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.

  • Old School

    I've experimented with some active learning and flipped classroom activities, but find that students don't prepare, which greatly reduces the value of these techniques. I'm very hesitant to start making everything fount or a grade, as these are adults and I hate being in he excuse business. I basically want to be the guy who teaches students who want to learn, not the guy who tries yo tech students who dont want o out much effort into their education. Anyone have any thou ts on their own experiences.

  • Francesco

    Hello Old School,
    Have a look at this professor's blog: http://www.suzemuse.com/2011/08/flipping-the-clas
    She's had quite a bit of success with "flipping" and shared the good and the bad on her blog.
    Good luck.

  • What an encouraging account. It’s hard for me to understand how folks might read this and then not want to learn more and not want to change their teaching practices.

    Wanting to only teach students who want to learn—Old School’s objection to having to find strategies to get students to do the necessary work to prepare for class—is a very understandable sentiment, one that I share deeply. What could be better! But, finally, it's not reasonable to use that sentiment to justify teaching the students we actually have in ways that don’t work.

    Since learning is not the primary goal of most students (see Rebekah Nathan's account of this at the bottom of this list), we can either give up, forge ahead futilely with outdated methods, or go about trying to help the students we have become the students we want

    While initial attempts at active learning might not work, doing the same old passive learning doesn't work either. The difference between failing at passive learning and failing at active learning is that the former is easier to ignore, while the latter confronts us face-to-face. In other words, we can pretend that giving students info and asking for it back on an exam counts as education, but we cannot pretend that students are learning when they show up unprepared and act disengaged with the activities we've set for them to do. But, as the article described in this post demonstrates, the benefits of active learning, when it goes well, are also more visible.

    The process of any endeavor is to assess where one is, decide where one wants to go, and then figure out the best way to get from the one to the other. If active learning can work better than passive learning can, well, there you go.

    Paul T. Corrigan
    Teaching & Learning in Higher Ed.

  • Lori

    Active teaching strategies in the classroom are a way to conduct a formative assessment of learning. In my experience, when using the traditional lecture format, students are more focused on taking notes and not listening to what is being said. This has many times led to the student not realizing they did not understand the lecture until the day before the exam when it may be too late for clarification. One of the barriers I have encountered with implementing active teaching strategies is the culture at the school I teach at. Most of our students are 2nd and 3rd career students, so they were taught using the old pedagogical methods of teaching. A colleague of mine evaluated one of her classes when she utilized active teaching strategies and some of the students commented that they should receive her paycheck for the day. It is this mentality that we need to change.

  • Thank you Maryellen Weimer for your informative post. This time, we got the following crossword puzzle clue: Diner choice that also known as Diner choice dictionary. First, we gonna look for more hints to the Diner choice crossword puzzle. Then we will collect all the required information and for solving Diner choice crossword . In the final, we get all the possible answers for the this crossword puzzle definitio