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Improving the Quality of Student Learning

Drexel University

Based on available data about learning outcomes from the course pilot, what were the impacts of re-design on learning and student development?

Drexel University’s academic year schedule runs later than most schools because of its quarter system. Classes end in early June, followed by a week for final examinations. As a result, we are only beginning to process the data on student performance in the re-designed course compared to the traditional course.

In the pilot, students volunteered to take either the re-designed course or the traditional course following the Introduction to Computer Science course (taught by the same instructors). Students were presented with a description of the traditional and re-designed courses and allowed to register in the course of their choice.

Preliminary results show that the grades of the students in the re-designed course (Redesign) were generally higher than those in the two traditional lecture sections (Trad 1, Trad 2):


Lecture Section
Grade
Trad 1
Trad 2 Redesign Total
A 12% 13% 24% 14%
B 23% 24% 26% 24%
C 14% 17% 12% 15%
D 17% 15% 12% 15%
F 23% 18% 24% 20%
W 11% 15% 3% 13%
Total 100% 100% 100% 100%
A-C 49% 53% 62% 53%
D, F, W 51% 47% 38% 47%
# Students 65 131 34 232

If these results continue to hold, we will have achieved one of our goals: reducing the proportion of D,F,W grades. We plan to examine the students’ performance in the sequel course (for which grades have only recently become available) to see if the re-design has lasting positive effects.

We have experienced delays in running focus groups to learn more about how students see the re-design because of the Institutional Review Board (IRB) review process, as described below. This has limited our analysis of the pilot; but we are now in a position to initiate a more complete assessment.

We have taught the re-designed course in the Winter and Spring 2002 terms with different faculty involved. The first group felt that the re-designed course worked better for the later topics in the course (pointers, data structures, searching and sorting) than for some of the more fundamental topics that come early in the course (such as conditionals and loops). However, the second time the re-design was offered, faculty did not share this view. Since the results have not been conclusive, we will explore this area in more detail when we next offer the course.

Faculty perceived that students were more engaged and alert during the classes than in typical large-lecture situations. The students worked actively in their groups and engaged in discussions on the material. When they fell behind compared to their peers, it became obvious to them much earlier in the course since they were aware of what their peers understood. This allowed them to seek help in a timely manner (or decide to opt out of the course before the drop date).

December 2002 Update: The fall 2002 term was the first time the Information Systems (IS) students were offered the redesigned course. The course was offered off-cycle and was fairly small: 18 students, only 2 of whom were freshmen, the usual audience for this course. However, we wanted to try the redesign with a small class before attempting it with the full complement of freshmen.

With respect to final grades, the students who stayed in the course did better than the CS students. However, the weaker IS students dropped the course very quickly—more so than the CS students, who tend to stick out the course even when they are doing poorly. Five IS students withdrew. The only Fs went to students who did not take the final and presumably dropped the course even though they were still on the roster. For a freshman course, such as the in-cycle CS version, usually some of the students who take the entire course (including the final) get Fs.


Final Grades for IS Course
Class
A
B C D F W Grand Total
FR

1
1
2
JR

2


2
PJ 3 1 1 1 3 9
SO
1 2

1 4
SR




1 1
Grand Total
3 2 5 1 2 5 18

Other factors that may have resulted in higher grades for the IS students include the fact that this group consisted primarily of sophomores and pre-juniors (third year students in Drexel’s five-year BS program), students who have acclimated to college and who may be more sophisticated about how they are doing in a class compared to freshman computer science majors.

The instructor anticipated having to lower expectations for the IS students, but this class did not require that.

Constructing the groups so that each group included a student with more experience computing worked very well in keeping the less experienced students on track. In the past, the less experienced students would fall behind because of difficulties figuring out how to set the computer up or how to navigate through the software. In the redesign, with group work, such students always had someone they knew who could help them get over the initial stumbling blocks. This had the positive effect of keeping the entire group more synchronized.

Students struggled particularly with object-oriented material in the IS course. The IS course moves more slowly than the CS course so these students have not yet reached some of the more difficult material (e.g., functions, argument passing, pointers) that have caused difficulties for the CS students. They will reach this material early in the coming term, so we will have more information on these areas at the end of March 2003.

It is difficult to quantify some of the outcomes that the instructors perceive. Generally, they feel that the students participating in the redesigned course are more enthusiastic and alert and therefore learning more. As a result of the group work, the class develops a sense of community earlier than in the traditional course—they develop good friends in their major much sooner and this carries them through their freshman year better and connects them to each other. Students get to know other students they might not otherwise get to know—instructors do some deliberate mixing to make sure people get to know each other; e.g., separating close friends (such as a married couple enrolled in the course) into different groups so they mix with others rather than forming a clique with just each other.

Faculty also feel that students with good study habits, those they describe as “serious students,” do better. More passive students, those who expect the faculty to provide all of the information needed for the course, do not do as well as the more active students who tend to be more mature in their approach to their course work.

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