Thursday, July 12, 2012

Course redesign: rethinking how students spend their time in and out of class

In the traditionally designed course, plenty of time is devoted in class to exposing students to new content, students are expected to do something with that content outside of class time, and feedback tends to be infrequent and lagging in time. 

Through advances in brain imaging and medical technology, we know considerably more about how learning happens--the actual neurobiology of the learning process--than we did just ten or twenty years ago. One conclusion from this research is clear: traditional course design is misaligned with how students learn. We know, for example, that:
  • Learning is a biological effect of doing something. If there is no biological change to the brain, no learning has taken place. The one who does the work is the one who builds and strengthens neural connections and is thus the one doing the learning. This single finding--that the one who does the work does the learning--bears repeating over and over both to ourselves and to our students.
  • Neural networks are strengthened--in other words deep(er) learning takes place--each time information is retrieved from long-term memory and “placed” in working memory in order to do something like write, reflect, explain, speak, etc.
  • Comprehension is far more likely an outcome when the learner is able to discern patterns of meaning in new information.
  • Without connecting new information to existing patterns of understanding, students aren’t making sense and aren’t, thus, truly learning.
For these reasons, the following activities and attributes of a course’s design are most likely to lead to deep learning: frequent quizzing, cumulative exams, small- and large-group discussion, outlining, constructing concept maps, creating timelines, identifying similarities and differences, recoding (or retelling in one’s own words), and discerning main ideas and supporting details. These are all activities that fall under the instructional mode of “active learning,” and they are all best practiced during class time when students can benefit from timely feedback both from the instructor and from their peers. 

Peer instruction--when peers get a chance to learn from one another--is particularly well suited to the neurobiology of the brain. We know that learning is a social and affective process as well as a cognitive one. Working with peers to learn can enhance the affective (emotional) connections that strengthen recall abilities. Also, peers are more likely to share similar patterns of understanding that can aid with comprehension. 

I myself have taught for years as the one doing the work--the one retrieving content from long-term memory to repackage and use; the one identifying patterns to enhance comprehension; the one drawing similarities and differences; the one discerning main points and supporting examples; the one with the affective connection to the subject matter; the one doing most of the talking during class time. I was doing a great job as a learner, while most of my students sat and listened, perhaps with interest, but likely only achieving surface learning. Surely we can do better by designing courses so that students do more of the right kind of work the right kind of way.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Course redesign: rethinking “traditional” design

The first reason why course redesign is both opportune and urgent is that redesigned courses can respond to what we know about how people learn.

First, though, to make the case for course redesign, we need to establish where, precisely, we are beginning. What, exactly, is being redesigned? 

A “traditional” course is one in which most class time is spent on delivery of content. Typically, this means that the prevailing instructional mode--what students spend the majority of their time in class experiencing--is lecture. It also matters what happens outside of class time. In a traditionally designed course, the expectation is that students outside of class time will read, complete writing assignments, or perhaps complete problem sets. Students in traditional courses, thus, are generally being exposed to new material in class and then doing something with that material outside of class. Finally, in “traditionally” designed courses, opportunities for students to obtain feedback are mostly limited to those moments when major exams or assignments are returned, which often happens days if not weeks after the feedback is most useful.

To be sure, there are plenty of excellent, engaging, college teachers who teach courses designed in this traditional way. We also know that traditional course design works for some students. Most faculty today did well as students themselves who encountered traditionally designed courses. The point, though, is that more students can learn more deeply if we take advantage of 1) what we know about how students learn and 2) a greater range of options for course design made possible by virtual learning environments and research-based findings about what "works" that now comprise decades of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.

On a side note (and a point that I will expand on in a later post), this is a topic that is garnering more and more attention in the public, including among political leaders. Today's Denver Post features a column marking the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act by questioning the value of higher education. I don't endorse former Governor Lamm's view that our society's investment in higher education runs counter to our need for more auto mechanics (what about our need for an informed, educated, and engaged citizenry?), but this line definitely drew my attention:
One thing Lamm and (CSU President) Frank agree on is that the old model of a professor lecturing to an amphitheater full of young people doesn't work so well anymore.
Depends, I suppose, on what your goal is. If your goal is to cover material so your students can study on their own (read: cram) and pass an exam, then the model works. If your goal is for students to learn deeply and even remember something after the end of the semester, then Lamm and Frank are right.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Course redesign: Why now?

Prevailing trends in higher education make this not only an opportune moment to rethink how we design and deliver instruction to our students. This is a moment, I believe, when we must fundamentally examine and revise our design of learning experiences. Whereas there is no one single pre-packaged design that will work for all courses, course redesign entails rethinking how students spend their time both in course and out of course and almost always means devoting significantly less time in class to delivering content.

Future posts will describe the range of course redesign options and establish some minimum criteria for what I consider to be a fully redesigned course. At the outset, we need to establish the case--why is course redesign urgent at this juncture in higher education? Why does course redesign make so much sense for Metropolitan State University of Denver, which operates under a mission similar to most other regional comprehensive universities? What do we risk by not fundamentally redesigning how our students interact with course material, with each other, and with their instructors?

One quick note: The case I am making in this series of course redesign posts is intended to lay the groundwork for a university-wide initiative, spearheaded by the Center for Faculty Development, to promote course redesign and to support faculty who voluntarily agree to engage in the process. More details about that initiative are forthcoming in the fall.

I identify 3 reasons why it is both opportune and urgent for us to rethink and redesign our courses. Each of these reasons will be expanded on in subsequent posts. In short, redesigned courses can respond to:

  1. Our knowledge of how people learn.
  2. Challenging trends that, if left unanswered, are working against student engagement and persistence.
  3. Competition and potential disruption aimed at "traditional" bricks & mortar universities.