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Impact on Students

University of Massachusetts Amherst

In the redesign, did students learn more, less or the same compared to the traditional format?

Improved Learning

In the traditional course, exam scores averaged 61%, while in the redesigned course, exam scores averaged 73%, a significant increase. Furthermore, careful analysis revealed a profound shift in the focus and difficulty of exam questions. In the traditional course, the vast majority of questions were designed to test recall of factual material or definitions of terms, and only a minority of questions (23%) required reasoning or problem solving skills. In the redesigned course, 67% of the questions required problem-solving skills. These results are consistent with the nature and intent of the redesign. Online resources were created to help students learn basic content and class time was modified to allow students to practice problem solving and receive real time feedback on specific challenges they experienced. Students not only learned considerable detailed content but also learned to apply that content to solve rich problems addressing a wide range of biological questions.

To test whether students could generalize the problem-solving skills they developed to solve novel problems involving content not specifically covered in the course, the faculty developed a pair of scientific reasoning and problem solving tests in collaboration with a group of cognitive science faculty. The matched tests were administered in a pre/post format with students taking the pre-test the first week of classes and the post-test the last week. The tests were a hybrid multiple choice/short answer design in which students were presented with models of a biological systems, asked to solve problems that required use of the models, and then asked to explain their reasoning. In the redesign, student performance on the post-test improved significantly, a full standard deviation higher than the pre-test. These results strongly reinforced positive results from course exams.

Improved Retention

Student success rates (C or higher in the course) were 63.2% in the traditional course, 65.2% in the partial redesign and 68.1% in the full redesign, a reassuring but statistically insignificant increase.

Other Impacts on Students

The course redesign had a strong positive effect on student attendance. In the full redesign, attendance averaged 89.9% for the entire semester compared to 67% in the traditional course, which correlated significantly to performance on exams. When student exam data were split into two groups, the one with attendance higher than 90% had average exam scores of 78.4%, and the other with attendance lower than 90% had average exam scores of 63.6%. These attendance data reinforce the interpretation that the redesigned course not only encourages students to come to class, but also presents a classroom environment that has a significant positive effect on student learning. These results are in sharp contrast to observations from other introductory courses where a weak or non-existent effect of attendance on course performance has been noted.

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