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Northern Arizona University

Course Title: Introduction to Psychology
Contact: Michelle Miller

Project Plan:
Northern Arizona University (NAU) prides itself in offering small classes stressing traditional, liberal-arts skills in writing and critical thinking. These ideals have been difficult to achieve, however, in Introduction to Psychology given the overwhelming student demand for the course. Typically NAU offers up to ten sections of this course each year with each section serving as many as 200 students, the maximum number NAU can physically seat in any one classroom. The popularity of the course stems largely from the fact that it meets a major distribution requirement and is very popular with students majoring in fields other than psychology, most notably Health Sciences and Education.

Historically, the course format has been highly traditional with two to three weekly lectures covering one to two textbook chapters per week and two to four multiple-choice exams serving as the only form of student assessment. Logistical and financial limitations have ruled out other student activities and assessments such as small-group sections or writing assignments.

In spring 2005, a team of faculty members was awarded an internal NAU grant to redesign Introduction to Psychology with the goals of improving student engagement, diversifying the types of activities and assessments in the course and beginning a rigorous program of assessing student achievement. These changes were partially based on redesign efforts at other institutions such as the use of repeatable, online quizzes at the University of New Mexico. The initial redesign also included web-based discussion boards where students submitted questions to topic experts recruited from departmental faculty.

The NAU team assessed the impact of these innovations on student learning by comparing redesigned sections with traditionally-taught sections. They found significant improvements in student grades. The average overall numeric course grade for the redesigned course was 81.3% compared with 78.72% for the traditional course, a statistically significant difference. Student perceptions of course changes were generally favorable. Midterm and final exam grades, however, were similar in the redesigned and traditional sections.

Based on the success of the pilot redesign, the psychology department supported larger-scale redesign efforts during 2006, offering released time for faculty to implement innovations such as combining large sections in team-teaching arrangements, developing online assignments to replace traditional classroom-based course work, and implementing other changes to the structure such as focused small group experiences. During fall 2006, section size was increased from 175 to 200 and two sections were combined in a team-teaching arrangement. To maintain quality in these large sections, NAU implemented a new coordinator role and brought in online course experiences. The team developed a detailed, password-protected web site for instructors that provides technology resources, suggested learning objectives, pedagogical ideas and course policies. Because these large sections are often taught by temporary or new faculty, and draw on a radically different set of teaching skills than do other NAU courses, faculty support and education is a critical part of redesign efforts. Support for this redesign continues as the department has created a permanent course coordinator position.

Although student outcomes in the initial pilot showed statistically significant improvement in overall course grades and generally positive student ratings of the online components, the 2005 pilot redesign did not produce substantial gains in exam scores. Data analysis of student outcomes for the fall 2006 redesign is not complete but will include 1) comparisons of pre- and post-test psychology knowledge test scores; 2) correlations between student attendance at small-group sections on particular course topics (e.g., biopsychology, personality) and student scores on those topics within exams; and, 3) comparison of students’ quantitative ratings and qualitative comments in the redesigned and traditional sections taught in fall 2005. In addition, the team will analyze long-term gains on a psychology knowledge test which is administered at the beginning of the semester in Introduction to Psychology and in the Capstone course. This analysis will enable the team to track learning gains of psychology majors and make comparisons among students who participated in different learning environments.

Redesign efforts have resulted in cost savings. In fall 2005, course redesign efforts included replacing in-class, pencil-and-paper quizzes with repeatable online quizzes which saved approximately $250 in photocopying and materials costs for each section of the course. Creating a large, team-taught pair of sections during fall 2006 freed up sufficient resources to offer a small (25-person) honors section of Introduction to Psychology, taught by a permanent faculty member. Furthermore, the department has been able to keep up with the increased demand for the course on the same resource base.