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Implementation Issues

University of Massachusetts Amherst

Looking back on the course pilot itself, what worked best?

One very positive feature of this process was the extensive collaboration between instructors of the two sections of the course. This collaboration has allowed agreement about web site content, lecture content, problem solving formats and design and exam preparation. Each of these was discussed, and agreed upon to create a genuinely uniform course experience for all 700 students in the two sections of the course. This interaction was seen as a strength by both instructors, and they anticipate that the investment will pay off as they enter this second year of the course. If nothing else is realized, the opportunity for this extraordinary collaboration to occur is enough of a benefit to declare the redesign project a success.

A second feature that worked very well was the use of the student preparation page. Students and instructors were enthusiastic about its potential and benefits. The Duck quiz was also very successful and positively viewed by instructors and students. Even though this required more of the students' time, the benefits (which included earning some points) were clearly seen as worth the effort by a large fraction of the students. Students have had a nearly uniform positive reaction to the redesign. In surveys of their opinions about the course, many students reported liking the web resources and thinking of the web site as a “home” for the course. In addition, many students appreciate the emphasis on conceptual understanding and problem solving. They expected introductory biology to require a lot of memorizing and listing of facts, and instead appreciated the emphasis on “ways of thinking” about biological systems.

In the second year of the redesign we actually could cover more content than we had in the pilot year. The collaborations between instructors allowed focus on key concepts and loss of distraction from the course material and allowed the central issues to be explored in more ways than in previous semesters. This is likely to represent an important benefit of a multi-year redesign where the later years benefit from lessons learned earlier in the process.

What worked least well?

The problems with the redesign were surprisingly few. We did find in the second semester of Introductory Biology that it was sometimes a challenge to have the preparation pages posted in a timely fashion. We became aware that this is an issue when students must access the page and associated Duck quiz by a certain time to receive credit. As our previous experience had warned us, problem-solving exercises are only as good as the questions. We are still refining the questions we write for ClassTalk, Duck quizzes and exams paying attention to the purpose of each question, its clarity and expected outcomes. We also recognize that each of the four instructors involved in the active learning format this year came to the class with their own style and level of comfort. We would like to increase the dialogue among these individuals to build a more supportive and instructional environment.

We had predicted that meeting twice a week for longer periods of time would be the preferred format for the active learning class. Surprisingly, there are unanticipated negative side effects of this class schedule. For example, the students in this setting have fewer opportunities to become comfortable with active learning and the communication system and take longer to adjust to the classroom environment. Also, students are likely spending less time thinking about Biology as they do not meet from Thursday until Tuesday.

What are the biggest challenges you face in moving from the course pilot to the project's next phase?

The basic goals for the course redesign remain the same. We have, however, been forced to revise our expectations of the complete redesign given the outcomes of the course pilots and other factors beyond our control. For example, the likelihood that all sections of the course will be taught in the redesign model is dependent on the availability of instructors and the ClassTalk classroom. We are optimistic that advances in in-class communications systems will help resolve this issue.

Adequate coverage of course content does not seem to be an issue in the course redesign. However, instructors do report that they feel rushed and must control the discussion more than they would like due to time constraints. Offering the class twice a week for a longer period rather than 3 times a week for a shorter period may help with this but also has some drawbacks. We have not resolved which is the preferred class schedule; there are advantages and disadvantages to both. The two classes per week has the advantage as being easier for the instructor; fewer preparation pages and Duck quizzes must be produced, time is saved in class preparation and the class is perceived as less rushed by the instructor as there is more time per class. While students also have fewer preparation pages and quizzes when meeting twice a week, we are concerned that the students in this setting have fewer opportunities to become comfortable with active learning and the communication system and take longer to adjust to the classroom environment.

We are challenged by the scheduling of additional opportunities to meet with students to answer questions and reinforce the material. The large size of the course and the current credit system make it difficult to provide a satisfactory number of students with these opportunities. We also believe that the time of day the class is scheduled likely influences the students' enthusiasm for engaging in small group discussion.

We also became aware that instructor enthusiasm is a critical factor in success of the redesign. The use of ClassTalk, the preparation page and the Duck quiz for the first time instructor in Introductory Biology is quite demanding. On top of this an instructor unaccustomed to large classes must learn the ropes of active learning with 200+ students by doing it. We have come to recognize that busy faculty are unlikely to make significant progress in preparing questions in advance even within the apprenticeship program. This may not be a negative thing as the creation of questions in response to the previous class experience yields a much more effective and student-centered class.

One big challenge in the next year is to produce a database of our various types of questions. The goal is for the database to serve as a repository of all exam, ClassTalk and Duck quiz questions. We have decided that this is a critical piece of a successful faculty apprenticeship program. The questions will be coded as to the content area they relate to and their utility. For example an instructor would be able to access a battery of questions that refer to a particular topic and would be useful as ClassTalk questions. Another search may yield exam questions appropriate for this topic. Questions that address student misconceptions would be identified as would other questions that may check their understanding of the concept. Our goal is that the database will ease new instructors into the course by not requiring that they write all their questions de novo.

We will face this in the spring semester of 2002 when 2 new instructors are teaching Introductory Biology. There is a growing body of faculty both in the biology department and on campus that are interested in the use of technology-supported active learning. Thus there is a solid network for support. We also strive to impress on instructors that the use of technology and active learning techniques is not mastered the first time through. With each new semester, more bugs are worked out and more effective strategies are developed. We want to encourage instructors to persist and improve with repeated experience by serving as models and resources. The database is only one strategy we hope to use to ensure the sustainability of the redesign format in Introductory Biology and other biology courses. We are working to introduce our results and course design to our departmental colleagues and to offer to support those interested in incorporating the student preparation pages and Duck quizzes.

Perhaps the most daunting challenge is to find an assessment strategy that will clearly demonstrate to ourselves and others that the redesign and more importantly the use of problem-based active learning aids students in developing the skills we want them to possess. Our department is committed to having our students attain specific learning goals by the end of their college career and our efforts in Introductory Biology are the first step in this process. We believe that we have not yet measured the "right" thing yet. We were also overwhelmed by the complexity of the assessment process this past Fall and the challenge of having multiple sections of a course with the resulting variability in exams and course letter grade assignments.

December 2001 Update: We have some concern about the process of transitioning new faculty in to the course. This will require effort from the new instructor as well as the present instructors. The department is facing a huge increase in majors and unprecedented teaching load despite a reduction in faculty size. Finding the resources to make the best use of the resources we have created in future years is an important job for the remainder of the project.

The goals of the redesign have changed in some minor ways because of scheduling constraints. Our original redesign was to create a class preparation web site to offload basic content from lecture, and use lecture for problem solving and concept manipulation. This central goal has not changed and has been quite successful. However, some details of course delivery have changed. In the second year of redesign, there were two sections of the course, one with 260 students the other with 430 students. The larger section could not be accommodated in the lecture facility wired for ClassTalk, and classroom management of the active learning process with 400+ is very challenging. Therefore, the larger section did not use the ClassTalk system per se, but the instructor did present and discuss the ClassTalk questions that were used in the smaller section. In future years, we are exploring mechanisms for limiting class size and employing a wireless classroom communication system that will provide greater scheduling flexibility.

In the two years of redesign, we have identified the absence of a recitation or discussion forum for students as a significant gap in the course. Many students work on the material online to prepare for class, attend class and attempt to work through the problems presented there, but they still need additional support where their specific questions or misunderstandings can be addressed. In the past year, both instructors provided two hours of “review session” time per week to meet this need. These sessions were very well attended and productive. We anticipate the possibility of expanding these reviews in future years when considerably less web site and lecture preparation is required. We now have a threaded discussion mailing list that was not well used, which led us to create some face-to-face review sessions. However, an electronic forum for the discussions and review sessions we are holding are getting serious consideration for the future. We are working now to decide on which form of chat, threaded discussion or instant messaging to link to the web site and use to facilitate out-of-class discussion.

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