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Lessons Learned

University of Massachusetts Amherst

Pedagogical Improvement Techniques

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

Student preparation Web pages. An online student preparation page led to a vast improvement in the ability of students to participate in class discussions. This preparation page also served as an avenue for the delivery of content of material outside the class meeting. The page provided highly tailored reading assignments and pre-class activities. Key concepts were presented in the form of questions that could be explored prior to class in both the readings and the activities. Students were required to take an online quiz that included instructor feedback. The Web site also provided a centralized location for review materials that was updated on a weekly basis.

Emphasizing problem-solving. In order to facilitate student active learning in large lecture sections (200 –350 students), in-class communication systems were used to solicit responses to problems from students working in small groups. This emphasis on problem solving resulted in a significant improvement in attendance and a high degree of student participation in class.

Low-stakes quizzes. The in-class problem solving was reinforced with low-stakes, weekly quizzes. A strong emphasis was placed on formative assessment. Between the online quizzes, in-class problem solving, the weekly quizzes, and problems available in the review material, more than half of the 300 questions posed in the course allowed students to self-assess their ability to reason with causal models and to practice their problem solving skills.

Linking course goals to departmental learning goals. Prior to the redesign of the course, the biology department developed a set of department-wide learning goals that were adopted as explicit goals of the redesigned course. These included ability to construct logical arguments in biology, ability to critique logical arguments in biology, ability to communicate ideas and arguments effectively both orally and in writing, ability to work effectively in a team, ability to apply problem solving to learning. This linkage provided a rationale and motivation to try new approaches for both students and instructors.

Cost Reduction Techniques

What techniques contributed most to reducing costs?

Shared resources. Prior to the redesign, each of the two sections of the course had been taught by at least two instructors because the breadth of the course made it difficult for a single instructor to cover the full range of topics. In the redesigned course, a single instructor could more easily teach one section, thus reducing the total faculty involved from four to two. A wealth of online materials, including an extensive database of questions that provided students with formative assessment, were easily accessed and manipulated by faculty, leading to a significant reduction in preparation time. Since responsibility for improving and updating the materials was shared between the two remaining instructors, each faculty member's workload was reduced. The emphasis on problem solving shifted the pressure to maintain breadth of content to pressure to highlight depth of analysis. In addition, the significant number of online resources allowed the TAs to review the students' work more quickly and efficiently; they no longer attend the faculty lectures. TAs were able to prepare for labs and office hours using the Web-based resources, thus reducing TA time devoted to course preparation.

Implementation Issues

What implementation issues were most important?

Changes in the original design. The team originally planned to switch from three, 50-minute classes to two, 75-minute classes per week. During the pilot, the team learned that there were unanticipated negative side effects of this class schedule. For example, the students in this setting had fewer opportunities to become comfortable with active learning and the communication system and took longer to adjust to the classroom environment. Also, students were likely spending less time thinking about biology since they did not meet from Thursday until Tuesday. Now all sections are taught in the three 50-minute class mode.

Because the heavy emphasis on formative assessment has actually made the writing and implementing of examinations easier, reducing the overall number of examinations was not necessary. Several small programs were created to facilitate electronic grading of quizzes and exams and to simplify overall maintenance of grading records.

Utilizing existing materials. The team hoped to use online materials supplied by the publisher for both additional readings and student activities, but they encountered difficulties with students who bought used textbooks and compatibility between platforms and hardware. Consequently, the team has de-emphasized publisher provided materials and has relied instead on a variety of free sites. A side benefit of this change has been that introductory biology students have been exposed to the wealth of high quality materials that are available online in their discipline.

There are only a very small number of institutions that have made materials suitable for active student learning in biology widely available. Therefore, as noted above, it was necessary initially to put a significant amount of time into creating new materials. Utilizing topics and concepts in which the instructor had a thorough grounding helped him or her to feel comfortable with this somewhat less predictable approach to learning. This required tailoring some of the materials to fit the instructor's background.

Collaboration between instructors and other key staff. One of the greatest benefits was that the redesign forced more meaningful interaction among the course instructors and other key staff. In the design of the Web site, for example, there was iteration between feedback from what was occurring in class and improvements to the Web site. There was more open dialog between instructors when each student activity was previewed prior to class and then evaluated for effectiveness after class.

Need for both student and instructor buy in. The need for both instructors and students to believe in the value of the new approaches was probably the most important implementation issue faced. The approaches were new for many and required hard work from all. The rationale needed to be made explicit to students and needed to be reinforced over the course of the semester. Instructors were motivated by improved student interaction during class and students' ability to focus more on concept manipulation and less on factual recall during examinations.

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