|Arizona Board of Regents: Learner-Centered Education Course Redesign Initiative
The University of Arizona
Course Title: Introductory Biology
The University of Arizona (UA) plans to redesign Introductory Biology, a course in cell and molecular biology serving approximately 1800 students annually. Enrollment is highest during the fall with about 1500 students. Six sections of ~300 each are taught by six instructors from several departments. In its traditional format, the course is taught in a typical lecture format with an additional, optional, one-hour discussion section. Students rarely prepare for lectures before class, and therefore the in-class activities consist primarily of information transfer rather than discussion, practice and application.
Introductory Biology is a requirement for students in 23 different life sciences majors. The content is the foundation for all biological science majors. The subject material is difficult because it builds on an understanding of chemistry that many students are just developing through co-requisite coursework. The complexity of the topics covered in the course, the large class size and the lack of a unified approach to the teaching result in inconsistencies in student preparation, student satisfaction and student achievement. The failure rates differ from section to section but average approximately 20%. Instructors teaching subsequent courses indicate that students completing Introductory Biology fail to apply what they have learned in the course and appear unable to think critically or creatively about these topics.
UA plans to use the Supplemental Model in its redesign, which involves the creation of pre-class tutorials, accessed as podcasts, that introduce students to the basic content matter for the day's class. Students will complete online mastery quizzes on this material before coming to class. This structure will allow for more student-centered activities in class. The use of case studies, animations, computer modeling and other materials will reinforce the concepts and will give students practice in talking about biology. Each lecture section will be divided into two discussion sections, where groups of up to 15 students will work to complete projects that give them additional practice with biology concepts. Undergraduate assistants (UGAs) will mentor groups as they complete their projects.
The redesigned course will be consistent across sections, emphasizing conceptual understanding, application and students' responsibility to come to lectures prepared to learn at a higher level. The redesign will address the issue of student preparation by making students accountable for doing work before each class. In addition, the process of creating the tutorials, in-class activities, and discussion section projects will involve all instructional faculty in discussions and decisions regarding the learner-centered format. The learner-centered strategies, in turn, will allow students more opportunity to practice applying, transferring and talking about biology. These outcomes are essential for students who are beginning to learn to "talk science."
Student learning will be assessed by comparing pre- and post-test scores for all traditional sections taught in fall 2007 with the scores from the pilot and full implementation offerings in 2008. Beginning in fall 2007, common questions on midterm and final exams will enable comparison of student performance both from traditional to learner-centered formats and also between different instructors' sections.
The operational cost of the course will be reduced by decreasing the number of instructors in the fall semester from six to four, reducing the number of GTAs and increasing the number of UGAs. Enrollment is projected to grow from ~1800 to more than 2300 students during the next five years. During the period of the redesign project, increased enrollment can be accommodated within the current sections. The cumulative impact of these efficiencies and implementation of online, student-centered activities will be to reduce the cost of course delivery from approximately $266 per student to $130, a 51% reduction. These savings will enable faculty to focus on other academic work, including research, other teaching and service to the department and university.
The team assessed the difference in pre-test-to-post-test gains between fall 2007 traditional sections and fall 2008 redesigned sections. In order to make the comparisons valid, pre-test and post-test data from instructors who taught both traditional and redesigned sections were used. This means that a subset of the students from each semester’s total complement of students—515 for fall 2007 and 814 for 2008—were considered in order to ensure the most meaningful comparison.
The pre-test and post-test included 31 questions, mostly true-false but some multiple-choice, dealing with core course objectives or attitudes about learning the material in the course. The difference in the average gain from pre- to post-test between fall 2007 (7.47%) and fall 2008 gain (8.64%) is significant at the 0.001 level.
Although course retention was not the driving factor for this redesign, the team wished to improve the retention rate. The DFW rate for the traditional sections was 38.41%; the DFW rate for the redesigned sections was 33.83%. The difference of 4.58% indicates that the structure of the redesigned course may encourage students toward higher achievement. The decrease in DFW rates was accompanied by an increase of 5.22% in C grades, with rates of As and Bs relatively unchanged. The team’s interpretation is that the redesign strategies increased the opportunities for student assessment on lower-stakes assignments, increasing the opportunities for achievement.
Other Impacts on Students
Despite a redesign strategy that required students to increase the amount of time spent outside of class, the course evaluation data from the redesigned sections showed that student satisfaction with the course, the instructors and strategies was essentially unchanged relative to the traditional course. Student evaluations also showed that students were, in general, positive about the use of the in-class questions and particularly the pre-class tutorials. On a five-point Likert scale where students rated these strategies, 67% of the students rated the pre-class tutorials to be “Fairly useful” or “Extremely useful,” and 48% of the students rated the in-class discussion/clicker questions to be “Fairly useful” or “Extremely useful.”
The plan for the redesign involved reducing the number of faculty in the fall term from six to four, reducing the number of graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) and increasing the number of undergraduate teaching assistants (UGAs) who earn credit and are not paid. The fully implemented redesign reduced the number of faculty in the fall term from six to five, and the changes for the GTAs and UGAs were implemented as planned. The change during full implementation means that the cost-per-student declined from $266 in the traditional course to $178 in the redesigned course rather than to the planned cost-per-student of $130. The 33% savings is substantial, although not as high as the projected 51%.
Pedagogical Improvement Techniques
Cost Savings Techniques
The team was uniformly positive about the impact of the redesign. The instructors valued the opportunity to access high-quality learning materials that increased students’ out-of-class time spent on the course. Although the learning gains were relatively modest, the team is enthusiastic about optimizing the approaches and working together to address some of the issues that arose from the post-course analysis. The team has continued monthly meetings throughout the spring 2009 semester, unheard of prior to the redesign, and several are working with the publisher to suggest modifications and improvements to the Mastering Biology materials. The newest team member is enthusiastically working to help all members to implement more learner-centered approaches in upcoming semesters. Furthermore, the feedback that students valued the course structure that forced them to spend more out-of-class time studying has strengthened some of the instructors’ motivation to continue using these strategies.