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

The University of Arizona

Course Title: Introductory Biology
Redesign Coordinator: Kathleen Dixon

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

Project Abstract

The University of Arizona (UA) plans to redesign Introductory Biology, a course in cell and molecular biology serving approximately 1800 students annually. Enrollment is highest during the fall with about 1500 students. Six sections of ~300 each are taught by six instructors from several departments. In its traditional format, the course is taught in a typical lecture format with an additional, optional, one-hour discussion section. Students rarely prepare for lectures before class, and therefore the in-class activities consist primarily of information transfer rather than discussion, practice and application.

Introductory Biology is a requirement for students in 23 different life sciences majors. The content is the foundation for all biological science majors. The subject material is difficult because it builds on an understanding of chemistry that many students are just developing through co-requisite coursework. The complexity of the topics covered in the course, the large class size and the lack of a unified approach to the teaching result in inconsistencies in student preparation, student satisfaction and student achievement. The failure rates differ from section to section but average approximately 20%. Instructors teaching subsequent courses indicate that students completing Introductory Biology fail to apply what they have learned in the course and appear unable to think critically or creatively about these topics.

UA plans to use the Supplemental Model in its redesign, which involves the creation of pre-class tutorials, accessed as podcasts, that introduce students to the basic content matter for the day's class. Students will complete online mastery quizzes on this material before coming to class. This structure will allow for more student-centered activities in class. The use of case studies, animations, computer modeling and other materials will reinforce the concepts and will give students practice in talking about biology. Each lecture section will be divided into two discussion sections, where groups of up to 15 students will work to complete projects that give them additional practice with biology concepts. Undergraduate assistants (UGAs) will mentor groups as they complete their projects.

The redesigned course will be consistent across sections, emphasizing conceptual understanding, application and students' responsibility to come to lectures prepared to learn at a higher level. The redesign will address the issue of student preparation by making students accountable for doing work before each class. In addition, the process of creating the tutorials, in-class activities, and discussion section projects will involve all instructional faculty in discussions and decisions regarding the learner-centered format. The learner-centered strategies, in turn, will allow students more opportunity to practice applying, transferring and talking about biology. These outcomes are essential for students who are beginning to learn to "talk science."

Student learning will be assessed by comparing pre- and post-test scores for all traditional sections taught in fall 2007 with the scores from the pilot and full implementation offerings in 2008. Beginning in fall 2007, common questions on midterm and final exams will enable comparison of student performance both from traditional to learner-centered formats and also between different instructors' sections.

The operational cost of the course will be reduced by decreasing the number of instructors in the fall semester from six to four, reducing the number of GTAs and increasing the number of UGAs. Enrollment is projected to grow from ~1800 to more than 2300 students during the next five years. During the period of the redesign project, increased enrollment can be accommodated within the current sections. The cumulative impact of these efficiencies and implementation of online, student-centered activities will be to reduce the cost of course delivery from approximately $266 per student to $130, a 51% reduction. These savings will enable faculty to focus on other academic work, including research, other teaching and service to the department and university.

Final Report (as of 6/1/09)

Impact on Students

Improved Learning

The team assessed the difference in pre-test-to-post-test gains between fall 2007 traditional sections and fall 2008 redesigned sections. In order to make the comparisons valid, pre-test and post-test data from instructors who taught both traditional and redesigned sections were used. This means that a subset of the students from each semester’s total complement of students—515 for fall 2007 and 814 for 2008—were considered in order to ensure the most meaningful comparison.

The pre-test and post-test included 31 questions, mostly true-false but some multiple-choice, dealing with core course objectives or attitudes about learning the material in the course. The difference in the average gain from pre- to post-test between fall 2007 (7.47%) and fall 2008 gain (8.64%) is significant at the 0.001 level.

Improved Retention

Although course retention was not the driving factor for this redesign, the team wished to improve the retention rate. The DFW rate for the traditional sections was 38.41%; the DFW rate for the redesigned sections was 33.83%. The difference of 4.58% indicates that the structure of the redesigned course may encourage students toward higher achievement. The decrease in DFW rates was accompanied by an increase of 5.22% in C grades, with rates of As and Bs relatively unchanged. The team’s interpretation is that the redesign strategies increased the opportunities for student assessment on lower-stakes assignments, increasing the opportunities for achievement.

Other Impacts on Students

Despite a redesign strategy that required students to increase the amount of time spent outside of class, the course evaluation data from the redesigned sections showed that student satisfaction with the course, the instructors and strategies was essentially unchanged relative to the traditional course. Student evaluations also showed that students were, in general, positive about the use of the in-class questions and particularly the pre-class tutorials. On a five-point Likert scale where students rated these strategies, 67% of the students rated the pre-class tutorials to be “Fairly useful” or “Extremely useful,” and 48% of the students rated the in-class discussion/clicker questions to be “Fairly useful” or “Extremely useful.”

Impact on Cost Savings

The plan for the redesign involved reducing the number of faculty in the fall term from six to four, reducing the number of graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) and increasing the number of undergraduate teaching assistants (UGAs) who earn credit and are not paid. The fully implemented redesign reduced the number of faculty in the fall term from six to five, and the changes for the GTAs and UGAs were implemented as planned. The change during full implementation means that the cost-per-student declined from $266 in the traditional course to $178 in the redesigned course rather than to the planned cost-per-student of $130. The 33% savings is substantial, although not as high as the projected 51%.

Lessons Learned

Pedagogical Improvement Techniques

  • Pre-class tutorials and quizzes. Students were given assignments to complete prior to class, always including quizzes that had to be completed before the beginning of a lecture. Students became familiar with the basics on their own time, saving time in class for the aspects of the topic that were more complex, or allowing for discussion of applications through student interaction and problem-solving. The nature of the assignments varied, but included reading assignments in the text, instructor-developed podcasts, or viewing videos and animations at the publisher’s website (Mastering Biology) or other sites. Each assignment was accompanied by a quiz that allowed the students to practice the concepts in a relatively low-stakes environment. The quizzes were often administered using activities or tutorials at the Mastering Biology site, but some instructors also used their own questions, delivered over the university’s D2L course management system. Students could repeat the quizzes from two to five times for full credit.
  • Interactive exercises. During the lecture sections, students worked in groups to carry out exercises to reinforce and provide practice in applying difficult concepts. Student work was monitored and assisted by UGAs. For example, students had to complete a worksheet that asked them to predict the effect of making a mutation at particular locations within a group of closely related bacterial genes, using post-its to diagram the pattern of electron flow in cellular energy reactions.
  • Identifying difficult concepts. The team has worked with instructors of the follow-on course, Molecular Genetics, to collect pre-test data about key concepts taught in Introductory Biology that students will need to use in this next course. They have identified concepts that students have difficulty retaining. The results will inform the continued redesign of the Introductory Biology curriculum, particularly with respect to the emphasis placed on ideas that are foundational in studying genetics and molecular biology. Topics identified as problematic are: 1) distinctions between chemically distinct types of macromolecular building blocks (amino acids versus nucleotides); 2) directionality of the two antiparallel strands of DNA; and, 3) genes that are on the same chromosome may not segregate from each other during meiosis. This feedback will inform the team’s continued process of evaluation in Introductory Biology.

Cost Savings Techniques

  • Using publisher-provided online learning materials. The team adopted a new text, Biological Science by Scott Freeman, and used the accompanying online companion, Mastering Biology. The Mastering series of science materials is in wide use at the University of Arizona , and the team was impressed with the quality of these materials. Use of these excellent publisher-provided materials considerably reduced the time and effort expended by instructors to implement the learner-centered strategies that were integral to the redesign.
  • Creating a library of resources. A centralized online library of resources that included instructor-created questions for quizzes and exams, instructor podcasts and in-class learning resources (interactive exercises, interesting articles closely related to course topics) was created. Centralizing these resources reduced duplication of effort and led to more consistency in instruction. Course instructors were able to share common resource materials and strategies, decreasing time spent on the course, making materials available to students without duplicating efforts. These resources were particularly beneficial when a new instructor was hired just weeks before the beginning of the semester. He was able to quickly put together a set of approaches and assignments for the course, which saved him an immense amount of time and allowed him to begin the semester feeling relatively prepared.

Implementation Issues

  • Increased use of technology. Several instructors dramatically increased the amount of technology used in the course by utilizing the publisher’s online learning system and clickers. Each piece of technology resulted in gradebook scores that had to be converted to a format compatible with the D2L online learning system, where the official course gradebook was housed. The time it took to download, re-format and upload scores to D2L was considerable—one course tutorial and several clicker questions per class period. Furthermore, although students were given written instructions and in-person assistance on proper registration with these adjunct technologies, a large proportion of students did not follow directions and registered improperly so their scores could not be uploaded to D2L. It took a tremendous amount of instructor time to identify those students, contact them, guide them about how to change their registration and then re-upload the relevant scores. For several sections, it was well past the mid-point of the semester when most of these issues were finally resolved.

    In the future, the team recommends that all course instructors share the services of a single, half-time GTA whose sole duty would be to coordinate the technology aspects of the course and manage the D2L gradebook. One GTA could easily serve this function for all the instructors, freeing the time for the instructors to concentrate on more meaningful aspects of course operations.
  • Instructor buy-in. It was more difficult than the team anticipated to implement the redesign consistently across all sections. One instructor, who was very much in favor of the redesign when he became a member of the team, decided a few weeks before the class began not to use most of the strategies planned for implementation (e.g., pre-class tutorials, use of clickers to promote in-class discussion and questioning, use of the Mastering Biology learning resources.) This instructor, however, is continuing to attend monthly meetings, and the team hopes that continued dialogue and focus on assessing the course objectives will give him the motivation to use the strategies that have been shown to be most productive. This interaction has pointed out the delicate issue of balancing instructors’ wishes to exercise their freedom to teach in a way that is consistent with their skills and personalities with the need to ensure consistency across sections of a large, multi-section class.


The team was uniformly positive about the impact of the redesign. The instructors valued the opportunity to access high-quality learning materials that increased students’ out-of-class time spent on the course. Although the learning gains were relatively modest, the team is enthusiastic about optimizing the approaches and working together to address some of the issues that arose from the post-course analysis. The team has continued monthly meetings throughout the spring 2009 semester, unheard of prior to the redesign, and several are working with the publisher to suggest modifications and improvements to the Mastering Biology materials. The newest team member is enthusiastically working to help all members to implement more learner-centered approaches in upcoming semesters. Furthermore, the feedback that students valued the course structure that forced them to spend more out-of-class time studying has strengthened some of the instructors’ motivation to continue using these strategies.



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