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Lessons Learned

University of Iowa

Pedagogical Improvement Techniques

What techniques contributed most to improving the quality of student learning?

Active-learning techniques. Making the students responsible for their own learning became part of virtually all aspects of the course. This included working in pairs or groups on thought questions in lecture; using integrated case studies focused on real-world applications in their academic areas of interest; building skills via an online homework software package; using interactive simulations and small-group problem solving in discussion sections; collecting lab data in pairs, pooling data from larger groups, and analyzing the collective values for the whole section. These learning opportunities provided multiple ways of engaging students.

Online learning resources. Online homework software, Mastering Chemistry and ChemSkillBuilder On-Line, provided problem-solving experiences, feedback and an active learning environment. Students could repeat sections until they achieved mastery. After using Mastering Chemistry for five consecutive semesters, the team switched to a different commercial package, ChemSkillBuilder On-line (McGraw Hill). The team found that students perceived Mastering Chemistry as just another course assessment or self-assessment. ChemSkillBuilder is similar is scope and purpose but better at providing tutorials and context sensitive help. During the five semesters using Mastering Chemistry, student participation was at a level between 50% and 65% of homework credit. During the two semesters of using ChemSkillBuilder, the participation was at the 80% level. Student evaluation of the electronic homework as a factor that helped them learn (with 1 low and 10 high) went from a class average of 3.6 in fall 2000 (Mastering Chemistry) to 7.6 in fall 2002 (ChemSkillBuilder).

A math and calculator skills tutorial Web site was available for math and problem-solving review. A set of resources called "Virtual Office Hours" provided a set of stepwise, annotated and illustrated examples of solved problems. These materials combined the slides of PowerPoint with an audio track. They were detailed enough to last 10-12 minutes yet compact enough to require only 2 Mb of memory.

Multiple options for learning. The redesigned course integrated several learning environments including lecture (large lecture presentations, real and virtual demonstrations, work in pairs or small groups), discussion sections (with a cooperative learning environment and group activities), a case-study session (a real world application of chemistry with a lab techniques presentation and group activities), discovery-based laboratory experiments (guided inquiry with cooperative learning and group activities), and asynchronous learning tools and activities (online homework, Web-based tutorials).

Cost Reduction Techniques

What techniques contributed most to reducing costs?

Electronic homework. Electronic homework replaced written homework that had required teaching assistants to grade. The software helped students practice problem-solving and helped instructors monitor student performance as the course progressed. Previously homework was spot-checked because not enough personnel could be dedicated to the course to grade every item. In addition, students received only composite scores. In the redesign, all homework was graded automatically, and students received specific feedback in regard to incorrect answers. Four TAs are now available for other assignments, a significant savings in personnel.

Consolidation of courses. In addition to the reduction in the number of faculty needed to teach the General Chemistry course in the redesign, the combination of General Chemistry sequence with the chemical sciences sequence further decreased the number of faculty members needed to teach these courses. Previously, two separate course sequences had been offered, requiring duplication of effort by faculty. However, the College of Engineering found the redesigned model in compliance with ABET accreditation. Now the special sequence is no longer needed, and 1.5 faculty per term are available for other institutional assignments.

Replacing faculty with instructors. After the integration of the lab component with the lecture course, it was possible to replace a faculty member with an instructor who will focus on the content and delivery of the laboratory materials and who will provide continuity and further development of these materials. As part of the course team, this instructor works with the senior faculty member responsible for the entire course and provides the desired continuity between the two segments. Previously when the lab was a stand-alone course, a faculty member operated independently, requiring a higher level of personnel. This decision has considerable pedagogical value as well, adding greater consistency and quality control to the course.

Implementation Issues

What implementation issues were most important?

Availability of laboratory space. Full implementation was delayed by a lack of available laboratory space. At the time of the proposal, the university made a commitment to transferring lab space from botany to chemistry. A delay in construction and botany's move meant that those facilities could not be used. An organic chemistry lab was finally transferred to support the redesign course.

Administrative issues. A set of courses taken by all engineering and science majors gave rise to advising, "grandfathering" and even registration details that required time and resources to handle. For example, the redesigned course required students to select lecture, discussion and laboratory sections and automatically triggered scheduling of an evening exam period and the case-study sessions that met in alternate weeks with the labs but in different rooms. Creative solutions for the Registrar's software had to be found until the system could be modified to accommodate the special needs of this course.

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