September 21st, 2010

Finding the Motivation to Fix a Course


“Our course restructuring was motivated by several perceived deficiencies common to traditional lecture-based introductory courses. The most pronounced concern, shared by multiple faculty involved in the course, was poor student attitudes. Both numeric and written responses on course evaluations indicated that students were not satisfied with the course and did not recognize the importance of the course content to their education as biologists. For example, students often commented on course evaluations that the lectures and/or course materials were ‘boring.’ Furthermore, individual instructor-student interactions often indicated that students were more concerned with their test scores than with gaining a thorough understanding of the course material. Poor student attitudes also were reflected by poor attendance, limited participation in class, and suboptimal student performance.” (p. 204)

It takes courage to make an admission like that—to yourself, as a department and to a larger disciplinary audience. The quote refers to the second semester of a two-sequence required biology course for majors and premed students. That’s not the student population you want failing to see the importance of the content or finding it “boring.”

Unfortunately though, these kinds of complaints are leveled against many college courses. Why? Do instructors want to teach courses described like this one? I don’t think so, but they do because they are unwilling to admit to themselves and others that there’s a problem with the course. Some do realize there’s a problem but don’t know how to fix it, especially when the course is large and resources are small.

In this case the first author, who was the course instructor, decided, with the support of colleagues in the department, to redesign the course. Changes were made in three areas; reordering the content of the course, including active learning and group problem solving and incorporating some student-centered pedagogical strategies. None of the changes were particularly radical—for example, use of clickers was added, a weekly quiz routine was implemented and students did brief bits of group work during class. Yes, the changes took time to implement, but the pay off was impressive: improved student attitudes and performance and a morale boost for the instructor.

There’s an important lesson here. Almost all instructional problems can be fixed once they’re faced.

Reference: Armbruster, P., Patel, M., Johnson, E., and Weiss, M. (2009). Active learning and student-centered pedagogy improve student attitudes and performance in introductory biology. Cell Biology Education, 8 (Fall), 203-213.