Program in Course Redesign

University of Colorado at Boulder

The Traditional Course

Introductory Astronomy is a two-semester sequence designed primarily for nonscience majors to fulfill the natural science requirement of the College of Arts and Sciences' core curriculum at the University of Colorado–Boulder. The course enrolls 1,040 students per semester (or 2,080 students per year) in two different section configurations: four large lectures (approximately 220 students each) and two moderate-sized sections (approximately 80 students each).

Not surprisingly, the smaller sections offer much better opportunities for participation by students. However, the department is severely limited in the number of smaller sections that it can offer because of the high costs of faculty time. Only about 15% of the students have the opportunity to enroll in the sections of 80 or less.

The traditional course configurations face several academic problems including poor class attendance (attendance at the large lecture sections averages approximately 50%) and insufficient student participation and engagement with the material. In the lecture format, few students ask questions or contribute comments. Although students can meet individually and in small groups with Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) or with the professor during office hours, only a small number of students avail themselves of these limited resources. Most students simply attend lectures, take notes, study the text, turn in their homework, and take the quizzes and exam. The traditional large-lecture format is ineffective for engaging students, except for the relatively small fraction of highly motivated students who will do well in any setting.

Larger sections are effective in terms of cost but only marginally effective in terms of learning by students, whereas smaller sections reverse this outcome. Colorado wants to find ways to retain some of the advantages of small classes in the larger sections while keeping costs under control. Redesign using Web-based technology provides a means to increase active learning and interactivity in large classes.

The Redesigned Course

The learning goals for the redesigned course will require students to

  • understand the processes of scientific reasoning and how to use these processes;
  • feel comfortable with elementary quantitative reasoning;
  • understand science as exploration, both in a historical context and as a living process;
  • understand some of the great themes of cosmic research;
  • feel the thrill of current discovery in astronomy;
  • engage in dialogue regarding these issues; and
  • use computers for manipulating data and images and exploring on the Web.

Engaging students in inquiry-based learning, involving a high level of interactivity with their peers and teachers, best achieves these goals. This can be done very well in a small class (less than 30 students), but doing so in larger classes becomes a much greater challenge. Economic realities at a large state university preclude offering introductory courses in small classes to most students. The university needs to find ways to retain some of the advantages of small classes in large sections.

Thus, the primary goal of the redesign is to restructure the large-lecture sections so that they will retain some of the advantages of a small interactive class. The redesign will increase active learning and interactivity in large classes through the use of Web-based course materials—developed at the University of Colorado and elsewhere—that stress peer interaction and asynchronous learning. Colorado has developed and tested a large number of Web-based resources in both traditional large-lecture sections and small classes.

The redesign will employ the following:

  • An online hypertext with links to the best-available resources (images, movies, learning centers, Java applets) for learning astronomy
  • New interactive Java applets to explore and illustrate scientific concepts and techniques
  • A set of Web-based, self-paced homework exercises
  • A database of examination questions of various types classified and searchable according to learning goals and subject matter
  • Software for asynchronous communication
  • An automated database for tracking students’ attendance and their usage of the course Web site
  • Forms and scripts to deal with students’ typical problems (e.g., excused absences)
  • Automated software for grading homework and exams
  • Development of a banquet-style classroom (requiring installation of laptop computers, Ethernet ports, and projection facilities)

The course will be redesigned so that all students, no matter what their section size, will work in small "learning teams" of 10–15, thus creating an environment in which active and collaborative learning can occur. Each learning team will be coached by an Undergraduate Learning Assistant (ULA) and will meet in a dedicated computer classroom for one hour per week; Students in the teams will explore the hypertext "text" of the course, discuss posted questions, help each other with homework problems, and prepare "challenge questions" for the other teams. Students will be graded on both individual performance and the performance of their learning teams, creating an incentive for collaboration.

Course faculty will conduct two interactive sessions per week and will visit the teams periodically. Instead of delivering traditional formal lectures, course faculty will pose selected questions to the learning teams in order to provoke dialogues. GTAs will be available to answer questions on evenings and weekends via e-mail and chat rooms.

Traditional Course Structure

  • 15-week term
  • 6 lecture sections of the course per semester (4 of 220 students, 2 of 80 students)
  • 3 (1-hour) lectures or 2 (1.5-hour) lectures each week
  • 6 evening observing sessions

Six faculty teach one section each of the course by delivering lectures; preparing homework, quizzes, exams; supervising GTAs; and holding two to four office hours per week for individual or small-group instruction.
Ten GTAs assist in teaching the course. They hold 10 office hours per week for individual or small-group instruction, attend lectures, assist in preparing and grading homework and exams, and maintain course records.

Redesigned Course Structure

  • 15-week term
  • 6 lecture sections of the course per semester (4 of 220 students, 2 of 80 students)
  • Students divided into learning teams of 10–15 with one ULA coach per team
  • 2 (1-hour) interactive sessions led by faculty
  • 1 (1-hour) meeting of learning team
  • Online help provided by GTAs
  • Six evening observing sessions
  • Six faculty teach one section each of the course. They hold two one-hour interactive sessions each week describing the goals of the week's work, discussing questions with learning teams, administering quizzes, and offering demonstrations. They also supervise ULAs and GTAs and make periodic visits to learning teams.
  • 38 ULAs assist in teaching the course. They hold one one-hour meeting per week with each learning team, helping the teams to explore the hypertext, prepare for discussion in the large sections, and submit homework. They also attend interactive sessions with their teams and one one-hour planning session with the instructor and GTA per week.
  • Four GTAs assist in teaching the course. They assist the professor in supervising the ULAs and in preparing homework problems and exams, manage night-time observing sessions, attend interactive sessions, provide prompt replies to questions by e-mail, maintain students’ records, and serve as backup for ULAs in case of absence.


In summary, the redesigned course will implement the following changes:

  • Replace lecture-based learning with Web-based modules that promote active learning.
  • Reduce lectures from three to one.
  • Offer collaborative, small-group learning experiences by creating learning teams of about nine students each.
  • Increase students’ interaction with course content, other students, and the instructor.
  • Substitute ULAs for GTAs to work with small learning teams.



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