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Lessons Learned

University of Idaho

Pedagogical Improvement Techniques

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

Polya Math Center. Modeled in part after Virginia Tech’s Math Emporium, the Polya Math Center was designed to move students from a passive to an active learning experience in which the student controlled and individualized learning based on personal needs. The Polya Center used commercially available tutorial software that generated problems and offered immediate feedback. Faculty, TAs and peer tutors worked with students individually and in groups.

Student focus groups. Students were assigned to focus groups of forty to fifty students each, which met once a week to coordinate activities and discuss experiences and expectations. Students were grouped according to their majors so that particular applications could be emphasized.

Online resources. Every course topic was presented in a series of online lectures created by the math department faculty. Commercially available tutorial software generated problems and offered immediate feedback. Students could repeat weekly quizzes and tests up to three times, with consultation and additional study between attempts. Online bulletin boards and e-mail provided a continuous means of communication between students and instructors.

Weekly task lists. During the first year of operation, students requested more structure, and weekly task lists were created as a result. The weekly task list was a step-by-step break down of the assignment for each week, showing the student precisely where to find the information pertaining to each specific problem. Instructors were able to use the task list in class to help each student devise a detailed study plan for the upcoming week. The task lists were Web-based with links to all of the necessary online lectures. There were also several links to “hints” and other supplemental material providing more instruction. The task lists benefited both students and tutors. With the task list in place, tutors could appropriately direct the student to the instruction necessary to be successful on any given homework problem.

Weekly tutor training. A weekly, one-hour mandatory tutor training session gave tutors an overview of the material that would be covered during the upcoming week. They were shown the specific homework exercises that traditionally gave the students problems. Tutors could relay important information to the Polya Director so that it could be properly relayed to the focus group teachers. These training sessions helped maintain consistency in instruction.

Cost Reduction Techniques

What techniques contributed most to reducing costs?

Online delivery. Online course-delivery techniques supplemented with a printed textbook gave students flexible access to course content. Every topic in the course was presented in a series of twenty-five-minute, streaming-video lectures created by the departmental faculty, covering topics in the math textbooks. Online practice quizzes that were automatically graded replaced weekly homework grading. When coupled with one-on-one help, these techniques proved to be more effective and less expensive than classroom lectures while increasing student interaction time.

Creating a team that includes faculty, graduate students and undergraduate students. One senior instructor oversaw the entire operation. A team of two additional instructors, TAs and undergraduate peer tutors provided help to students. By very specifically defining roles for team members to play, highly competent assistance was given to students. This system required continual review, and the team required both training and direct supervision. The team was able to increase greatly the number of contact hours, while greatly decreasing the cost per hour for that contact. The decrease in the per hour rate made the total cost for the instructional activities significantly less than in the traditional method.

Implementation Issues

What implementation issues were most important?

Creating a community of learners. One early concern for the university was how to create appropriate communities of learners. This past semester brought the first documented success in this area. As discussed in the learning outcomes section earlier, the Polya Center team successfully created a productive community with the students in the CAMP program (for children of migrant workers—some of whom are Hispanic and some Native American). The team is trying a similar technique with student-athletes. Whenever students who share learning issues are identified, the team will work to identify the appropriate community and then provide support for its creation.

Database issues. Most of the most urgent database issues were solved by building a system of tracking student grades and activities through a combination of small databases owned by faculty and the large Polya related database. It was not a perfect solution, but it protected the system from some outside intrusions (such server attacking viruses) and provided more localized control of the learning environment. The system cannot, however, support monitoring and encouraging students who wish to work away from the Center itself.

Space Constraints. Finding sufficient space in an easily accessible and convenient location for the Polya Center required rehabbing space and relocating some offices. Now housing 71 computers in pods of four that are designed for as many as three students to work together at a single monitor, the Polya Center provides a learning environment for over 2400 students annually. To accommodate this large number of students, the Polya team has spread the load of student use more evenly by spreading assignment deadline dates across each day of the week. Thus 20% of students have deadline dates for assignments, tests and quizzes on Monday, 20% on Tuesday, and so on. The space is used more consistently, rather than just before a test or assignment is due, allowing more students to be accommodated in a smaller lab and reducing the lab downtime.

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