June 4th, 2013

Course Redesign Finds Right Blend of Content Delivery and Active Learning


Introductory courses are packed with content. Teachers struggle to get through it during class; students struggle to master it outside of class. Too often learning consists of memorizing material that’s used on the exam but not retained long after. Faculty know they should use more strategies that engage students, but those approaches take time and, in most courses, that’s in very short supply.

Blended-learning designs can be used to help with the problem. Technology offers other options for dealing with course content. The article referenced below recounts one faculty member’s experiences redesigning a gateway cell biology course. In a nutshell, all the lecture content was recorded as 10-20 minute voiceover PowerPoint presentations. Class time was devoted to “activities … entirely focused on student engagement with the content and with each other.” (p. 35) What happened in class did not repeat the content but was based on assigned readings in the text and material covered in the recorded lectures.

A variety of interesting classroom activities was used, including a version of the time-tested muddiest-point strategy. Upon arriving in class students submitted index cards with questions about things from the readings or the lecture that they did not understand. A sample of these questions was read aloud and then students and the professor discussed and answered them. Students also participated in another index-card activity that presented them with a scenario or experimental data not discussed in the lectures or readings. Students worked on these questions in small groups and then developed and submitted a group answer. During class the instructor also had students respond to questions using clickers.

Outside of class, students had the option of using instructor-created crossword puzzles to help them become familiar with terminology and spelling they needed to know for the exam. There were short writing assignments and an activity that involved working with other students to write and answer multiple-choice questions.

Virtually all of these in- and out-of-class activities were graded. “A key feature of the redesign process was an increase in the number and value of formative assessments.” (p. 35) This meant that the summative evaluations in the course counted less. Objective exams went from accounting for 90 percent of the course grade to accounting for 50 percent of it. “This was intentional, to give students alternate ways to demonstrate understanding of cell biology by achievement of different learning objectives.” (p. 35)

The instructor who authored the article is honest about what this course redesign involved. “Creating the VOP [voiceover PowerPoint] lectures represented a significant initial time investment.” (p. 35) But the goal was to create recordings that could be used in subsequent courses and easily updated. And the inclusion of various other assignments made for more grading. “To maintain sanity, discussion and writing assignments must have scoring rubrics based on expectations and instructions.” (p. 42)

Was redesigning the course worth the effort? The instructor concludes with a list of payoffs: “… the archiving of enduring, easily updatable course materials; an opportunity to cover (judiciously) more rather than less content; more student collaboration and engagement with content and concept; more and deeper learning; and not the least, a more enjoyable and effective way of teaching and learning science.” (p. 43)

That’s an impressive list of payoffs and a promising solution to the too-much-content-not-enough-time dilemma facing many teachers. The article describes in detail the various activities used in the course, as well as their relative weight in the grading scheme. Before tackling a course redesign project, consult articles such as this one. They contain good ideas and wise insights that can prevent the rediscovery of wheels others have already put in motion.

Reference: Bergtrom, G. (2011). Content vs. learning: An old dichotomy in science courses. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 15 (1), 33-44.

Reprinted from Blended Learning: A Way for Dealing with Content, The Teaching Professor, 26.5 (2012): 2.