Six Innovative Course Redesign Practices

Creating "Small" Within "Large"

One characteristic of many course redesigns is large class size. Some redesigns begin with large lecture sections and retain those large sizes in the redesign; others reduce the number of sections offered and create larger classes; and, still others combine all sections into one large section. Clearly, larger sections can reduce costs, yet these redesign projects also increase student learning. One way to counteract large section size is to create “small” within “large” by using techniques such as peer learning teams and small learning communities that lead to greater student success.

University of Colorado-Boulder (UC): Astronomy

UC divides its large, 220-student class into small learning teams of 10 to 15 students. The professor provides an overview of the week's activities at a weekly meeting of the full class. About a dozen discussion questions are posted online, ranging from factual questions testing basic knowledge, to complex questions requiring students to draw conclusions, to questions intended to elicit controversy. Midweek, students meet in teams for one hour to prepare answers collaboratively and to carry out inquiry-based team projects. Each team is supervised by an undergraduate coach. Supported by software that allows them to collaborate synchronously or asynchronously, teams post written answers to all questions. At the third weekly class meeting, the professor leads a discussion session in which he directs questions not to individual students but to the learning teams. Before the meeting, the professor uses software to review all the posted written answers to a given question, allowing him to devote the discussion time to questions with dissonant answers among teams. Periodically, the professor poses a related question and gives the class time for each team to formulate an answer.

Florida Gulf Coast University (FCGU): Fine Arts

FGCU offers its required fine arts course in a single large (930 students) section, using a common syllabus, textbook, set of assignments and materials and course Web site. Students are placed into cohort groups of 60 and, within these groups, into peer learning teams of six students each. Learning teams engage in Web Board discussions that require students to analyze two short essays in preparation for producing their own short essays on module exams. The Web Board discussions increase interaction among students, create an atmosphere of active learning and develop students' critical thinking skills. The course is taught 100% by full-time faculty members, who design content modules in their field of expertise and are supported by a newly created position called the preceptor. Preceptors, most of whom have a B.A. in English, are responsible for interacting with students via email, monitoring student progress, leading Web Board discussions and grading critical analysis essays. Each preceptor works with 10 peer learning teams or a total of 60 students.

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Undergraduate Learning Assistants (ULAs)

Using undergraduates as peer tutors or learning assistants can radically increase the amount of personalized assistance available to students and do so cost effectively. When properly trained, undergraduates have turned out to be better at assisting their peers than graduate students. Because the students regard the learning assistants as peers, they tend to be more open about their difficulties in comprehension than they would be with graduate students, and this leads to better feedback to the instructor. Selection criteria for ULAs include: 1) students who have taken the course and scored in the top 20th percentile; 2) students who understand the goals of the redesigned course and are eager to help make it work; and 3) students who are mature and display leadership skills. Colleagues can be asked to identify students who meet the first criterion. In a brief interview, instructors can assess whether the applicant would be an enthusiastic participant and has the interpersonal skills to be a good team leader.

University of Colorado-Boulder (UC): Astronomy

UC has found that ULAs are more effective than most GTAs in introductory science courses. They are highly motivated to make the course a success. Students meet once a week in learning teams of 10 to 15 supervised by an undergraduate coach to prepare answers to discussion questions collaboratively and to carry out inquiry-based team projects. In meeting with their learning teams, ULAs are expected to help students understand how to use the course technology and to guide the students’ collaborative work. They are instructed specifically not to tell the students "the right answers" but are given guidelines to teach students how to find the answers for themselves. One evening each week, the instructor meets with the ULAs for about an hour to discuss upcoming work and to review successes and failures. The ULAs report that their ULA experience was one of their best experiences as an undergraduate. About one-third of them changed their majors to one of the natural sciences as a result of the experience.

University at Buffalo (UB): Computing

One of the most effective changes in UB’s course redesign involves using ULAs rather than GTAs. Not only is the number of assistants in each lab doubled, but also the ULAs turn out to be better at assisting their peers than the GTAs. Both faculty and students report that ULAs are more effective than GTAs because of the ULAs’ better under-standing of course content, superior communication skills and better understanding of students’ common misconceptions about computers. Increased lab hours enable the students to have more one-on-one assistance. In addition, students can complete all of their projects during the labs and thus make use of the ULAs and their peers.

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Freshmen Don’t Do Optional

Course redesign always succeeds when we engage students in doing the coursework, yet typically 30% or so may fail to participate in scheduled learning activities. Some institutions have been more successful than others in addressing the issue of “non-participating” students. Many redesign projects have found that students will participate in supplementary activities like homework and mastery quizzes if they require student participation and if they give points for doing so. Students participate more, score higher, and spend longer on supplementary activities when course credit is at stake.

The University of Southern Maine (USM): Psychology

At USM, students are required to complete quizzes online in order to master material before coming to class. Students are allowed to take quizzes several times, until they received a satisfactory grade or time runs out. Feedback directs students to specific material that they need to review. USM can continually monitor student progress. Both the instructor and the students know how they are doing in relation to others in class. Students report that they check their status frequently. Instructors find that this feature helps them identify and work with students who are doing poorly as well as acknowledge the efforts of the best students. Students in redesigned sections spend more time studying for the course (typically 3 - 5 hours per week in contrast to 1 - 3 hours) than for other traditionally-taught introductory courses.

University of New Mexico (UNM): Psychology

At UNM, psychology students receive credit for completing three online mastery quizzes, which test both factual and conceptual knowledge, each week. Students are encouraged to take quizzes as many times as needed until they attain a perfect score. Only the highest scores count on all quizzes. The more time students spend taking quizzes, the better they perform on in-class exams. To determine whether quizzes that are mandatory (required for course credit) or voluntary (no course credit) would differentially affect exam and grade performance, UNM conducted an experiment. Students in one section received course points for completing quizzes; students in another section were encouraged to take the quizzes but received no course points for doing so. On in-class exams, students who were required to complete quizzes for credit always outperformed students where taking quizzes was voluntary. Moreover, relatively few students completed quizzes when credit was not a consequence.

University of Alabama (UA): Math

Some institutions recognize that giving course points for attendance increases student engagement and learning but are hesitant to do so because they think it will inflate grades. To determine what effect giving attendance credit has on final grades, UA analyzed the grades of 3,439 students in five courses during the fall 2005 semester. Attendance credit had no effect on the grades of 86.8% of the students. For 4.5% of the students, attendance credit increased their grade by a +/-. For 0.5%, attendance credit allowed them to pass the course. For 1%, attendance credit caused them not to pass the course, and for 7.3%, attendance credit decreased their grade by a +/-. Thus, the argument that giving attendance credit inflates grades isn’t supported by the data.


Many students get to the end of a course having mastered a large percentage of the material but not enough to pass the course. They are then forced to repeat the entire course. Others are required to take a developmental course because of low placement scores when they only lack a small part of the course content. Course modularization offers institutions a way to accommodate “partial” learning by letting students study only what they don’t know and make more rapid progress.

Ohio State University (OSU): Statistics

In its redesign of a five-credit introductory statistics course, OSU moved to a modular course format using technology to manage course administration and monitor weekly progress reports and diagnostics. Students can earn from one to five credits based on successful module completion. By requiring students to demonstrate a passing level proficiency in one unit before proceeding to the next, severe deficiencies can be identified and addressed early, resulting in a lower failure/withdrawal rate. Previously, several hundred students fell behind each year and felt compelled to withdraw. Now if a student completes three of the modules (60% of the material), they receive three credits rather than failing the course. Rather than having to re-enroll for a five-credit course, they can take the remaining two credits in the subsequent semester. Analysis of previous data on drops shows that OSU can eliminate one-fourth of the course repetitions, thereby opening slots for an additional 150 students per year.

Drexel University : Computer Programming

Drexel University combined two introductory computer programming courses—one the primary entry point for computer science majors and the other a less technical version of the same course for non-majors—into one course organized in modules. The modules cover particular aspects of computer programming at five different levels of subject mastery and skill acquisition. Non-majors must demonstrate mastery through level three; computer science majors through level five. Course credit is variable, depending on the number of modules successfully mastered and the level of skill mastery the student attains. Students who have difficulty with the higher levels can change majors and receive course credit without having to drop the course and repeat modules already mastered. Non-majors who develop an interest in becoming a computer science major may go further than originally planned and meet the more stringent requirements.

Seton Hall University (SHU): Math

Some students simply need more time to succeed. After carefully monitoring student progress, SHU discovered that some students in their developmental math sequence were working but working more slowly than others. Seton Hall decided to implement three progress tracks for students: fast, regular and gentle. If students are failing the course after the second chapter test, they are encouraged to sign a learning contract, which states that they will work through the course material in two semesters instead of one (the gentle track.) A few students working on the fast track have finished the course before the end of the semester. They enjoy having extra time to focus on their other courses at the end of the term when the workload is the heaviest.

New Instructional Roles

Are highly trained faculty members needed to conduct all tasks associated with delivering a course? By constructing an instructional support system that comprises various kinds of personnel, institutions can apply the right level of human intervention to particular kinds of student problems. Large-scale course redesigns have created new kinds of positions such as course assistants, preceptors and course coordinators that have specific roles within the course, leaving faculty free to concentrate on those tasks that require their level of expertise. Re-thinking faculty roles within large courses can lead to innovative approaches to staffing.

Rio Salado College (Math): The Course Assistant

Rio Salado created a new position called the course assistant to troubleshoot technology questions, monitor student progress, and alert instructors to student difficulties with the material. Approximately 90% of questions students asked were non-instructional in nature. Adding the course assistant @ $12 per hour allowed Rio to increase the number of students that could be handled by one instructor from 30 to 100. This position was filled first with a math tutor, but the responsibilities of the course assistant did not require math skills; therefore, there was no reason to pay a tutor rate when those skills would be underutilized or never utilized. The “permanent” assistant was a very advanced high school student who found the hours, compensation, and responsibilities satisfactory.

Florida Gulf Coast University (Fine Arts): The Preceptor

FGCU reduced the number of sections from 31 to 2 and increased the number of students served from 800 to 950 in the first year of its redesign. In the traditional course 20% of the instructors were full-time and 80% were adjuncts. In the redesign, FGCU eliminated adjuncts completely. The course is now taught 100% by full-time faculty supported by a new position called the preceptor. Preceptors, most of whom have a B.A. in English, are responsible for interacting with students via email, monitoring student progress, leading Web Board discussions and grading critical analysis essays. Each preceptor works with 10 peer learning teams or a total of 60 students. Replacing adjuncts independently teaching small sections ($2,200 per 30-student section) with preceptors assigned a small set of specific responsibilities ($1,800 per 60-student cohort) in the context of a consistent, faculty-designed course structure will allow FCGU to accommodate ongoing enrollment growth while steadily reducing its cost-per-student.

The University of Southern Mississippi (Literature): The Course Coordinator

Prior to the redesign, 50% of USM’s course was taught by full-time faculty, and 50% was taught by adjuncts. The university replaced 16 minimally coordinated sections with a coherent, single online section of 1000 students and reduced the number of faculty teaching the course from 16 (8 full-time faculty and 8 adjuncts) to the equivalent of 2 full-time faculty supported by four GTAs, eliminating adjuncts completely. A course coordinator directs the team-teaching of four faculty members and four GTA writing assignment graders. Each faculty member teaches a module in his or her area of expertise for four weeks. Faculty experts also collaborate on designing quizzes and exams and the selection of complementary materials. The course coordinator keeps the entire team working in concert.

Avoiding “Either/Or” Choices

We know that students bring different backgrounds, interests and abilities to college courses, yet what do we offer them most of the time? A fixed meal! The meals may be different from course to course—some may be lecture-based, others may be fully online—but most courses employ single strategies. One way to avoid “either/or” choices in course redesign is to offer students a buffet of learning opportunities or a menu of choices that enable them to take different paths to achieve the same learning outcomes.

Ohio State University (OSU): Statistics

OSU’s redesign vision is to implement a buffet strategy, offering students an assortment of interchangeable paths that match their individual learning preferences and abilities to learn each course objective. When fully implemented, OSU’s buffet of learning opportunities will include lectures, individual discovery laboratories (in-class and Web-based), team/group discovery laboratories, individual and group review (live and remote), small-group study sessions, videos, remedial/prerequisite/procedure training modules, contacts for study groups, oral and written presentations, active large-group problem-solving, homework assignments (graded by teaching assistants or self-graded), and individual and group projects. Students may elect to practice working with a concept in a data analysis laboratory, in an individual Web-based activity, or in a facilitated study session or by explaining it to others in a jigsaw-formatted review. The buffet strategy will accommodate choice in course sequencing: some students prefer to learn by starting with the big picture and moving to specific examples while others learn best by starting with specifics and moving to the general principle.

Tallahassee Community College (TCC): English Composition

TCC’s redesign of nearly 60 sections of College Composition involving more than 30 instructors includes a buffet of learning opportunities and options for instructors: course Web site with individual sectional access, pre-loaded with the redesigned course curriculum; individualized state-test diagnostics and routing into learning resources housed on the textbooks’ companion Web sites; a menu of common writing assignments for individual instructor and student selection that require the integration of reading with writing; an online training manual to assist instructors with the course redesign and the technological components; increased use of technological ancillaries and resources including online tutoring and response to writing; a battery of reading and writing tests that are computer-housed, scored, and recorded in the course Web site; utilization of two online library and information literacy ancillaries; and the establishment of communities of learners through the Web site discussion board.

Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU): Fine Arts

FGCU began its redesign with the idea of offering students a wide variety of learning experiences to meet their different learning styles—textual based material, on-line material, practice exams, lectures, labs, etc. The team planned to link each of these experiences to students' different learning styles. When they implemented their plan, they discovered two things: 1) students did not attend any of the face-to-face learning experiences, preferring the text and online materials; and, 2) students did better than students in face-to-face courses who attended lectures. As a result, FGCU eliminated certain elements of the course and moved from a buffet to a fully online model.