benefit the instructors; instead of being limited to a specific series of assignments, instructors will be able to select those that are most consistent with their particular needs or interests.

The computer-based activities will present concepts that would otherwise be covered in lecture but will present them in a format that is student- rather than faculty-focused, increasing students’ excitement with the course and thereby promoting students’ success. Several activities will incorporate data from students’ responses, making it possible to compare responses with others in the class and thus providing a connection with peer learners. Students will also be expected to respond to specific questions within each module and will receive feedback on those responses. Students can redo modules, depending on the outcome, until they fully comprehend the concept. The Web-based environment will enable both students and the instructor to monitor students’ progress. Students’ direct contact with the instructor will be increased as well. Because the learning modules will replace half of the lecture time per week, faculty can use this time to interact directly with students without any increase in their overall course-preparation or contact time.

Tests will be computerized as well. Unlike the optically scanned exams that are the norm in the present course, computerized exams provide immediate feedback to students about their progress in the course. The system also directs an individual student to appropriate material in the text. Furthermore, with large test banks and random selection of test items, students can take tests repeatedly. The purpose of exams then shifts from gaining a course grade to mastering the material. This model reduces the stress associated with exams and, when coupled with information about incorrectly answered questions, enables exam results to foster learning.

The Web-based format also lends itself to the asynchronous delivery of course materials, a delivery style that is critical to a student-focused course and consistent with the university's interest in eliminating the requirement that students be at a particular place at a particular time.

Traditional Course Structure

  • 15-week term
  • 12 lecture sections (~70 students) per year plus one summer section (~30)
  • 2.5 contact hours per week (2 lectures)
  • Four full-time faculty teach all sections of the course. They present two lectures per week and design and evaluate assignments and tests.

Redesigned Course Structure

  • 15-week term
  • 7 sections of 125 students each per year
  • 1.25 contact hours per week (1 lecture)
  • Four full-time faculty teach all sections of the course. They present one lecture per week, select from publisher-produced materials to design assignments and tests, evaluate assignments, respond to students’ individual needs, and rely primarily on machine-scored tests for grading.
  • Undergraduate teaching assistants (TAs) assist in the computer lab as needed.


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

  • Treat multiple sections as one course using common materials
  • Reduce lecture time by 50%
  • Provide for students’ interaction with online resources and with each other
  • Add undergraduate TAs for student help
  • Enable faculty to select course materials more appropriate for their students
  • Make faculty and TAs available to students via the computer classroom
  • Allow faculty to interact more directly and individually with their students online
  • Institute computer-based testing, which allows for retesting and self-directed learning,
  • Increase section size from 75 to 125; reduce section numbers



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