Arizona Board of Regents: Learner-Centered Education Course Redesign Initiative

Arizona State University

Course Title: Introduction to Geology
Redesign Coordinator: Kip Hodges

Project Abstract
Final Report (as of 6/1/09)

Project Abstract

The Tempe campus of Arizona State University (ASU) plans to redesign Introduction to Geology in the ASU School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE). This course is currently taught in a traditional lecture mode, three hours per week, in five sections of 220 students each semester, for a total enrollment of 2200 students annually. The course serves mostly general studies students and a small number of geoscience majors.

Currently a full-time lecturer teaches two of the five sections, and three faculty members teach the remaining sections. Each section is taught independently, with minimal communication and sharing of resources among individual instructors. The current arrangement causes inconsistencies in subject matter, consumes a significant amount of faculty time in materials development and presentation, and produces a large variability in effectiveness.

The planned course redesign will use the Replacement Model. The team will bring the course under a common syllabus and mastery-based assessment plan, organize content and activities into modules, and use synchronous and asynchronous instructional technologies to enable faculty to teach a greater number of students effectively. The cornerstone of the redesign is a new and innovative textbook authored by two SESE faculty members and designed based on cognitive and educational research. This figure-based and media-rich textbook is specifically designed to allow students to learn much of the content outside of the classroom. Half of the lecture time will be replaced with technologically enhanced delivery of vibrant web content, using online mastery exams synchronized to class attendance, and enhanced support and feedback for students. Class time will be very interactive to provide students with personal experience with the course materials prior to reading the textbook and accessing the web content out of class. Class time will also be used to enrich, enliven, and extend the basic concepts introduced through the textbook and web material.

The redesign will enhance quality by creating a uniform knowledge framework across all sections and providing rich interactive web content and a more meaningful and directed faculty-student dialogue. A primary objective of the redesign is to infuse SESE’s emphasis on the integration of disciplines, technological innovation and exploration as a paradigm for learning and research.

The effectiveness of the redesigned course will be assessed during the pilot phase by comparing responses on common test questions in parallel traditional and redesigned sections. These pilot assessments will be compared with the implementation phase assessments. Published, valid, and reliable concept inventories such as the Geoscience Concept Inventory will be used to create instruments to evaluate the effectiveness of the instructional innovations. In the course of their ongoing research on teaching and learning, SESE faculty involved in science-education research will direct the development, validation, and reliability testing of quantitative and qualitative assessment instruments for the redesigned course.

The redesigned course will decrease instructional costs by changing the mix of personnel teaching the course and decreasing total faculty effort by half. Interactive online learning activities will replace 1.5 hours of course meetings. Time required for curriculum and materials development will also be saved. The redesign will reduce the cost-per-student from $92 to $68, a 26% decrease. The savings will be used to expand student opportunities by offering additional sections, to increase course enrollment in other SESE courses and to increase faculty research activity.

Final Report (as of 6/1/09)

Impact on Students

Improved Learning

The final class averages were 74.3 percent for the traditional course and 73.4 percent for the redesigned course, an insignificant difference. The team considers such comparisons to have limited validity because of the major changes in how the course was taught.

The redesign changed the kind of knowledge that students gained compared to the traditional course. Previously this course used multiple-choice questions during exams to assess a thin veneer of factual knowledge spread across many aspects of geology. In contrast, the redesigned course used 1) online quizzes to assess a breadth of knowledge, 2) concept sketches on exams to assess deep conceptual knowledge in 40 or so of the most important geologic topics, and 3) online investigations that allowed students to solve an authentic scientific problem.

The fruits of this approach were clearly visible in the excellent concept sketches produced by students during exams designed to demonstrate student mastery of conceptual knowledge. Scores averaged better than 80 percent on nearly every exam. The team considers these concept sketches to be the best indication of how well students understand geological concepts and systems.

Improved Retention

Student success rate (C or higher in the course) was 85 percent in the spring 2008 traditional sections compared to 86.3 percent in the redesigned full implementation in fall 2008. This improvement accompanied an increase in student workload from the traditional to the redesigned course.

Impact on Cost Savings

The traditional course was taught three times a week (MWF) for a total of 150 minutes per week, whereas the redesigned course was taught two days a week (MW) or once a week (T) for an average of 94 minutes per week.

The team estimates that each instructor and teaching assistant saved significant amounts of in-class time in the fully redesigned course, but that these were partially offset by time required to administer online activities. Savings of in-class time, as a result of the elimination of one class meeting per week, were 37.5 percent for both the instructors and teaching assistants, compared to the traditional course.

Several additional hours of faculty time were saved each week by eliminating some class preparation. Additional time savings, averaging several hours per week, resulted from reductions in development and grading of exams, preparation and grading of investigations, and grade management. The grade-management savings were largely achieved by moving quizzes and investigations online where Blackboard could administer and grade the activities and incorporate scores directly into the grade book.

For the teaching assistants, the time savings were reductions in time in class, class preparation, grading investigations and quizzes, and grade management. These times savings were partially offset by increased time spent doing online office hours and chats.

Overall, the team estimates that the redesign effort resulted in a time savings of 30 percent for each instructor and 35 percent for each teaching assistant.

As a result of lessons learned during deployment of the fully redesigned course, the amount of time spent by instructors and teaching assistants during the spring 2009 semester has been much less, and so the final time savings for instructors and teaching assistants will be higher than these estimates.

Lessons Learned

Pedagogical Improvement Techniques

  • Innovative textbook. The cognitively designed textbook used as part of the redesign effort is Exploring Geology published by McGraw-Hill. This book features a new approach to textbooks by integrating figures and text, presenting information in two-page spreads to limit cognitive overload and incorporating learning objectives on every two-page spread.
  • Innovative in-class lectures. The instructors teaching the redesigned course reported that moving the quizzes, investigations and content movies online produced a liberating effect, resulting from reduced pressure to cover too much material in class. As a result, instructors could allocate time for students to observe, discuss and interpret landscapes and other geologic features instead of simply covering factual content. In addition, instructors had more time to employ various types of multimedia, including rotating 3D objects, Google Earth, QuickTime and Flash movies, and video clips of geologic processes such as volcanic eruptions and flooding. In addition, some instructors had time to have students construct concept sketches on white boards, even though there were approximately 200 students in the classroom. There was also time for more detailed presentation of demonstrations to provide a starting point from which students could construct knowledge of complex concepts.
  • Online content. Content-rich, multimedia movies for deployment on the web. These movies, typically five to ten minutes long, were truly multimedia experiences involving 1) static PowerPoint slides, photographs, and textbook illustrations, commonly with features emphasized by highlighting or by moving arrows, 2) interactive 3D terrains such as the continent and adjacent seafloor of South America, 3) digital video clips, ranging from public-domain movies of volcanic eruptions to digital video shot by the redesign team, 4) cartoon-like animations, 5) Flash-based animations, 6) pauses in the movies designed to let students observe geologic features and data patterns, and 7) multiple-choice quizzes integrated within the movies. The team has received strongly positive feedback from students regarding these movies via interviews and online surveys conducted every semester.
  • Online quizzes. Online quizzes for student self-mastery of concepts and problem-solving were administered twice a week during the early stages of the redesign effort, but recently have been typically administered once per week. These online quizzes covered a broad cross-section of geologic knowledge from approximately 75% of the content in the textbook. Some multiple-choice questions from the online quizzes were also asked in class using CPS devices.
  • Online investigations. The last two-page spread in each chapter in Exploring Geology is an investigation, where students use newly mastered knowledge and skills to solve authentic geologic problems (for example determining the source of groundwater pollution based on geologic and hydrologic information.) In the traditional course, these investigations were done either in class or as homework and were completed on paper worksheets that had to be hand-graded by the instructor or teaching assistant. For the redesign project, all 19 chapter-ending investigations were developed as online activities that could be administered and automatically graded using Blackboard. Moving the investigations online saved the equivalent of two weeks of class time during the semester.
  • Concept-sketch exams. In addition to the online quizzes, each section administered five in-class exams during the semester. Each exam consisted of two concept-sketch questions out of a list of 6 to 10 possible questions provided to the students (before that material was covered). A concept sketch is a figure that is accompanied by complete phrases that explain the features and processes illustrated by the sketch. Concept sketches are an especially effective way to assess student understanding of a complete geologic system such as the formation and flow of groundwater. The team believes that they are far superior to the piecemeal approach provided by multiple-choice questions. The combined approach of online multiple-choice questions and concept-sketch questions on exams resulted in a marvelous blend of broad knowledge and deep understanding of key geologic concepts. It has resulted in dramatically improved performance by students on the concept sketches since the start of the redesign effort. Many colleagues across the country have been amazed at the quality of concept sketches produced by our students. The combination of the new textbook, online redesign content, and online quizzes and investigations has allowed students to learn material and develop scientific skills on their own.

Cost Savings Techniques

  • Reduced in-class time. Class meetings were reduced from three to two days for MW classes and from two to one day for TTh classes.
  • Shared resources. Prior to the redesign effort, each section was taught independently, even to the point of different instructors using different books during the same semester. Each instructor wrote his own exam and developed his own PowerPoints. As part of the redesign, all instructors used a single textbook, began with a standardized series of PowerPoints, and shared development of online quizzes and in-class exams. Students in all sections used the same online movies, investigations and most online quiz questions.
  • Reduced photocopying. Moving multiple-choice questions to online quizzes and using only concept sketches during exams eliminated huge amounts of photocopying. For concept-sketch exams, an instructor simply revealed the two concept-sketch questions on an overhead, and students answered on a blank sheet of paper. There was no photocopying involved in any of the exams.

Implementation Issues

  • Developing online materials. Two aspects of developing online materials were most important. First, instructors decided what content would be addressed and then turned the development of the movies completely over to trained graduate students. Second, the team conducted formative assessments, including online surveys each semester and interviews of small numbers of students, to improve the movies.
  • Refining online investigations. The team did not fully anticipate how much fine-tuning would be required for the online investigations. They had used these investigations in class where students worked in groups for several years without major difficulties. When students had to complete them online, in some cases without the help of their classmates, the investigations became more challenging. As a result, the team has continually revised these online investigations until they could stand alone.


The redesign is being used in all large Introduction to Geology sections. The results of the redesign effort have resulted in improved student understanding of geologic concepts as assessed with concept sketches and improved rates of student success. The time and cost savings are significant and are consistent with those originally estimated.

The efforts of the Introduction to Geology redesign project will be sustained for the foreseeable future. Since the start of the redesign project, all instructors have used the same textbook, PowerPoints, online quizzes, online investigations, online movies and other materials. Instructors are largely pleased with the new approach, which has now been adopted by seven faculty members and includes every instructor who has taught a large Introduction to Geology section since the start of the redesign project. The team anticipates that implementation of the redesign project will last until there is a dramatic change in educational technology.



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