June 25, 2012
Northwest looks to improve academic quality through redesigned courses
Some Northwest Missouri State University courses have undergone a makeover that was more than a year in the making, and reviews show students are embracing the changes.
During the spring trimester, Northwest successfully piloted three courses – general psychology, developmental mathematics and principles of management – that were redesigned with the goals of integrating technology and teaching more effectively while enhancing students’ grasp of concepts they learn in the courses.
Additionally, the redesigns allow for one instructor to manage a larger pool of students enrolled in fewer sections. Previously, different sections of the same course were taught by different instructors, which often led to different outcomes for students, depending on the section in which they were enrolled.
The recent redesigns stem from a collaborative effort of the state’s four-year public colleges and universities to be more efficient in the delivery of course content and to improve the learning outcomes of students compared to the approaches of a traditional course.
Northwest redesigned principles of management with the help of Next Generation Learning Challenges funds awarded to the state last year by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Flora Hewlett Foundation. Missouri’s 13 public four-year universities filed jointly for the $250,000 education grant and the Missouri application was one of 29 selected from a pool of 600. Each University redesigned one course that is common to all of the institutions with guidance from the National Center for Academic Transformation (NCAT).
Surveys of students in Northwest’s redesigned classes show the new approaches are being accepted and written comments are overwhelmingly positive. Students in the redesigned psychology course gave higher satisfaction ratings than those students in the traditional section. A student in the management course wrote on an evaluation, “I'm learning much more through this class than a normal lecture.”
“What ends up happening is students spend more time with the content,” said Dr. Darla Runyon, assistant director and curriculum design specialist in Northwest’s Center for Information Technology in Education, which coordinated the course redesigns. “They’re not just spending that Monday-Wednesday-Friday time in class. They’re spending Monday-Wednesday-Friday-plus because there’s so much more material on the course website that they have to go out and interact with and work on so they can be ready to do what they have to do in the classroom.”
Jeff Nickerson, a marketing and management instructor, taught a pilot of the redesigned course in the spring and will teach two sections when the redesign is fully implemented this fall.
Under the redesigned model, the student capacity for his course section increases from about 50 students to 100. Also, Nickerson’s students will now spend 100 minutes in class over two sessions per week, compared to the previous model of 150 minutes over three sessions per week.
The new course uses a blended format that reduces the time students spend in the classroom by incorporating a combination of online discussions, case studies and assessments with the traditional in-class lectures and activities.
The blended format, Nickerson noted, allows instructors to more efficiently cover material in class sessions and ensure students are completing assignments outside of class. He added that, by his own measurements, students who attend the class sessions achieve higher grades in the course, showing that attendance remains key to student success.
“I want to ensure they still learn the objectives and the material that are important to principles of management and at the same time give them individual feedback, even in a large classroom,” Nickerson said.
Similarly, Northwest piloted a redesigned general psychology course, which also uses a blended format. As that redesign is fully implemented this fall, Dr. Don Ehlers will serve as an instructor and coordinator of its six sections consisting of 90 students each. It will include a Monday lecture by Ehlers and Wednesday sessions that split the sections into smaller groups of 45 for activities led by adjunct instructors. Friday class sessions will be reserved for online quizzes.
Previously, the general psychology course averaged 10 sections with 53 students in each. A pool of adjunct instructors taught different sections, which often led to varied outcomes, and turnover was problematic. The redesigned course, however, aims to increase student involvement and interaction with the subject material in addition to improving the quality of the course.
“My goal as I assumed this position was to build a strong team among my adjuncts, graduate assistants and myself,” Ehlers said. “As a strong team, we could then focus on building strong relationships with our students. I believe that the foundation for effective teaching learning is a positive relationship between student and teacher. With the strong relationship I wanted to provide a course delivery model that made sense and was effective.”
To redesign Northwest’s developmental math course, the University followed NCAT’s Emporium Model, which eliminates lectures and places students in a learning resource center. Students spend the same amount of time in classroom sessions, but they learn at their own pace using interactive software and may still call on an in-class instructor for assistance. Students must work through 10 modules and demonstrate competency in various math concepts to receive full credit for the course. Students also may take pre-tests to “pass out” of modules.
With the new templates for each course, the redesigns become engrained in the department so a new faculty member may easily step in to teach the course when its instructor moves on.
In addition to helping students gain a better understanding of course concepts, instructors say the blended format also helps students develop skills that extend beyond the classroom.
“What I really like about this design is it emphasizes soft skills like time management, responsibility and coming to class,” Nickerson said.
In addition to the most recent redesigns, Northwest has redesigned several courses since 2005, including oral communications, biology lab, computers and technology, and theater appreciation.
Northwest hopes to implement a program to allow faculty across the campus to submit proposals for course redesigns. The University will especially look at courses with low enrollments and staffing challenges.
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Northwest Missouri State University
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