|The Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning: Mississippi Course Redesign Initiative
The University of Southern Mississippi
Course Title: First-Year Spanish
The University of Southern Mississippi (USM) plans to redesign its first-year Spanish basic language sequence. The two course sequence serves ~720 first-year Spanish students each semester in 12 sections of each course with 30 students per section. Annual enrollment averages 1620 students including summer enrollments.
These courses face advising and placement challenges typical of sequential courses. They also suffer from issues common to multiple-section language courses: inconsistent learning outcomes among sections, inefficient use of faculty, limited GTA supervision and training, and ineffective use of class time as measured by proficiency outcomes.
USM will redesign these courses using the Replacement Model. For each course, the department plans to replace 12 minimally coordinated sections of 30 students each with six coherent sections of 60 students each semester. All sections will be taught by a coordination team of two faculty instructors of record, supported by graduate and undergraduate assistants. Direct student interaction with course concepts via online learning will replace one traditional lecture per week; the remaining biweekly class meetings will emphasize oral communication.
The redesigned courses will enhance instructional quality and student outcomes by requiring direct student interaction with course materials, providing automated feedback and regular self-evaluations, allowing for greater flexibility in learning styles, instituting automated interventions for students who fall behind, emphasizing oral communication in the classroom, meeting standardized course goals which prepare students to advance to subsequent levels and increasing outside-of-class instructional support. Undergraduate learning assistants (UGAs) will strengthen individual student support by facilitating communicative interaction in class, assisting individual students and providing additional outside-of-class intervention for students who are struggling.
The impact of the course redesign on student learning outcomes will be assessed by comparing performance data from traditional and redesigned sections. Common content items embedded in exams will be compared. Prior language experience, DFW rates and pass rates, exam scores and final grades will be tracked. A brief student satisfaction survey will also be administered.
USM will reduce the cost of instruction in a variety of ways. The number of sections will be reduced from 27 to 13 annually in each course, and section size will increase from 30 to 60. Course management, practice exercises and assessment functions will be moved to Blackboard. The same number of students will be taught with fewer faculty, decreasing the total number from 14 to 10. A course load reduction for the faculty coordinator will be eliminated. GTAs, who currently cover two sections each, will be assigned three sections each. These actions will reduce the cost-per-student from $152 to $110, a 28% savings. The savings will be used by the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures to create additional graduate assistantships and/or faculty lines in less commonly taught languages.
In the redesign, did students learn more, less or the same compared to the traditional format?
In the first course, Spanish 101, student learning outcomes were compared using common final examinations in the fall 2009 full implementation. The mean final exam score for the traditional students (N = 100) in spring 2009 was 74.82 and the mean score for the fall 2009 redesign full implementation (N = 259) was 73.5.
In the second course, Spanish 102, student learning outcomes were compared using common final examinations in the spring 2010 full implementation. The mean final exam score for the traditional students (N = 42) in fall 2009 was 77.12 and the mean score for the redesign full implementation (N = 155) was 72.53.
In Spanish 101, the percentage of students earning a C or better in the spring 2009 redesign pilot implementation was 74% compared with 76% in the spring 2009 traditional sections. The percentage of students earning a C or better in the fall 2009 redesign full implementation was 69%.
In Spanish 102, the percentage of students earning a C or better in the fall 2009 pilot redesign implementation was 86% compared with 74% in the fall 2009 traditional sections. The percentage of students earning a C or better in the spring 2010 redesign implementation was 59%.
Were costs reduced as planned?
USM carried out its proposed cost reduction plan. The number of sections was reduced, and section size doubled. The same number of students was taught with fewer faculty. GTAs, who used to cover two sections each, were assigned three sections each. These actions reduced the cost-per-student from $152 to $110, a 28% savings.
Unfortunately, the department did not receive any of these savings. Instead of shifting faculty responsibilities to higher-level courses, the department lost three Spanish instructor lines, and GTA stipends were not increased (the agreed use for savings at the outset of this project) when the economic crisis hit and emergency budget cuts were made.
Pedagogical Improvement Techniques
What techniques contributed most to improving the quality of student learning?
Mandatory interventions. Interventions, such as requiring students to go to tutoring in the lab, only work if they are obligatory. Asking, suggesting, or even telling students to go will not work if there is no follow-up and accountability.
Cost Reduction Techniques
What techniques contributed most to reducing costs?
Maximizing use of GTAs. Due to SACS regulations, USM is unable to use GTAs as instructors of record for their own courses until they have completed 18 graduate hours of Spanish. The redesign allowed us to put GTAs in the classroom from the very first semester (three courses or two courses plus lab tutoring hours.)
Using undergraduate learning assistants (ULAs). ULAs are a very cost-effective resource which strengthened the department’s program by giving Spanish majors career-related work experience. The team tried using work-study students but moved to high-performing undergraduate majors paid for out of student fees due to reliability and professionalism issues.
Using technology to avoid materials costs. By working in a HVUC (SMART) room or using a laptop and projector, there was no more need for photocopies, transparencies, or other high-cost instructional materials.
What implementation issues were most important?
Importance of the lead faculty member. The lead faculty member was critical to the success or failure of the project. This person believed in the potential of the redesign, took the lead in establishing cooperation and communication among the team and the faculty as a whole, was flexible and adaptable and worked tirelessly toward student success. Managing redesigned sections required a lot more knowledge and commitment than traditional courses. There was also greater potential for disaster when there were problems with instruction, student communication and attitude as the team found out when they had to replace an ill faculty member on an emergency basis.
Managing student expectations. Instructors needed to address the issue of student expectations up front. Many students still expected their instructor to lecture and their final exam to comprise most of their grade. If students had not been given realistic information about the nature of the course, the role of online activities and the consequences of absenteeism or procrastination, they would have been set up for failure.
Faculty commitment, collaboration and communication. Redesign is not a one-person show. It takes a lasting commitment to the redesign process on the part of the whole faculty to sustain the initiative. Continued involvement in the process required a collaborative focus, regular meetings and continued adaptation.
Publisher commitment and follow-though with improvements. The support technology was central to the sustainability of the project. Unless the publisher was willing to correct system errors, guarantee performance/reliability and be responsive to customer needs, the project could not have succeeded. The textbook was a major part of the course, regardless of online components.
Student feedback. Students expressed considerable frustration with the new online system: the amount of homework, the need to learn independently, and particularly being penalized for minor errors. The team implemented free tutoring/technological help in the lab and reported all system errors/problems to the publisher who worked with the team to make the needed changes. Not all results were positive and any new system can be improved. Building in a mechanism for students to voice their opinions on what works well and what does not was critical to success.
Will the redesign be sustained now that the grant period is over?The first-year basic language Spanish sequence at USM will continue using the redesign format since this format yields comparable results for a much lower cost. In fact, reductions in regular faculty lines have made the redesigned format the only viable way to continue to offer these courses. Continued faculty support and collaboration will be a key factor in the sustainability and success of the redesigned format.