The Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning: Mississippi Course Redesign Initiative

The University of Southern Mississippi

Course Title: Technical Writing
Redesign Coordinator: Michael Mays

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

Project Abstract

The University of Southern Mississippi (USM) plans to redesign Technical Writing, a general education course required by many departments. The course provides students with the advanced writing strategies, problem-solving and critical thinking skills essential to becoming more effective communicators in their respective fields of study. Annual enrollments average 850 students from across the disciplines. The course is currently offered online in twelve sections per term, each with 25 students. Most sections are taught by adjunct faculty.

The traditional course suffers from a variety of problems, the most serious of which include the following: the course lacks clearly articulated learning outcomes with no mechanism for assessing student learning or teacher effectiveness; course drift and inconsistent learning occur because instructors design the course to suit their individual interests, with little departmental supervision; course content and assignments are ineffective and often irrelevant, failing to address the actual demands students face in many disciplines and professions; and, finally, students with highly variable learning styles are inefficiently served by a single “fixed menu” course delivery strategy.

Technical Writing will be redesigned using the Replacement Model. The traditional version will be supplanted with a hybrid Professional Writing course that more effectively addresses writing in a range of disciplines and resolves the problems described above. The course will consist of an online lecture component staffed by one full-time faculty member specializing in professional writing and digital literacy, coupled with twelve face-to-face computer lab sections staffed by three graduate teaching assistants (GTAs.) These sections will be grouped in three broad discipline-based areas: business, science and the humanities. Students will complete projects geared to writing in their respective fields.

The redesigned course will enhance the students’ educational learning experience, engaging them with online, interactive learning activities and content that is relevant to their fields. They will learn to write more effectively using a range of technologies, including multi-media. GTAs will provide online and drop-in office hours in a centralized lab. Successful course completion will give them highly marketable, discipline-specific, real world skills.

Student learning outcomes will be assessed by comparing student performance in traditional and redesigned sections. Students’ writing assignments will be graded according to specific, common rubrics. Scores on these selected assignments will be compared to assess student learning gains within the course.

USM will reduce the cost of instruction by teaching the same number of students with fewer instructors. Full-time faculty will be reduced from seven to three, and adjuncts will be eliminated. Nine GTAs will be added to supervise lab sections and provide individual assistance to students. Course management will be shifted to Blackboard. These actions will reduce the cost-per-student from $188 to $50, a 73% savings. The savings will remain in the Department of English to support additional curriculum development initiatives.

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

Overall, students in the redesigned Technical Writing course performed significantly better on a benchmark assignment compared with students in the traditional course. 78% of students (118/152) in the redesigned course scored “OK” or better on the assignment compared with 67% of students (58/87) in the traditional course. Improvement was especially impressive at the top end of the scale, where 38% of students (58/152) scored “Excellent” on the assignment compared with just 13% of students (11/87) in the traditional course. Student performance on the lower end of the scale improved as well, if less dramatically: Only 22% of redesign students (34/152) scored “Poor” or “Very Poor” on the assignment compared to 33% (29/87) in the traditional course.

In addition, the team conducted portfolio assessment in the redesigned course using what is commonly known in composition studies as a “stage-two” protocol. Portfolios were assessed not simply in terms of how successful the included documents demonstrated mastery of six learning outcomes but also the ability of students to effectively understand and discuss their own achievements and shortcomings. Of 152 portfolios collected at the end of fall 2009, 72.6% met or exceeded expectations in terms of all student learning outcomes; whereas 22.4% of portfolios failed to demonstrate achievement of one or more of student learning outcomes. 

Improved Completion

Student success rates (earning a “C” or better) were significantly lower in the redesigned course than in the traditional course (70% vs. 86%.)

The team attributes this to the lack of oversight and quality control across sections in the traditional course. In particular, many of the traditional sections of the course appeared to suffer from rampant grade inflation (e.g., 53% of the students earned As while only 5% earned “Fs ). In short, student performance as gauged through assessment and student performance as registered in the grading process were strikingly inconsistent.

The redesigned course has alleviated this problem and now ensures students a more rigorous, more consistent and more equitable educational experience.

Other Impacts on Students
Instructors observed student improvement in ability to analyze a writing task and its rhetorical context, including the purpose of the document, its audience, its uses and its constraints. Instructors observed an increased understanding of the basic features of a variety of academic, professional and public genres, and greater competency in addressing new audiences and situations according to different generic expectations. Instructors observed a more professional approach to working in teams and managing group projects.

Impact on Cost Savings

Were costs reduced as planned?

USM planned to reduce the cost-per-student from $188 to $50, a 73% savings. They actually reduced the cost-per-student from $188 to $62, a 67% savings. Savings came from reducing the number of full-time faculty teaching the course from two to one and reducing the number of adjunct faculty from ten to two. Four graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) supplemented the full-time faculty member’s weekly lectures by supervising three to four lab/studio sections each per week. Savings were slightly less than anticipated due to two factors: 1) the need to continue offering two sections of the traditional (fully online) version of the course in order to support fully online programs that require the course for the degree (thus the continued need for two adjunct instructors); and 2) an increase from 3 to 3.5 GTAs necessary to staff lab/studio meetings and drop-in hours. 

Lessons Learned

Pedagogical Improvement Techniques

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

Elimination of course drift. The redesign has made course content and assignments far more effective and relevant to students’ needs across a wide range of disciplines and professions. Where the traditional course suffered from drift and lacked consistency of content and learning outcomes across sections, the redesign offered a coherent curriculum comprised of six clearly defined learning outcomes for the course embedded in an interconnected series of assignments, with each building upon the last. As an example, where the common assignment that served as the basis for comparative assessment had been presented in the traditional course virtually without context—as one of a seemingly disparate series of writing exercises—in the redesigned course it was interwoven (and assessed) as a discrete but foundational component of each student’s semester-long portfolio of work.

Effective use of technology in encouraging active learning. The redesigned course utilized a range of multimedia and multi-modal delivery methods, including lectures, streaming videos, drop-in and online office hours; online quizzes and self-study tools, and access to a multimedia writing studio/lab staffed by the instructor and teaching assistants assigned to the course.

Use of customized courseware to address individual student needs. Despite the implementations issues described below, customized courseware provided a valuable resource for a wide range of student needs including ongoing assessment and prompt automated feedback and personalized learning plans automatically generated based on students’ performances on various diagnostic tools within each online lesson.

More effective attention to student improvement. Lab/studio meetings ensured that the course instructor and graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) could better monitor the progress and improvement of students as they worked through course materials using a range of analytics and assessment tools. Lectures and section meetings were modified to address issues and challenges as they occurred throughout the semester.

“Real life” assignments and projects. Course work consisted of both paper-based and multimedia projects designed to familiarize students with genres and technologies they can expect to encounter in their professional lives, including web-design, digital video and image editing, and pod casting. In addition, course learning outcomes emphasized research and writing strategies applicable to upper-division work in students’ respective disciplines and majors.

Cost Reduction Techniques

What techniques contributed most to reducing costs?

Consolidating sections. Substantial cost savings were produced by teaching the same number of students with one full-time faculty member, two adjuncts, and 3.5 GTAs instead of the two full-time faculty members and ten adjuncts that taught the course before. The consolidation of 10 sections into one significantly reduced faculty time in the classroom, reduced the number of adjuncts required to teach the class, and better utilized the GTAs who supervised lab/studio sections and provided support for the course. 

Implementation Issues

What implementation issues were most important?

Writing studio. The multimedia writing studio/lab housed in the English department was a huge success, both in terms of usage and in supporting the learning outcomes of the course. Consisting of a cart of 25 laptops (equipped with video and image editing, web authoring, and document design software), the studio functioned both as a drop-in lab where students could obtain assistance as they worked on individual assignments, and as a more formal classroom meeting space for weekly lab sessions. Unlike traditional computer classrooms where workstations are fixed in rows, the studio could be reconfigured to serve a variety of functions such as mini-lectures or group study areas, as needs arise. Finally, the studio/lab enabled the GTAs assigned to the course to provide both drop-in and online office hours in one centralized location.

Previous redesign experience. As the department has been offering its general education World Literature course in a hybrid format for several years, the redesign benefited from the experience of past and current faculty and staff.

Scheduling and staffing. These areas of the redesign presented some of its most significant challenges and also provided a number of important benefits. Scheduling outside typical class times required that departmental staff coordinate carefully with other administrative entities including the registrar’s and dean’s offices to ensure that student registration went smoothly. Conversely, with classroom space on campus extremely limited, and getting tighter all the time, a dedicated meeting space has been a great luxury. Likewise, staffing GTAs in unorthodox times presented more than the usual number of difficulties. But the experience gained in being involved in the course clearly outweighed the disadvantages.      

Custom courseware support. While the courseware itself proved a valuable tool for the course, customer support and access and availability of the materials was an ongoing problem.


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

The redesign has involved many challenges and setbacks but has also seen a number of important successes, particularly in terms of improved student learning, instructor development and training, and the growing adoption of technology in courses throughout the composition sequence. The redesign has also increased accountability among students, instructors and administrators at USM, and has exposed several additional areas that need to be thoughtfully addressed in the coming months and years.

The redesign has had several benefits to the department and the university including, notably, a remarkable cost savings, a striking increase in the quality and consistency of the course content, instructor development and training, the growing adoption of technology in courses throughout the composition sequence and a corrective impact on grade inflation that had been pervasive in some sections of the course. Yet, while its benefits are apparent, and while the redesigned course will continue in a modified format in 2010-11, there are several critical challenges to its sustainability over the longer term.

Two issues must be addressed. First, the departure of the one tenure-stream faculty member with content-area expertise (the project leader) is a significant setback to the continuing development of the course. Several graduate students have been trained to teach the course and should be able to manage effectively in the short term; but without committed leadership, guidance and expertise the redesigned Professional Writing course is likely to succumb to the same course drift as the Technical Writing course that preceded it. Second, for years, the Technical Writing course suffered from faculty indifference. While there was some initial departmental buy-in for the Professional Writing redesign, indifference to the course on the part of faculty remains largely intact. Without a renewed commitment of support on the part of the department and the university—including some type of financial incentive enabling the department to reap the savings it has generated by the course—the future of this redesigned general education course looks cloudy at best.



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