Improving the Quality of Student Learning

University of Colorado at Boulder

Based on available data about learning outcomes from the course pilot, what were the impacts of re-design on learning and student development?

We began the project in spring 2000, with a pilot section of 60 students. We continued in fall 2000 with a section of 123 students of the same class. That number is a bit short of our target enrollment of 220, which we can't reach yet because we are still constrained by the lack of laboratory classroom space for learning team meetings. In spring 2001 we will teach the same course in two sections, one of approximately 200 students and another of approximately 80 students.

Detailed evaluation of the student responses to the spring 2000 semester section is nearly complete; a preliminary report is attached. The student interview data from the fall 2000 semester is currently being encoded.

This report is based on the first round of interview data gathered at the end of the first semester in the four-semester sequence. In order to get feedback on the course, students, and members of the teaching team, were interviewed (either individually or in focus groups). In all, 15 focus group interviews were conducted with 59 people using open-ended, ethnographic interviews.

Findings from these interviews informed changes made in the second semester, at the end of which the current students and teaching team members were again interviewed. (Second semester interviews are now being analyzed and are not included in this report.) The professor has consistently adjusted the course in light of the feedback offered by teaching team members, evaluators, and students. The course has maintained its cohesiveness because adjustments have focused on meeting central course goals in more effective ways.

Students commented on the importance of being initially informed and subsequently updated, about the teaching approach being used, and interpreted changes as a reflection of the professor's concern to find the best ways to meet their learning needs. The level of student-professor contact in this course has been unusually high for an introductory university science course, and students have interpreted both this, and the course adjustments, as indicators of his concern about their learning—a factor that we found to be critical in sustaining high levels of student engagement and a low drop-out rate.

Especially revealing are students' statements of surprise (even delight) at how much they had learned when looking back over the semester. Students' positive comments about their learning included the following: expressions of surprise and/or pleasure at how much had been learned, mastery of the main class concepts, or of specific concepts; appreciation of learning up-to-date astronomy; confidence that what was learned would be retained; learning more about what astronomers do and how they work; feeling prepared to go on to the next astronomy class; ability to apply concepts learned in this class to other classes and disciplines; ability to talk knowledgably about concepts learned in this class with other people; and confidence among aspiring teachers about using concepts learned in this class to classes they would teach in the future.

The students assessed the capstone web page project as their most successful group work assignment. This assignment lent itself especially well to group work since team members had to coordinate with one another in order to produce the final product.

Students also identified gains from group work in other parts of the course. These included greater comfort in asking questions in small groups than in (larger) class meetings; learning to work in teams as a useful real-world skill; relationships among classmates as a reward in itself; greater pleasure of working together rather than alone; drawing upon a wider range of skills and knowledge than when working alone (e.g., knowledge of computer use); support among team members; and the ability of peers to explain difficult concepts to each another. The two most important ongoing difficulties with the learning team method were their tacit expectation that the coaches will lead group work and the need to tailor prescribed activities for the learning teams such that they better lend themselves to group work.

Students viewed computer use as a "naturally" solitary endeavor (one keyboard = one user = individual work). Making computer-based learning a group activity, and designing computer projects so that they become group projects, is difficult because there are no common group-based models for computer use on which to draw. Some students resisted group work because of their preference for delivery of content by lecture method in the sole authoritative voice of the professor. This sub-set of students felt anxious when expected to learn by relying on their own efforts and those of their peers, and feared their learning might somehow be compromised.

The impact of in-class discussion sessions that students most appreciated were the learning gains that they made by the requirement that they prepare answers to different sets of questions posed to each learning team for oral answers in class. Getting used to explaining their answers to the professor and their peers was also seen as very good practice—if scary at first. Learning was more continuous throughout the semester because students could not postpone reading about particular topics until just before tests. The learning pace was, thus, more even, and students thought that it promoted longer-term learning retention. The most useful aspects of in-class discussion sessions were reported to be the learning benefits of being prepared to give oral answers in class; the good fit of discussion questions within overall course objectives; enjoyment of the competition between teams to give good answers; the liveliness of class discussions; increased team camaraderie as a result of preparing and delivering answers together; and genuine participation in class rather than passive anonymity.

The most common drawback of in-class discussion mentioned by students was their fear of speaking in public. Other problems that students identified with the discussion sessions were resentment when the same few students answered most of the discussion questions; fears about the response of the professor and peers if giving a wrong answer; incomplete coverage of discussion questions: the professor did not get to the questions for their team; difficulty recognizing the correctness and/or completeness of other students' answers; difficulty taking notes during discussions; concern by those preferring lectures that discussion time was at the expense of getting essential information; and concern about getting appropriate credit for answers given in discussion.

Use of Technology in the Class

Most students reported that they had become more adept at, and comfortable with, computer work as a result of this class, and had gained some new computer skills. They were also positive about the utility of the hypertext to their learning, including the quality, readability, scope, visual attractiveness, constant updating, and, thus, utility of the hypertext as a learning resource; hypertext links to other sources of relevant, current, and interesting information (that students would not have found on their own); an overall preference for the hypertext over a textbook; and the interchangeability of the hypertext and a textbook, giving students a choice of learning sources. Other computer-related aspects of the class that students assessed as especially good were help from TAs, team mates and the professor via e-mail and the ability to check one's grades on-line. Students also offered suggestions about how to further refine the hypertext, and offered feedback on some of the difficulties they had encountered when learning through the computer:

Students who owned their own computer (or otherwise have good computer access), were more positive about the use of technology in the class. There may also be a relationship between a general affinity for technology and appreciation of the specific technology used in this class. Nearly all students reported that they had received adequate help with the technological challenges they had encountered in the class.

The three ways in which the professor was seen as most directly influencing learning were, his enthusiasm, ability to relate concepts, and high expectation for student learning. Students also pointed out that their teacher's enthusiasm made it easier to ask questions. The professor was also lauded for applying concepts learned in the class to cutting-edge technology and current events.

Both TAs and students unanimously appreciated the professor's visits to the learning teams. The visits promoted bonding and served as opportunities for students to give the professor direct feedback. The perception that the professor was receptive to their input and genuinely interested in their learning also boosted team morale.

The professor's commitment to active learning, which, by definition, requires more of students than the passive learning methods to which they are more accustomed, accounts for some student resistance to the class pedagogy. While students value learning, they also face conflicting demands on their time. Even students with strong work and study ethics routinely resort to "triage" as a way to cope with high simultaneous work demands from several classes: doing the most pressing assignments first, at the expense (or neglect) of lower-pressure tasks. Although the pace of the class, while brisk, was generally seen as appropriate, students often admitted that they did not expend more effort than required, omitted optional tasks (such as observation nights and planetarium presentations), and minimized time spent on routine assignments. It is recommended, especially when using active learning strategies, that valued work tasks be mandatory rather than optional, even if the activities are thought to be inherently appealing: if you value it, require it.

Students reported that their study time outside of class hours ranged from zero to 12 hours per week; the mean was three hours a week; and the mode two hours. A sub-set were unapologetic about their lack of effort or their non-attendance: students who exhibited signs of "senioritis" (the lack of interest in school of those about to graduate) were especially defensive of their "right" not to attend and/or not to participate fully in classes.

Student Receptivity to Innovations in Teaching

Students made approximately three times as many positive as negative statements about the innovative nature of the class. Perhaps the most revealing comments came in response to the question: "If you could go back in time, knowing everything you know now, and had to choose between taking this class as a traditional lecture-based class, or the class just as you have experienced it, which would you choose?" Slightly more than half of the students replied that they would opt to take the class as it is now. In addition, among those who would opt for a traditional, lecture-based class, the majority said they would choose the innovative class a few semesters later, once the initial problems had been worked out. Students' comments indicating receptivity to the pedagogical changes introduced included approval of experimental aspects of the class; appreciation of attempts to improve teaching; and, approval of the professor's adjustments to the class in response to input from others and from his own observations. Where students expressed such approval, they also showed willingness to take course imperfections and the professor's course corrections in stride.

Enthusiasm for the subject matter is also a useful measure of student receptivity because the class was composed almost entirely of non-science majors. When students were asked if they were more or less enthusiastic about astronomy as a result of this class, nearly three times as many reports of increased (compared with unchanged or diminished) enthusiasm were offered.

Student receptivity to innovations in teaching may also be influenced by concerns about test scores. There was concern about the lack of fit between the innovative presentation of concepts in class and the professor's use of more traditional testing methods. All learning assessment methods need to reflect the primary learning objectives set for the class and stressed to students: change in one signals a need to align the other.



Program in Course Redesign Quick Links:

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