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Improving the Quality of Student Learning

University of Iowa

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

Mastering Chemistry Software

After pilot-testing the use of Mastering Chemistry (a Web-based, skill building software package) as graded homework in spring 2000, we moved to full implementation in fall 2000. The software was used by about 500 students in spring 2000 and 2001 and by about 750 students in fall 2000 and 2001.

Previous implementations of using this software as graded homework have been limited to “spot-grading” a very limited portion of the assignments submitted. Typically, 12 - 15 weekly problem sets of 15 to 20 problems each were assigned, but only one or two of those problems could be examined each week. In the pilot test, 25 units of 8 - 12 problems each were assigned over the duration of the semester, and the students had an unlimited number of attempts for each set. As a result, a direct comparison of the redesign with the previous situation is not possible.

Success in the course is highly correlated with completion of homework (i.e., time-on-task). The 25 homework assignments are worth a maximum of 3 points each or 75 points total out of 650 possible course points. The class mean in the pilot test semester was 37 points or almost exactly 50%. The following table compares students' final course grades with those who achieved more than 50% of the possible points and those who achieved less than 50% of the possible points on the homework.

Final Course Grade >50% of Homework <50% of Homework
A+ 3 0
A   47 0
A-  23 1
B+ 42 3
B   61 34
B-  16 35
C+ 9 34
C   7 94
C-  0 27
D+ 0 11
D   0 7
F   0 23

Our current evidence suggests that there are several reasons for low initial compliance: (1) frustration with technical aspects of the software, including the way it was implemented in IT Centers on campus; (2) an additional time requirement for students above their previous commitment; and (3) issues related to student motivation and expectations.

Since the pilot study in the spring of 2000, the instructors have made changes in the number of required versus optional homework units, the value of each in the grading scheme, due dates and related issues. Issues regarding access to and problems with the software have been resolved. In the process, student acceptance of using the software has increased as manifested by a sharp decrease in the number of complaints.

Technology Classroom for Discussion Sections

We implemented the use of a technology classroom for discussion sections in the fall of 2001. Students used laptop computers outfitted with wireless Internet access to conduct some of their activities, including using some practice modules from the “Mastering Chemistry” software. Other changes included replacing tablet-arm chairs with tables to promote cooperative learning and refocusing the teaching assistant role from mini-lecturer to mentor. Data was collected from the students and their TAs about use of the software in the new classroom by using instruments, interviews and by observation.

Discussion Section Use of Mastering Chemistry in Technology Classroom:

Using Mastering Chemistry: % responding
Significantly improved our learning experience 23%
Marginally improved our learning experience 57%
Marginally reduced our learning experience 16%
Was essentially a disaster 4%

Preliminary results suggest that students find the role of the discussion classroom one that is aligned with our learning goals. A more detailed analysis will be part of a formal study that will be conducted in spring 2002.

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