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Lessons Learned

Northern Arizona University

Pedagogical Improvement Techniques

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

Instructional software. By using the instructional software package MyMathLab, students were able to spend more time on task than when they simply watched a lecture given by someone else. Students found the software easy to use and achieved a comfort level with the technology in a short amount of time. The students especially liked the instant feedback they received when working problems and the guided solutions that were available when they did not obtain a correct answer. MyMathLab also allowed an instructor to check upon his/her students in order to monitor their progress. It was valuable to tie the technology with the textbook; allowing students a more familiar setting within which to work. This was achieved with regular homework assignments from the text forcing the students to use the book and see the material presented there. This homework was in addition to regular work required using MyMathLab.

Human interaction. Instructors were made to feel that, although much of the learning was done in the computer laboratory, they were in charge of their particular sections. Instructors would call "time out" if it was clear that a group of students was struggling on a particular concept and give a short mini lecture on this material. Many instructors also arranged exam review sessions. The net effect of these instructor initiatives was greater instructor-student interaction. In this way the bond between students and instructor that occurs in a traditional classroom was retained.

Student acceleration. The web-based structure allowed the few students who were well prepared for the course and had enough self-confidence with the material to work at an accelerated pace and complete the course well in advance of the set schedule.

Cost Savings Techniques

What techniques contributed most to reducing costs?

Using instructional software. Holding class in the computer laboratory allowed for a larger class size than in a traditional lecture classroom. This has the potential for considerable savings. However following the problematic semester with the ALEKS software, the team has delayed fully implementing this option until spring 2004.

Implementation Issues

What implementation issues were most important?

Choice of instructional software. The most difficult part of the NAU College Algebra redesign implementation had to do with the choice of software. The team took the time to review a number of available software packages before selecting ALEKS, impressed by some of its features. But in the end, ALEKS did not work well at all for the NAU redesign because of the method by which the ALEKS program organized the course. Specifically, (1) there were prerequisite constraints in ALEKS that prevented students from accessing material covered on scheduled course examinations. Access to subsequent topics was either prevented entirely or delayed until such a time that students show mastery of more basic material. Some students did not get to actual course examination items until very late, if at all. The end result was that students did not have the opportunity to learn needed material in a timely fashion. (2) Frequent, mandated re-assessments of students' progress actually inhibited progress and in some cases caused students to lose ground in ALEKS so that they were prevented from accessing more advanced topics in the course. (3) Built-in "four correct in a row before moving on" requirements were onerous and not generally an effective use of student's time. (4) The ALEKS built-in prerequisite system required that students master many topics that were not on the syllabus and prevented them from accessing other topics that were on our syllabus. The instructor did not have proper control over topics students may work on, the scheduling of assessments, etc. As a result there was little choice but to abandon ALEKS after one semester and return to the drawing board.

NAU's experience with MyMathLab has been far better, which has proved to be simple to use and reliable and has allowed the team to focus on the important issues of redesign rather than on the software and other technical details. Although progress has been made since the change in software, the implementation is well behind the original timeline for success.

An over-emphasis on self-pacing. NAU's original redesign plan envisaged a program where students were self-taught using the technology, and the computer laboratory was staffed simply to get students past any roadblocks. During the proposal review process, Center staff talked with the NAU team about the need to "beware of self-pacing" and stressed the importance of providing sufficient structure for students within a well-articulated set of specified requirements. A laissez faire, unstructured, totally self-paced, open-entry/open exit model simply does not work; undergraduate students need structure. Self-paced is too leisurely for most, and the majority simply won't make it. Some faculty members believe that this is particularly true of math students.

Despite these admonitions, the course was designed so that students were only required to attend class in the Algebra Computer Laboratory during their regularly scheduled meeting time for the first three weeks of the semester. Afterwards, attendance was not required, and they were on their own. The team eventually decided to require student attendance throughout the semester, at least for students not making a grade of A. Doing so helped weaker or less-motivated students make progress towards successful completion of the course.

In addition to requiring that students work with MyMathLab in the dedicated department College Algebra lab, NAU plans to make use of mandatory once-per-week 'focus groups' during which students receive help in structuring their learning, as well as providing a formal opportunity for students to receive assistance with course material. Students will also attend 'Friday sessions' where worksheets will be available for students to work alone or in small groups. Within this structure, there will be enough flexibility for students to make those choices that match their personal learning style. The redesign will also move entirely to on-line homework and testing.

With hindsight, the team also recognized that the original self-paced approach abandoned the human interaction side of a classroom, throwing away all the good things about the traditional lecture style. The design currently in place has evolved and now combines the advantages of traditional and web-based approaches.

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