NCAT Monograph Case Studies

Improving Learning & Reducing Costs: Redesigning Large-Enrollment Courses

By Carol A. Twigg

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Case: University of Wisconsin-Madison
Case: Virginia Tech
Case: Rio Salado College
Case: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Case: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

University of Wisconsin–Madison: Individualizing Instruction in Introductory Chemistry

The University of Wisconsin-Madison is in the process of redesigning its two-course general chemistry sequence. About half of the freshman class enrolls in the fall semester (about 2300 students), and more than a third enroll in the spring semester (about 1700). There are eight sections of the course of about 250-350 students per section. Each section is taught by one professor, assisted by eight TAs. Students attend two one-hour lectures, two one-hour discussions, one two-hour lab and one one-hour quiz/exam session per week.

The traditional course faces the following academic problems.

  • Inconsistent student academic preparation in chemistry
  • Inability to accommodate different student learning styles
  • Inadequate student interaction with learning materials
  • Difficulty in tracking multiple student experiences
  • A 15 percent rate of failures, D grades and drops
  • Inability of students to retain what they have learned
  • Inability of students to apply chemical principles to other disciplines

The course redesign involves eliminating one lecture and one discussion period per week and substituting for them a modularized system of online, diagnostic homework exercises, tutorials, and quizzes. This system will allow students to determine what they do not know and then study intensively those areas where they are weak. The homework will define the content students must master each week and will provide students with directions to other materials, including text materials and computer-based tutorials, that will help them achieve mastery. Quizzes will test students' mastery of the material each week. Out-of-class activities will prepare students to make the most of in-class interactions with TAs and other students.

The redesigned course will:

  • enhance quality by individualizing instruction, thereby addressing the problem of varying student backgrounds;
  • assess students' knowledge in much smaller subject-matter chunks;
  • provide students with feedback and direction that will allow them to make up for specific deficiencies by means of extra work and effort;
  • help students learn to identify their own deficiencies and do their own remediation, a good habit for lifelong learners to develop;
  • incorporate examples and information from other disciplines that will help students see the applications of the chemistry they are learning; and,
  • provide a means by which chemistry can be reviewed by students in subsequent courses.

The impact of the course redesign on student learning will be assessed by comparing experimental and control groups, such as online and traditional sections, in terms of student performance on course tests and final course grades; administering a national exam designed to test conceptual understanding; tracking course completion and retention rates; and evaluating student success in subsequent courses.

Significant savings can be achieved in the time spent by faculty and teaching assistants in the general chemistry course, which translates to significant cost savings. By substituting technology-based materials for time spent by faculty and teaching assistants, UW-Madison expects to reduce the cost-per-student from about $257 to $185, a reduction of 28 percent. Because this course affects 4,100 students per year, this saving translates to annual savings of approximately $295,000.

Virginia Tech: Continuous Improvement in Teaching and Learning

Virginia Tech's Math 1114, Linear Algebra, is a one-semester, two-credit course taken by first-year students in engineering, physical sciences, mathematics, and other majors. Its traditional format was similar to many large-enrollment, introductory courses taught at institutions nationwide. Organized in parallel sections of roughly 40 students each, Math 1114 was taught by a mix of tenure-track faculty, instructors, and graduate teaching assistants. Each section met twice a week during the semester for 50-minute lectures; individual assistance was given during office hours and in review sessions for tests.

Also like many large-enrollment, introductory courses, Math 1114 suffered from a number of academic problems. First, the old format did not take into account the range of academic preparation and learning styles that students bring. For many, the material was easily learned; for others, difficulties arose due either to weak backgrounds in math or problems with the lecture format. Second was the problem of student retention: typically one group of students dropped the course early on while another group stayed registered but essentially gave up and stopped working. Third, there was a remarkable lack of uniformity in learning outcomes. Course grades across sections bore surprisingly little statistical relation either to SAT profiles or to scores on a common final exam. Finally, teachers in advanced math, engineering, and mechanics courses have expressed frustration at the inability of students who have passed Math 1114 to retain certain skills or recall material.

The redesign of Math 1114 is part of a larger transform-ation involving all of Virginia Tech's introductory mathematics courses made possible by the creation of the Math Emporium, a 500-workstation learning center housed in 56,000 square feet of old retail space adjacent to campus. The redesign takes advantage of the Math Emporium's capabilities for online delivery of content modules and assessments in a flexible manner. The transformed course offers more options for self-directed study than are possible in traditional lecture-and-lab-based courses. The goals of the redesign are to improve learning productivity, raise learning-success rates, and increase retention of material for later use.

In order to achieve those goals, the new course structure completely eliminates lectures and replaces them with Web-based resources such as interactive tutorials, computational exercises, an electronic hyper-textbook, practice exercises with video solutions to frequently asked questions, applications, and online quizzes. The course material is organized into units that students cover at the rate of one or two per week, each ending with a short, electronically graded quiz. And because the Math Emporium is open 24 x 7, students are able to complete work on a flexible time schedule. Its peer tutors provide assistance and are available 75- to 80-hours per week. Ongoing data collection about student performance allows the faculty to make changes in the course as it proceeds. In this way, continuous improvement is a built-in feature of the system.

Will the redesign enhance the quality of education for students? Evidence already exists that the Math Emporium is having a positive impact on the academic performance of mathematics students in general as well as on the morale of faculty members. Most strikingly, the university reports that scores in mathematics in general have risen 17.4 percent while the failure rate has dropped by 39 percent. The data show that courses utilizing the Emporium the most are those most likely to show positive improvement in student performance.

According to data from Virginia Tech, the shift from a traditional course environment to a technology-based, student-centered learning environment shows not only measurable improvements in the quality of learning but also a measurable decrease in the cost of delivering the course. In the traditional configuration, the course requires 105 hours of instructional time per section to teach 1,520 students in the fall semester. To teach the 38 sections of 40 students each requires 10 tenure-track faculty members at an average cost of $57 per hour, 13 instructors at an average cost of $23 per hour, and 15 graduate teaching assistants at $16 per hour.

The savings anticipated by Virginia Tech are about $53 per student--from $77 to $24--or $79,730 for the fall semester. Annual savings for all sections of Math 1114 are expected to be $97,400. Increased success rates will yield additional savings by reducing the average number of course attempts per student.

Rio Salado College: Increasing Retention in Distance Learning

Rio Salado College, one of the 10 community colleges in the Maricopa Community College District, has embraced the concept of learner-centered education for decades. The college was established in 1978 to provide working adults with flexible, convenient learning opportunities. Since the college does not have a campus, courses and programs are offered at more than 250 locations throughout the roughly 9,226 square miles of Maricopa County, Arizona.

Rio has also been involved in distance education for the last 20 years and in online education for the last three years. Currently, 80 percent of its general education courses are delivered via technology. Rio begins each of its distance learning courses 26 times a year. This means that students never have to wait more than two weeks to start a class. In addition, although each distance course is advertised as a 14-week class, students are allowed to accelerate or decelerate as needed.

Every course offered in the Maricopa District is based on a set of required competencies created by a council of discipline representatives from each of the 10 colleges. Rio Salado, like its sister institutions, designs its distance courses around these district competencies. Most of the colleges use the "one instructor, 35 students" model. Instructors, either full-time or adjunct, deliver content, grade assignments, evaluate student progress and overall success, and assign final grades. Even though students can enroll in classes every two weeks, Rio's "traditional" instructional delivery model is similar to that of the classroom. One instructor, responsible for a maximum of 35 students, answers student questions, evaluates student progress and overall success, and assigns final grades.

Rio plans to redesign Introductory Algebra, the starter course for students who need to complete College Algebra, third on the district's list of top 25 enrollment courses. The college is in its second year of using the Internet and interactive CD-ROM technology developed by Academic Systems to deliver its pre-algebra and college algebra courses. Despite the fact that completion rates for the Academic Systems-based math classes have showed a significant increase over the completion rate for print/mixed media (from 39 percent to 50 percent), the low completion rate is a matter of continuing concern. These low completion rates are not unique to Rio Salado but rather are exhibited by the other Maricopa colleges as well.

The redesigned course will continue to use interactive software from Academic Systems to deliver content. In its first iteration, the majority of instructor time was spent troubleshooting noncontent technology problems (such as navigation within the lessons), student movement through the material (such as when to take tests), and student advisement (such as whether to withdraw), rather than assisting with learning. The redesign will add student assistants to troubleshoot technology questions, monitor student progress using Academic Systems' built-in course management system, and alert instructors to student difficulties with the material. A Help Desk system will be developed to support TA-instructor-student communication. Instructors can then focus on creating a successful start for students and intervening to provide academic help when needed. With enhanced, proactive support, retention is expected to increase by 20 percent.

Distance learning classes at Rio Salado College are designated as open entry/open exit classes. Because of this designation, the college receives only half funding for distance learning students who withdraw. Mathematics courses tend to have higher withdrawal rates because of the nature of the subject matter. Improved retention and decreased withdrawal rates in online mathematics courses will definitely reduce college costs.

The restructuring will also permit increasing the number of students that can be served in a distance learning format. Significant savings can be achieved by increasing class capacity from 35 to 100 students per instructor, an increase which is possible once nonacademic duties are shifted to student assistants and other kinds of support. Savings will also result from reducing the number of students who need to re-take the course. By using tech-nology to its full capacity within the course structure, redesign will result in a projected cost-per-student reduction of 33 percent compared to traditional MCCD classroom instruction and 41 percent compared to previous distance learning formats at Rio.

University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign: Doubling Enrollment in Intermediate Spanish

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), and at most universities nationwide, the demand for Spanish-language courses far exceeds actual enrollment, primarily because the ability to staff those courses is limited. The demand is fueled by the increasing internationalization of our economy. Students who wish to have a minor in international studies need competency in a second language, and Spanish is the language of choice. On the UIUC campus, the Spanish problem will be exacerbated by a recently imposed increase in the foreign-language requirement.

Though much of the demand for Spanish is in the introductory courses, Spanish 210, an intermediate-level grammar course, has also had a chronic excess-demand problem. There are students who have wanted to take the course but who have been unable to do so because all the slots were filled.

In 1996-97, an Italian professor successfully developed an asynchronous learning (ALN) approach for her Italian 101 and 102 courses. She designed vocabulary and grammar exercises for the students to complete using Mallard, a computer-based testing instrument developed by UIUC, as well as writing assignments using FirstClass, a commercial course-management system. The professor served as the course coordinator; graduate TAs taught independent discussion sections.

Spanish 210, a basic course in Spanish grammar, has a similar structure to Italian 101 and 102. The idea behind the Spanish course-redesign project was to build on the course-development experience of the Italian professor. To initiate this project, the Italian professor searched the Spanish faculty for a willing participant, ultimately enlisting the Spanish 210 course coordinator. The search occurred in spring 1997 in response to a call from the Sloan Center on Asynchronous Learning Environments (SCALE) administration.

In its traditional format, the Spanish course met in three lecture/discussion sections per week for 15 weeks. The 114 students were divided into six discussion sections of 19 students each taught by teaching assistants. One professor coordinated the course, supervised the TAs and prepared quizzes and exams. Three TAs taught two sections each per semester and graded all quizzes and exams.

In the fall 1997 semester two sections of Spanish 210 were taught primarily online utilizing both FirstClass and Mallard. The online sections met only once a week while the traditional sections met three times a week. In fall 1997 the use of these techniques allowed the department to increase class size from 19 students to approximately 38 students in each of the two sections. In spring 1998 all sections of Spanish 210 were taught using these techniques and all have experienced a doubling of enrollment relative to historical norms.

The redesigned course enrolls 228 students with 38 students in each of six sections. Each section meets for one hour per week; the rest of the course takes place online. The course coordinator continues to supervise the TAs and prepare quizzes and exams; she also handles student problems, course logistics, and course material updates.

The role of the TAs has changed considerably. In addition to meeting students in a one-hour lecture/discussion session per week, TAs spend about three hours per week assessing online writing and now hold a two-hour office hour session each week to provide individualized assistance. Student attitudes toward the new format are positive since their time is being used more effectively. They can control the pacing of the work within the deadlines set by the professor, and the time they spend in class is not wasted in the way that it often was in the old recitation sessions.

The department believes that by using online techniques to teach all sections of Spanish 210 in the future, they will be able to teach approximately twice as many students without adding personnel. In the traditional course, the cost of teaching 114 students was $22,750 per semester for a per-student cost of $200. The cost of teaching 228 students in the redesigned format is $23,025 per semester for a per-student cost of $101 in the redesigned course. Thus, the savings per student is about $99, which translates to a per-semester savings of $22,475.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute: Five Stages of Transformation

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has probably gone farther than any other college or university to institutionalize the kind of large-scale redesign discussed in this paper. At the symposium, Jack Wilson, widely regarded as the moving force behind the studio course model, provided a retrospective on what Rensselaer experienced as they migrated numerous courses in many disciplines from a lecture format to a learner-centered model. The reaction of faculty and the difficulties of sustaining significant change received particular emphasis in his presen-tation. Jack characterized the stages of this process as the movement from resistance to transition to diffusion to regression to renewal.

In the beginning, the attitude of most faculty was "hell no, I won't go." Today the prevailing attitude is "hell no, I won't go back." When embarking on a process of major institutional change, one can expect a certain degree of faculty resistance. That should not be a discouragement for the positive attitudes of the champions and the powerful impact of these new environments on students will inevitably carry the day.

One of the things that made it easier to deal with the redesign process and all of changes that accompanied it at Rensselaer was that many faculty were unhappy with the traditional lecture/lab/recitation format. Many mid-career, research faculty were working in an environment where they could not be successful. The new format combined lecture, lab, and recitation and brought out the faculty's strengths as teachers. In addition, an explicit goal was to reduce faculty workload; this was achieved by the redesign.

The next phase was diffusion: how to move beyond the innovators. Diffusion of the studio model was uneven across the campus. In some departments, such as math, physics, information technology, electronic media arts, and communications, the impact was pervasive, affecting all faculty and all students. In others like biology, chemistry, economics, and other engineering departments, the impact was significant but not pervasive. The humanities and social sciences were already using many of the interactive techniques being adapted in the studio courses and so did not experience much change. All faculty who have taught in both forms like the new studio model and would not go back to a lecture-based format.

Diffusion of the studio model beyond the Rensselaer campus has been an interesting process. Some institutions have adopted most of the strategies without calling the result a studio course. Jack believes that you have to give people room to create their own forms and to put their own spin on the idea.

An important lesson from Rensselaer's experience is that backsliding is always a possibility. In physics, the department declared victory and moved on and, as a result, some of the original redesign focus was lost in the introductory course. Ongoing leadership is important even when the redesign process is pervasive. A champion is needed to provide focus, organize the process, and coordinate quality control.
Sometimes a change of leadership can result in a new but not necessarily better model. A new person may want to put his or her mark on the department and make changes for change's sake. One new faculty member went so far as to move the course back to the lecture model, and measures of quality and satisfaction went down as a result. The course has since been turned over to a new faculty member, who has the department back on track.

It is important to bring in new champions as the process progresses. At Rensselaer, leadership on campus has moved from math and physics to electrical engineering. There is always a need to focus on new issues, to think about taking on the next steps. Rensselaer has moved to a student mobile-computing model, for example. In order for the studio model to scale, they wanted to make networked computers available to students wherever they might sit down. Providing equipment to reach this goal proved to be too expensive. Rensselaer has now adopted a policy requiring all students to have a laptop. The students bring computers with them when they arrive on campus and the university provides the infrastructure and a place to connect. The results: a significant reduction in cost.

Improving Learning & Reducing Costs: Redesigning Large-Enrollment Courses, by Carol A. Twigg

© The Pew Learning and Technology Program 1999
Sponsored by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Center for Academic Transformation, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Troy Building, Third Floor
110 8th Street, Troy, NY 12180
518-276-6519 (voice)
518-695-5633 (fax)

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