Missouri Course Redesign Initiative
Missouri Southern State University
Course Title: Oral Communication
At Missouri Southern State University (MSSU), undergraduate students are required to take three credits of oral communication within the core undergraduate general education curriculum in most degree programs. As a result of a continuing increase in the number of freshman and sophomore students, the demand for the course has grown significantly, currently accommodating 1,104 students (24 sections of 23 students each) annually. Due to economic conditions in the state of Missouri, MSSU is not in a position to hire addition full-time faculty. In addition, human resource rules restrict the number of course sections taught by adjunct instructors to two annually. As a result, the communications department has had to depend on varying levels of qualified instructors.
All instructors have been free to design, develop and teach the oral communication course according to their own instructional styles. In spring 2010, 20 percent of the 453 students enrolled received a grade of D or F or withdrew from the course. In fall 2010, 23 percent of the 580 students enrolled received a grade of D or F or withdrew from the course. The team attributes these rates to inconsistency and invalid alignment of objectives, assessment and content.
The MSSU team will use the Replacement Model to create a redesign that fits their need to enhance quality and reduce cost. The redesign will increase the number of students taught by the full-time faculty member and replace more expensive personnel with less expensive undergraduate learning assistants (ULAs). Students will meet once a week for 75 minutes with the full-time faculty member assisted by ULAs and spend an additional 75 minutes in the Communication Assessment and Learning Lab (CALL) working with software supported by ULAs. Students will record their speeches, watch them online, complete other preparation activities and receive feedback on their performances.
The quality of the course will be enhanced in various ways. First, offering only two sections per semester will increase course consistency. Second, faculty will be able to spend more time improving and monitoring the course versus spending time on repetitive tasks such as grading quizzes and recording participation points. Third, collecting and monitoring assessment data will improve the measurement and alignment of learning objectives to course activities. Finally, the use of active-learning materials, including those available through Speech Class and Poll Everywhere, will improve student engagement in learning.
The redesign effort will be monitored and assessed through common assignments, assessments and objectives. Students are expected to 1) prepare a speech outline, assisted by Speech Class; 2) make ethical decisions, observed through student discussions in response to ethical questions and examples; 3) deliver an extemporaneous speech, assessed by the speech assignments using standardized criteria; and, 4) choose appropriate and credible evidence, also assessed within the speeches. Each semester, data will be collected and compared to ensure that time spent on learning materials coincides with the course objectives. Finally, student performance on a common final examination will be compared in both the traditional and redesigned formats.
The redesign of Oral Communication at MSSU will decrease the number of sections offered annually from 44 to four, increasing section size from ~23 to 230 students. Undergraduate students will work with small groups of students both in the lecture and in the Communications Assessment and Learning Lab. The cost-per-student will decrease from $174 in the traditional format to $39 in the redesigned format. The savings will allow faculty to teach other communication courses and reduce the need for adjuncts in tight budget times.
In the redesign, did students learn more, less or the same compared to the traditional format?
Students in the redesigned section of the course had a lower average score on the final assessment used to evaluate student performance. The average score for traditional sections was 71.3%, while the average score for the redesigned sections was 66.6%.
However, the final grades from the traditional courses suffered from grade inflation. Even though the course had a syllabus as a guideline, the preponderance of the 18 adjuncts instructing sections viewed the guideline in differing ways. Some of the sections did not require speeches; rather, these sections replaced actual speeches with rhetorical criticisms of speeches. These sections tended to have curved grades that were mostly A or B. In the redesign, undergraduate learning assistants (ULAs) were trained to follow the National Communication Association guidelines for oral communication presentations to standardize what an A or B speech should be. Most adjunct instructors in the traditional course could not have identified those competencies in an oral presentation.
Were costs reduced as planned?
The MSSU cost savings plan was to decrease the number of sections offered annually from 44 to four, increase section size from ~23 to 230 students and eliminate all adjunct instructors. Four ULAs would work with small groups of students both in the lecture and in the Communications Assessment and Learning Lab. The cost-per-student was projected to decrease from $174 in the traditional format to $39 in the redesigned format.
MSSU saved more than originally projected. Since enrollment dropped from 920 students to 755, MSSU decreased the number of sections offered annually from 44 to three. The cost-per-student decreased from $174 in the traditional format to $33 in the redesigned format, a reduction of 81%.
Pedagogical Improvement Techniques
What techniques contributed most to improving the quality of student learning?
Standardized syllabus and course objectives. Although the traditional course had a standardized syllabus with course objectives, there was no way to enforce the use of these materials. A large portion of the course was taught by part-time, adjunct instructors. Historically, adjunct instructors did not spend much time on campus, were not required to attend faculty or staff meetings and generally were less involved. Using one full-time faculty member was an easy way to monitor the use of the standardized syllabus and course objectives. The importance of the standardization in the oral communication course is that it is designed to provide students with a foundation of skills to build upon. Through the standardized process all students completing the course were exposed to the same information versus the preferences of individual adjunct instructors.
Standardized assessments. The traditional sections had no assessments to compare among sections. Each faculty member and instructor developed their own assignments, rubrics, exams and activities. Some students were required to give a speech every week while in at least one section no speeches were required. Standardized assessments to meet the course objectives were developed for the redesigned course. Those students who successfully completed the course had a solid foundation of oral communication knowledge and skill. Each student left the course with a common experience.
One-on-one assistance. Providing one-on-one assistance to support student learning was a great pedagogical improvement. Each student was assigned to a learning assistant. The learning assistant sent the professor at-risk reports each week. The students who were at risk were then contacted by the professor to meet one-on-one. The learning assistant was the student’s first point of contact. Unlike a single professor who was traditionally on campus for only a certain amount of time each day, one or more learning assistants were available every day of the week, including Saturday and Sunday. When students were at risk in the course or if the student was experiencing any difficulty with the content or the technology, they visited with one of the learning assistants on campus.
Active-learning materials. Active-learning materials increased student learning and participation. The traditional method of teaching oral communication assumes that the student has researched, prepared and practiced before they deliver their presentation. Through the use of SpeechClass learning software, students were able to submit their research and speech outline to provide evidence of preparation. Additionally, students who once may have come to class prepared to wing it practiced their presentations through the use of recorded presentations. These recorded presentations allowed students to monitor their own performance which often led to them recording their presentations more than once.
Cost Reduction Techniques
What techniques contributed most to reducing costs?
Consolidating sections. Consolidating sections proved to be an effective cost reduction strategy. MSSU decreased the number of sections offered annually from 44 to three.
What implementation issues were most important?
Campus buy in. When the state announced that they were decreasing the four-year public institutions’ budgets, the faculty became suspicious of the redesign program. The faculty senate raised questions about the quality of the course based on the increased class size, use of learning assistants and the new approach to assess course content (video presentations). Concerns about job security and government overreach shut down any civil discussion on campus about the redesigned course. The project lacked clear support and resources from campus leadership. The project became the responsibility of the two faculty members working on the project with very little support from other areas on campus.
Student attitudes. Student attitudes have proved to be extremely important to the potential success of the student. Too often, students are not dedicated to the material in a general education course. Add in the aspect of public speaking, and many students only want to get the course over with. Student readiness to use technology is improving. However, the use of technology in a new course format often left students confused. The students who did not like the format of the course were more difficult to motivate in terms of learning new skills involving technology and the different approach to presenting information to an audience. To overcome these issues, instructors have been very encouraging during the first two weeks of the course, emphasizing meeting with learning assistants for one-on-one assistance. Once they grasp the format of the course, the students had a better understanding of what skills were needed to complete the course successfully.
Technology issues. Although there was an increase in broadband on campus, some areas of the campus still lacked a strong wireless signal. Additionally, as expected, many students waited until the hour before the uploaded presentation was due, which often caused the uploading process to stall. The team is currently working on a plan to stagger the uploading process.
Bookstore issues. E-books are still a fairly new concept on campus. MSSU operates on a textbook rental system. Students are used to renting their text versus purchasing the item. Because the access code comes in the form of a small card and is a purchase item, the access codes were being kept behind the counter in the bookstore. Students often did not realize they had not purchased the access code to complete the weekly assigned activities as well as to give them access to their e-book. A discussion with the bookstore manager has resolved this issue. The manager will communicate with all of the bookstore employees that the course book is the access code.
Computer lab resources. The campus lacks a large computer lab. Computer labs exist in various locations on campus. Therefore, the team needed to reserve computer labs across the campus for a limited amount of hours through the week. This created conflict between who had previously expressed ownership of the lab. Although the campus owns all of the labs, traditionally the lab located in building ‘x’ belonged to department ‘x’. It became extremely clear that department ‘x’ did not appreciate the communication department reserving time in their computer lab. This issue has yet to be resolved.
Will the redesign be sustained now that the grant period is over?
The student outcomes showed no significant difference in learning. However, if the course does not receive the public support from leaders on campus along with the required technology and data assessment needed to provide success, the course has a clear opportunity to backslide. The cost savings and format of the course are sustainable as long as the selection and training of the learning assistants remain a priority.