The Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning: Mississippi Course Redesign Initiative

Mississippi State University

Course Title: Statics
Redesign Coordinator: Masoud Rais-Rohani

Project Abstract
Final Report (as of 3/15/10)

Project Abstract

Mississippi State University (MSU) plans to redesign Statics, an engineering mechanics course enrolling ~350 students annually in 11 sections of ~35 students each. Enrollment is projected to increase due to an increase in collegewide enrollment as well as a shift towards the more mechanics-based engineering fields. Statics is the key foundation component in the engineering program, covering topics that are crucial for success in subsequent engineering mechanics courses and for many courses in the different engineering disciplines.

The traditional course faces several academic problems. Students do not solve enough problems or receive prompt and individualized feedback. Instructors demonstrate example problems, but students are often unable to solve them on their own. As the program grows, MSU’s ability to provide a uniform, high quality course will become more difficult.

MSU will use the Emporium Model in its Statics redesign. Course content will be delivered online using web-based materials including video segments. Required lab sessions will be devoted to individual and group problem-solving activities and hands-on experiments. Students must prepare for the emporium activities by completing required online activities. They will be allowed to leave the emporium once they have successfully completed their assignment. Students who do not complete the assignment during their regularly scheduled lab time will be required to attend an after-hours emporium to complete the assignment and earn the associated credit.

The redesigned course will enhance the students’ educational experience, making them active and engaged learners. Students most effectively master the fundamental concepts in mechanics by solving problems themselves rather than listening to faculty and watching them solve sample problems. Hands-on experiments will reinforce learning. Trained undergraduate learning assistants (ULAs) will provide tutoring and individual assistance in the lab.

The impact of the course redesign on student learning outcomes will be assessed by comparing performance on a common final exam from parallel sections during spring 2009. Baseline data on success rates from fall 2001 through spring 2005 will also be compared. Student performance in subsequent engineering courses will also be tracked.

The redesigned course will reduce the cost-per-student from $299 to $274, an 8% savings. The savings will be achieved by changing the mix of personnel, eliminating five full-time faculty and five adjuncts, replacing these positions with a full-time coordinator. The number of ULAs will be increased from three to ten and two graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) will be added. The savings will be used to strengthen higher yield courses, especially at the graduate level.

Final Report (as of 3/15/10)

Impact on Students

In the redesign, did students learn more, less or the same compared to the traditional format?

Improved Learning

In four parallel sections of the course, students in the fall 2009 redesign group performed significantly better on assignments (average score of 90 versus 73) and in-class tests (average score of 79 versus 66) than their peers in the spring 2009 traditional group at 95% confidence level.

A similar statistical analysis of the average final exam scores between the two student groups indicated that the scores were the same (64.7 and 64.1).

In each assessment category, the variance in scores among the students in the redesign group was less than that in the traditional group.

Improved Completion

Final grades from students in the traditional course during AYs 2001 – 2005 were compared to final grades in the fall 2009 redesigned course. There was no statistically significant difference between success rates (grades C or better) in the fully redesigned (73%) and traditional courses (77%).

Other Impacts on Students

Students in the redesigned course worked more exercise problems than those in the traditional course with the goal of improving their problem-solving skills.

When asked about their learning experiences, the majority of students in the redesigned course indicated that the newly introduced hands-on laboratory exercises helped them acquire a more thorough understanding of Statics concepts and that they benefited from working assignment problems in the emporium hall where they could receive individualized assistance from the instructor and his learning assistants.

Although some students rapidly embraced the redesigned course, others gradually made the transition. Students were very satisfied with the more frequent quizzes with each covering less material. They also had more opportunities to engage in active and collaborative learning activities than in a traditional course.

Impact on Cost Savings

Were costs reduced as planned?

MSU achieved greater cost savings than originally anticipated in their cost savings plan. In fall 2009, seven fully redesigned sections of Statics were taught with one full-time instructor (course coordinator) assisted by 11 ULAs and one GTA. The traditional course was taught in six sections by six adjunct and tenure-track instructors assisted by undergraduate graders in fall 2008. With enrollments of 210 students in fall 2008 and 228 in fall 2009, the cost-per-student was reduced from $299 to $252, a ~16% decrease versus the planned 8% decrease. Since student enrollment in the course is gradually increasing, the cost savings is expected to be sustained at the current level or show an upward trend.

Lessons Learned

Pedagogical Improvement Techniques

What techniques contributed most to improving the quality of student learning?

Using technology to deliver course content online. All course content was delivered online through web-based learning tools. The pre-emporium tasks consisted of watching instructional videos, studying an online tutorial and reading particular sections of the e-textbook. Making all of this information available online gave students the opportunity to pause, replay and review the course content as often as desired.

Incorporating hands-on laboratory experiments.Hands-on experiments with physical models were added to the course at a rate of once every two weeks to help reinforce concepts introduced in the course. Students in each section of the redesigned course were divided into small groups of three to four. They were required to solve a couple of Statics problems analytically, and then set up physical models of the same problems to verify their hand-calculated values. Feedback from students on these activities has been very positive.

Increasing student engagement during in-class (emporium) periods. Statics is a problem-solving course. In a traditional lecture format, students may be only minimally engaged while the instructor works example problems in class. This leads to the familiar refrain “I knew how to work the problems when you worked them in class.” The active participation in problem-solving exercises, with access to the instructor and the learning assistants, benefited the students at least as much as watching the instructor work problems in class.

Using undergraduate learning assistants (ULAs).The ULAs played a critical role in implementation of course redesign. The ULAs were present in the emporium during regular scheduled class times as well as in the afternoon hours (post-emporium) to provide guidance when students encountered difficulties while working the assigned problems. One ULA for every eight students was found to be adequate to provide timely assistance. Highly capable ULAs were a must. Students were hesitant to seek help from a ULA unless they had confidence in the ULA’s knowledge of the subject matter. This problem was encountered with two ULAs during full implementation as reflected by feedback on the student survey. The two ULAs were subsequently replaced.

Increasing the number of quizzes. There were usually three or four quizzes with no drop grade given in the traditional course. The number of quizzes was increased in the redesigned course to seven for MWF sections and five for TTh sections. Students were also allowed one drop-grade. The increased number of quizzes resulted in less material covered in each quiz, which, along with the drop grade, reduced students’ anxiety levels.

Cost Reduction Techniques

What techniques contributed most to reducing costs?

Reducing the number of instructors. The number of instructors assigned to multiple sections of Statics dropped from six to one. The cost savings was realized mainly as a result of a single instructor replacing multiple adjunct and tenure-track faculty at different pay scales. Although additional student workers were hired to serve as ULAs, the total instructional costs decreased in comparison to the previous model.

Implementation Issues

What implementation issues were most important?

Technology issues. Student-owned laptops prevented any computer access problems.  The wireless internet access in the emporium performed great. Only a few students had problems with the internet connection, and the IT staff was able to quickly solve the problems. The online system, WileyPlus, used for the problem assignments was very dependable and easy for the students to use. The online course management system was capable of tracking student use of online course content in the pre-emporium assignments, but it is still a time-consuming, manual process to review the tracking report and assign grades for pre-emporium activities.

Completion of pre-emporium activities. While it was possible to track the date, time and duration of students’ pre-emporium activities, it was impossible to know if the students were watching the entire pre-recorded tutorials or studying the online content and assigned portion of the textbook. Students who had carefully completed their pre-emporium tasks were able to complete the emporium assignment problems in less time. However, the students who did not comply with the rigor of pre-emporium activities did not do well on the emporium assignments or quizzes. To encourage compliance, a portion (12% to 15%) of the course grade was tied to the pre-emporium activities. 

Lab equipment. After the pilot phase, the team determined that additional lab equipment was needed for the hands-on experiments. The original set of equipment was not sufficient, resulting in groups too large to ensure that all students were participating.  Additional lab equipment was purchased so that group sizes were no larger than four or five students.  Also, one piece of equipment that was purchased did not perform adequately in the pilot phase. This equipment was replaced for the full implementation phase, and the new equipment performed well.

Manual grading of quizzes. Since students had to perform multiple calculations before finding the final answer to a problem, it was common for them to make a mistake in this process. Hence, assigning partial credit was a common practice in grading quizzes and the final exam with manual grading. Since the number of quizzes has more than doubled in the redesign, the course coordinator spent a lot more time on grading than in a traditional course.

Post-emporium hours and overcrowding problem. At the beginning of the full implementation phase in fall 2009, students were allowed to return to the emporium in the afternoon between the hours of 4:00 to 7:00 pm Monday through Thursday and 2:00 to 5:00 pm on Sundays to complete their emporium assignments. The late afternoon start led to overcrowding problems. A banner showing the emporium capacity was added to the departmental Web site to help students manage their arrival times, and the weekday hours were shifted by one hour from 3:00 to 6:00 pm. This last change was primarily responsible for alleviating the overcrowding problems.

  Student attitudes. Getting some of the students to accept the new approach and do what was necessary to be successful was difficult. Many students had trouble adjusting to the unfamiliar method of learning. There are some indications that the redesign model has gained broader acceptance among the students. The number of complaints has decreased considerably from the initial redesign effort, and students have become more comfortable with the technology-based content delivery replacing the traditional classroom lectures.


Will the redesign be sustained now that the grant period is over?

There is sufficient evidence to warrant the continuation of the redesign effort. Given the tangible savings in instructional costs and the promise of growing improvements in student learning outcomes, the Statics redesign initiative will continue for the foreseeable future.

The team is planning to track the students’ success rates in two higher-level mechanics courses (e.g., Dynamics and Mechanics of Materials) that build on students’ knowledge of Statics. There is also interest in applying the redesign model to another multi-section mechanics course in the future.



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