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Program in Course Redesign

Fairfield University

Project Abstract

Fairfield University's General Biology course, a two-semester introduction to the biological sciences required of all biology majors, has an annual enrollment of approximately 260 students and is among the highest enrolled classes at Fairfield. Seven sections of 35-40 students each are taught annually from the same syllabus in different rooms. The lecture portion relies upon passive learning, with little interaction among students and focuses on an historic approach that is in dire need of modernization. In-class technology consists of an overhead projector with transparencies. The required laboratory component of the course, taught in sections of 20 students, is based on a series of canned modules (12 per semester) with no student-centered investigation.

The traditional course suffers from a number of academic deficiencies. The most serious is the lack of a student-centered, inquiry-based pedagogy. Student surveys indicate a nearly unanimous dissatisfaction with the current approach, and preliminary data indicate lower comprehension of material and lower retention of students than should be expected. Both the lecture and laboratory focus on memorization rather than the application of scientific methodology and critical thinking skills. A third problem is lack of sophisticated graphics and animation technology to convey complex visual material and software modules and on-line databases to demonstrate specific concepts. Finally, the cost-per-student has become too high due to redundancy in faculty teaching and the high cost of laboratory exercises.

The redesign will provide students with a more effective learning experience. The multiple-lecture sections will be condensed into a single large-classroom format. Students will work in teams of 2-3 around individual laptop computers (iBooks), each connected to an instructor-controlled computer via wireless technology. Software modules that focus on inquiry-based, student-centered instruction will enable student teams to lead in-class discussions via a peer-mentoring format. Students will also use the iBooks in labs to conduct independent investigations using modern software packages and Web-based exercises, thus creating a dynamic, inquiry-based environment.

Fairfield intends to enhance the quality of education for students by 1) establishing interactive student-centered learning environments, 2) better facilitating the transfer of information, and 3) exposing students to the wealth of biological information available today. Students will better understand foundational concepts in biology, develop increased confidence in their knowledge, understand the effectiveness of collaborative team efforts and develop higher-order cognitive skills. Finally, students will be exposed to new IT-based fields of biology that are quickly becoming important in the field and will gain a broader appreciation of the wealth of information and interconnectedness of knowledge in the sciences.

Assessment activities will include analysis of standardized test scores (GREs and MCATs), student evaluations, average biology GPAs, weekly question-and-answer recitation sessions, electronic feedback embedded in the classroom, laboratory portfolios, examination of course and major retention rates, student interviews, and alumni surveys. The team will also use questions taken from traditional course exams in the redesigned course exams, which will provide a benchmark to assess the effectiveness of their redesign efforts. In addition, they will re-administer biology tests to a subset of seniors in order to assess long-term retention of subject matter.

Significant cost savings will be realized by reducing faculty time in three major areas: 1) materials development for lectures; 2) out-of-class course meetings; and 3) in-class lectures and labs. Consolidation of the seven lecture sections in the traditional course to two in the redesigned course and the introduction of computer-based modules in the lecture and laboratory will result a projected cost-per-student reduction from $506 to $350, a savings of 31 percent.

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