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Improving the Quality of Student Learning

Fairfield University

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

The course pilot (Spring 2001) involved four major uses of technology: use of wireless technology in the lecture portion of the course which was consolidated from four sections into a single large lecture format; use of technology for class data input; use of wireless technology in the laboratory; use of technology to provide students with out-of-class information. Since our redesign does not include a parallel control group due to the large lecture consolidation, our assessment for this semester relies on student evaluations and faculty and student feedback.

This use of technology significantly increased student interaction and inquiry-based learning in the lecture, where little or no interaction normally takes place. All four of the introduced changes were very well received by the students. Of those returning course assessment forms (n =45), 71% found that the technological additions to the course were helpful to learning.

The creation of a Web site specifically designed to input and collect class data allowed faculty to demonstrate the Hardy-Weinberg principle (explaining population genetics) in a way impossible in the previous course (visit www.faculty.fairfield.edu/mhill/phenotypes/). Each student was asked to sample five of his or her friends for five different heritable traits. We then generated a Web site that students could access outside of class to input their data. Finally, we were able to immediately collect the large data set (500-600 people for each trait), and use it to study population genetics and statistical analysis. This activity was extremely successful from the faculty and student perspectives. First, we were able to get students involved in a unique way, and demonstrate this biological concept with a much more meaningful set of data. This use of technology enhanced student comprehension of this material as indicated by several individuals on the course assessment form.

The wireless technology used in the lecture was also integrated into one portion of the laboratory component of the pilot course. Specifically, computers were used in a series of three dissection labs (www.faculty.fairfield.edu/mhill/genbio/bi92lab/dissection.html). A variety of Web sites were selected that focused on the evolutionary relationships between organisms, and the anatomy of particular animals. These sites were used to complement the discussion of animal diversity in lab and the standard animal dissections. In addition, we generated a course laboratory Web site that helped to guide students with these exercises, and provide links to the relevant sites. In the past we found that this set of dissection labs was extremely dry and purposeless to the students, many of whom had done these activities as high-school students.

The incorporation of computers in these labs accomplished four important learning objectives. First, it enhanced student comprehension by allowing students to think about the evolutionary relationships between the animals they were observing – a critical part of this exercise. Second, it exposed students to a much greater breadth of information, including a wider diversity of animals. Third, it facilitated more team-centered learning due to the questions and discussions raised by the Web sites. With these uses of technology in the lab, the students are expected to do more than just follow a series of exercises – they are asked to propose ideas and discuss hypotheses based on all the information available to them on the suggested sites. Fourth, it allowed students to extend this learning process outside the bounds of the laboratory since students could access these sites outside of the lab and continue to investigate their unanswered questions.

Finally, we used technology to provide students with 24-hour access to the course syllabus, on-line lecture notes, and review questions. Students found all of these tools to be extremely helpful throughout the course, and in preparation for exams. We found that all types of students took advantage of these features, and many used them to direct their questions in the weekly recitation periods. It seemed to be most beneficial for problem-oriented topics, and otherwise complicated concepts. It was also helpful to focus student attention on those topics we felt were most important from all those covered in class, and provided students with a written description of how a variety of topics tie together.

December 2001 Update: A full assessment of the effects our redesign efforts have had on student learning and development will be available at the end of this academic year. However, preliminary data indicate there have been important gains in student development and learning. After the first semester of full-scale implementation of our redesigned General Biology course, our DFW rate dropped. Only 3% of the students in the first semester decided to drop the course compared to an average of close to 8% in previous years. Furthermore, the number of students who decided to enroll in the second semester of the course approached 85%. In previous years this number has been below 75%. While correlative, these data are in the direction predicted if our IT efforts were effective.

Students in the Fall 2001 class demonstrated greater technological proficiency than students from previous semesters. The reason for this improvement appears to be that greater emphasis was placed on employing computer skills in the laboratory and lecture. Over the past three years, students have been required to write a scientific paper on independent research projects that they design and conduct. This year's products were judged superior in terms of the quality of graphical presentation and data analysis. In addition, the students appeared to have a better understanding of graphical interpretation (based on the analysis and presentation of their data). This is one of the higher level thinking skills we are interested in strengthening with our redesign.

Finally, while a smaller total amount of material was covered during the fall 2001 semester, the depth of coverage was greater. This was apparent when answers on the final exam from this semester were compared to responses from last year. Students demonstrated deeper understanding, and we attribute this improvement to the computer-enhanced instruction.

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