Program in Course Redesign

University of Massachusetts Amherst

The Traditional Course

Introductory Biology, taught in the fall semester, is the first course in biological sciences for incoming students from eleven majors at the university. The course serves approximately 700 students each fall, representing about 20% of the freshman class. Teams of two instructors teach each of the two sections of the course. Classes meet three times a week for 50 minutes sessions. Students also participate in labs that meet once a week for three hours. Introductory Biology is designed to provide a foundation for all further study in the life sciences by providing students with both a solid conceptual foundation in biology and an enthusiasm for the subject matter to motivate advanced study in the field.

Introductory Biology has been in the process of revision for some time. A previous redesign focused on the lab sessions, which have been changed to include strong data collection and analysis components. A more recent (fall,1999) redesign of one lecture section moved from a traditional lecture format to an active learning environment. The redesign incorporated ClassTalk, a commercially-available, interactive program that compiles and displays student responses to problem-solving activities.

Using ClassTalk, class time is divided into 10-15 minute lecture segments followed by sessions in which students work in small groups applying concepts to solve problems posed by the instructor. Students discuss the questions to facilitate initial problem solving and then share the rationale for their responses with the class once the data has been compiled and displayed. The instructor moderates the discussions and draws out key issues to reinforce specific ideas or reveal misconceptions. This approach has successfully created an active learning environment, bringing many positive aspects of small group work to the large lecture hall setting. However, other problems remain to be solved.

There are four academic problems to be solved:

  • The move to ClassTalk has increased course costs ($174 per student in the traditional course compared to $199 per student in the ClassTalk course. ClassTalk requires increased instructor preparation and support staff time in an environment that has lost 18% of tenure-track faculty over the last decade while seeing a 240% increase in biology majors.
  • Instructors have been challenged to cover course content adequately in the active classroom. Although topics are explored in more depth, more time is needed for problem-solving activities for each topic.
  • The course suffers from low student success rates, especially for minority students. In fall, 1999, 32% of all students earned a grade lower than C, and of that group, 51% were minority students. The failure rate exerts additional pressure on course enrollments, as many students repeat the course to gain access to majors that require a minimal grade of C in Introductory Biology.
  • There is a shortage of faculty trained in and willing to accept the challenge of offering active learning to a large group of students.

The Redesigned Course

The prime objective in course redesign is to reduce the cost of teaching, maintain an active learning format focused on problem solving, increase student success and learning, and more efficiently use faculty time. These goals will be made possible through incorporating more technology into the existing course.

Consistent with the biology department's overall learning goals, the learning goals for the redesigned course will require students to

  • construct and critique logical arguments in biology;
  • generate and state testable hypotheses;
  • communicate ideas and arguments in biology;
  • work effectively as a team;
  • apply problem-solving to the learning process; and
  • self-assess progress in learning.

In order to achieve these goals, Introductory Biology will be redesigned around an extensive set of online resources for class preparation, quizzes, and supplemental instruction and tutoring. Faculty will create Web pages to guide student preparation for class. Students will review learning objectives and key concepts listed on the Web pages for each class meeting. Students also will review supplemental material from the publisher’s Web site, which may include figures, graphs, movies, or animations that emphasize key concepts. Students then complete online quizzes to assess their preparation for class. Quizzes will provide instructor-generated, immediate feedback to students and provide data for instructors to assess student levels of competence with the material. As learning shifts outside of the classroom with the use of online materials and more frequent assessment, class meetings per week will decrease from three to two and exams decrease from four to three.

Online resources will address both cost and student learning problems. The instructor will be able to reduce class time spent on topics the students clearly understand, increase time on problem areas, target individual students for remedial help, and manage resources efficiently using a database system. Online resources will allow one instead of two instructors to manage a larger group of students, thus reducing the number of instructors by half. Peer tutors will no longer have to attend the class in order to prepare to answer student questions since they will have access to the online resources.

To address the goal of a consistent instructor base for the course and to help instructors become comfortable using the active learning format in large classes, an instructor apprenticeship program will be part of the redesign. The apprenticeship program is the key to the long-term sustainability of the redesigned course.

Traditional Course Structure

  • 14-week term
  • 2 lecture sections of 350 students each in fall semester
  • 6 contact hours per week: 3 (1-hour) lectures and 1 (3-hour) lab
  • Four faculty team-teach two sections. They prepare and provide half the lectures for each section; attend lectures provided by the other faculty member teaching that section; hold five office hours per week for seven weeks; and design, proctor and evaluate four two-hour exams.
  • Twelve teaching assistants (TAs) attend all lectures, hold one office hour per week, proctor four two-hour exams, handle ClassTalk files and quizzes in lecture, and manage lab sessions. (Labs are not part of the redesign).
  • The Biology Center Director assists with curriculum development, consults with faculty about lecture preparation and manages the ClassTalk network.

Redesigned Course Structure

  • 14-week term
  • 2 lecture sections of 350 students each in fall semester
  • 6 contact hours: 2 (1-hour) lectures, 1 review session and 1 (3-hour) lab
  • Two faculty each teach one section. They prepare and provide all class sessions; hold two office hours per week; hold one review session per week; design, proctor and evaluate three two-hour exams; and maintain online course materials and quizzes.
  • Twelve TAs hold one office hour per week. They review course materials online, proctor three two-hour exams, operate ClassTalk network during lectures, and manage lab sessions. (Labs are not part of the redesign.)
  • The Biology Center Director assists with curriculum development, consults with faculty about class preparation, and manages ClassTalk network.
  • Undergraduate peer tutors conduct regular study sessions as needed with students who need help with the course material.


In summary, the redesigned course will implement the following changes:

  • Create online class preparation pages
  • Use online quizzes to motivate students to use the preparation pages and help students assess their own learning
  • Expand the use of interactive classroom technology
  • Reduce the number of faculty from four to two
  • Reduce the number of class meetings per week from three to two
  • Reduce the number of exams from four to three
  • Provide supplemental instruction and peer tutoring
  • Create an instructor apprenticeship program to prepare new instructors to efficiently use online interactive technologies



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