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The Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning: Mississippi Course Redesign Initiative

Mississippi State University

Course Title: Biology (Plants and Humans; Animal)
Contact: Nancy Reichert

Project Abstract
Final Report (as of 3/15/10)

Project Abstract

Mississippi State University (MSU) plans to redesign two of MSU’s most popular non-major science courses, Plants and Humans Biology and Animal Biology. These core, natural science courses satisfy non-majors science requirements for lecture and laboratory credits. The traditional courses enroll ~400 students annually. Two conventional lectures per week are delivered in each course primarily through PowerPoint presentations. Students are also required to attend one two-hour wet lab each week that includes simple exercises and videos.

Both courses face resource and academic problems. MSU is unable to schedule a sufficient number of sections to meet high student demand, thus creating an enrollment bottleneck. Additional wet lab space and large lecture halls are not available, and there is a lack of resources to hire additional instructors. In addition to the resource issues, the limited interactive learning opportunities in both courses do not teach students how to be lifelong learners of biology and science.

MSU will redesign both courses using the Replacement Model. The number of lectures will be reduced from two to one where students will participate in active learning exercises such as group discussions and case studies. Students will work online individually with learning modules and exercises. Online quizzes will be graded automatically, providing immediate feedback. The wet labs will be converted to virtual labs in an open-schedule, emporium-style computer lab staffed by graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) to assist the students.

The interactive, student-centered redesigned courses will enhance the quality of the students’ learning experiences. Virtual laboratories will expose students to a wide variety of simulations and real life situations to broaden their views of biology. They will increase the students’ exposure to topics and experiments that would be difficult, if not impossible, to cover in wet lab settings. The quality of student life will be enhanced by flexibility scheduling, allowing students to fit laboratory time into their weekly schedules as they desire. The university will also benefit by no longer having to schedule labs around discrete two-hour time blocks necessary for the traditional courses.

The impact of the course redesign on student learning outcomes will be assessed by comparing baseline performance data from traditional courses with redesigned course data. Key exam questions covering course learning outcomes (common content items) will be embedded into traditional and redesigned courses for comparison. Course grades will also be compared using common criteria, and pre- and post-tests will be administered. Students’ attitudes will be measured using the Science Attitude Inventory (SAI II).

The cost of instruction for both courses will be lower. The reduced class meeting time will enable each faculty member to teach two sections rather than one and still keep the same teaching load. Enrollment can be nearly doubled to ~750 per year for each course, eliminating the bottleneck and meeting student demand. The number of GTAs will increase from two to four each term for Plants and Humans and from three to four each term for Animal Biology. Lab computers will be increased from 24 to 55 to support the virtual labs and increased enrollment. These actions will decrease the cost-per-student for Plants and Humans from $127 to $99, a 22% savings. The cost-per-student for Animal Biology will be reduced from $164 to $100, a 39% savings. These savings will be used by the Biological Science Department to strengthen the department’s new internal research initiative, BURP (Biology Undergraduate Research Program).

Final Report (as of 3/15/10)

Impact on Students

In the redesign, did students learn more, less, or the same compared to the traditional format?

Improved Learning

Pre- and post-tests were used in the Animal Biology course to assess learning gains.  Students in the fall 2008 traditional course scored (out of 10 point totals) averages of 6.2 and 6.1 on pre- and post-tests for a loss of .1 points. In the fall 2009 redesigned course, students scored average of 5.9 and 6.7 on pre- and post-tests for a gain of .8 points. This difference was not significant.

Pre- and post-tests were used in the Plants and Humans course to assess learning gains. Students in the fall 2008 traditional course scored (out of 10 point totals) averages of 4.8 and 7.5 on pre- and post-tests for a gain of 2.7 points. In the fall 2009 redesigned course, students scored average of 4.6 and 7.2 on pre- and post-tests for a gain of 2.6 points. This difference was not significant.

Improved Completion

Final grades from the fall 2008 traditional and fall 2009 redesigned sections of the Animal Biology course were compared.  The percentage of students receiving a grade of C or better decreased from 87% for the traditional and 81% for redesigned.

Final grades (based on midterm and final exams, laboratory grades, module quizzes and class participation) from the fall 2008 traditional and fall 2009 redesigned sections of the Plants and Humans course were compared. The percentage of students receiving a grade of C or better was similar (89% for traditional and 88% for redesigned.)

Impact on Cost Savings

Were costs reduced as planned?

The team was able to create additional sections of both courses without adding faculty by using computer-based teaching modules, course management tools and automatically graded quizzes, all delivered through Blackboard Vista. This resulted in a reduction in the cost-per-student from $127 to $99 in Plants and Humans (a 22% savings) and $164 to $100 in Animal Biology (a 39% savings). MSU eliminated the enrollment bottleneck and can now meet the demand for these courses: twice the number of students can be enrolled in each redesigned course each semester.

Lessons Learned

Pedagogical Improvement Techniques

What techniques contributed most to improving quality of student learning?

Use of web-based study materials. Access to study materials like PowerPoint slides, web links and posted course materials allowed students unlimited review of course materials at times that were convenient to them.

Higher quality in-class time. Factual course materials were made available to students online where memory-based learning occurred. In-class time was used to reinforce and relate the significance of scientific concepts to real-world scenarios. Concept-application exercises used in class included case studies, group discussions, concept mapping and other activities that improved students’ problem-solving and critical thinking skills. Students had the opportunity to connect course concepts to circumstances that could affect their personal lives. For example, in Animal Biology, human diseases that related to a particular body system were linked in class discussion. Discussions sometimes proved lively, confirming that students were active participants in the classroom rather than passive bystanders.

Cost Reduction Techniques

What techniques contributed most to reducing costs?

Once-a-week class meetings. By meeting face-to-face only once per week, two sections of each course could be taught in the same time period when one traditional section was taught in the past. This enabled enrollment to double at no extra cost to the department, thus reducing the enrollment bottleneck that had formed each semester because of the popularity of these two non-major courses.

Utilizing virtual laboratories. Since wet-lab space was at a premium and the department faced continued budget cuts, utilizing virtual labs for non-majors courses enabled the department to meet course enrollment demands. Teaching assistants (TAs) assisted students during scheduled computer labs, monitored online quizzes and gave instructions to students about their next lab assignment.
Implementation Issues

What implementation issues were most important?

Student attitudes. Student attitudes and their acceptance of these redesigned course formats have varied in both courses. Some students liked the flexibility a hybrid course offered, especially non-traditional students who worked while attending college. Virtual laboratories also provided a great deal of flexibility for students since they could conduct virtual experiments on their own time and use face-to-face “lab” time for assessment purposes. Students took quizzes on the previous virtual laboratory and received information and instructions on their next lab assignments. Other students reflected disdain for technology playing such a large role in classroom learning.

Student learning behavior adjustment. Students are conditioned, for the most part, to be passive participants in the classroom. Changing this behavior has been the most challenging aspect of the redesign. Students were initially hesitant to speak in class or do anything other than sit and listen. Other challenges have been getting students to stay on top of online assignments, come to class prepared and meet deadlines. Using online calendars and class emails and reminding students of assignments during in-class time has helped, but a small percentage of students continued to miss deadlines.

Creation of the redesign itself. Initially, in both courses, instructors were excited to incorporate many different pedagogical strategies since the traditional format did not allow this. However, after the redesign pilot, instructors learned quickly that integrating too many assignments and activities created more work for the instructors. In addition, the students appeared, at times, to be overwhelmed and confused. The fully implemented redesigned courses now contain fewer, more focused activities. In turn, both the instructors and students are happier.

Retention issues. Retention (defined as the percentage of students who remained in the course and received a grade of D or better) was similar in the Plants and Humans course (traditional = 89% and redesign = 90%.) In the redesigned Animal Biology course, however, retention decreased (traditional = 88% and redesigned =78%.) There are two possible reasons for this: 1) some students’ disliked the redesigned course, or 2) too many changes were made to the course at a single time. Retention will need to be examined in greater detail.


Will the redesign be sustained now that the grant period is over?

The redesigned courses will continue to be offered. Student success rates have remained stable while enrollments have increased at no additional cost. The redesigned courses are expected to evolve through continued assessments and improvements.  Differing student reactions may indicate that there may be subsets of students who prefer either face-to-face or online instruction. The department is discussing offering two versions of the lecture part of each course (online or face-to-face) so that each student can choose the mode that works best for them. The virtual laboratories would remain the same, but perhaps, greater time could be given to provide greater hands-on assistance.



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