Professors redesign courses for success

READY OR NOT: Sixth of a series

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Anyone who thinks computer-programming courses are as boring as binary code hasn't been to the University of Pittsburgh, where Daniel Mosse has enlisted Samurai warriors and ballerinas to help teach.

These and other 3-D animations, culled from instructional software developed at Carnegie Mellon University, are helping the Pitt professor breathe life into an introductory course that for too long, he says, has scared freshman away from computer science with its "nerdiness."

It's just one example of a movement taking hold as higher education challenges old notions about teaching. On a variety of campuses, faculty worried about high failure rates or lessons that lack relevance are redesigning their courses with the hope of improving student success and even saving their institutions money.

At Pitt, rather than simply slaving over arcane computer code or worrying about misplaced commas in the code, the 44 students in Dr. Mosse's class will create short, animated films that show how computer code is used and why it must be precise.

Ready or Not
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If they choose, say, a monster truck to be featured in their film, they must give it precise instructions on how to move. That's because the smallest missing step could lead to a crash. Likewise, an animated skater not programmed precisely enough to avoid a hole in the ice may fall in.

Carnegie Mellon's "Alice" software, with its catalogue of images and pre-programmed movements, is helping to make instruction more meaningful on an estimated 15 percent of the nation's campuses, where faculty such as Dr. Mosse worry about recent declines in computer science enrollment.

"You can present logic in an interactive way or a boring way," said the computer science professor.

"There is a real nerd stigma to computer programming. I want to attract different kinds of minds to computer science by showing students that computer language is not some evil thing to be afraid of."

By assessing what students actually get out of class and then using the data to make improvements, the redesigners are challenging a stubbornly held campus mind-set.

"Most institutions continue to believe that getting better results from students is totally impossible without better-prepared students, more money or both," said Kati Haycock, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group pushing for higher success rates in college.

In fact, she said, schools teaching similar populations can have significantly different success rates. She said course redesign "is probably growing faster than any other innovation in higher education."

Some redesigns involve "gatekeeper" courses, traditional, mostly freshmen lecture classes that are required within a student's major. These classes, some with enrollments running into the hundreds, can be notorious for high student failure and withdrawal rates.

These classes may be less costly for institutions to deliver and historically were viewed as a tool to weed out those ill-suited to go further in a discipline. But nowadays, many ask whether these classes carry too high a price given student attrition rates reaching 30 percent or more.

A college can have 1,000 undergraduate courses, Ms. Haycock said.

"It turns out that somewhere between 25 and 35 of those courses typically account for more than a third of all undergraduate enrollment," she said. "The idea is, if you can get those courses to work better -- high standards but more deliberative efforts to get students to meet those standards -- then you can really begin to turn around the undergraduate success rate."

One organization, the National Center for Academic Transformation, uses information technology in course redesigns that improve learning while reducing instructional costs. Over the last decade, it's been a catalyst for more than 200 large-scale redesigns on dozens of campuses in various courses such as algebra, chemistry, economic statistics and Spanish. Schools that have benefited include Carnegie Mellon and Penn State University

Some of the most successful overhauls are shared with other schools, with the goal of increasing the number of students likely to pass these courses and -- just as important -- retain what is being taught.

One example, at the University of Alabama, involved replacing standard lectures with required time in math labs, where students at computers tackle problems at their own pace and get help on the spot from instructors and tutors. The school in four years managed to raise from 40 percent to almost 75 percent the share of students in intermediate algebra earning a C- or better, a significant gain in what was the school's biggest problem area in math, said Joe Benson, interim vice president for research.

The achievement gap between black and white students was erased in the course, and the gains did not require hiring additional faculty. In fact, the cost per student declined by 28 percent.

At the University of Notre Dame, Dennis Jacobs remembers how disheartening it was to stand in front of a general chemistry class of 250 students, knowing many would fail or be turned off by the subject.

So in 1997, he took students whose low math entrance scores made them most at risk to fail and placed them in a redesigned version. It covered the same general chemistry topics but replaced standard lectures with interactive group learning that required students to develop and defend their ideas in talks with their peers.

He found the success rate of those high-risk students increased from 40 percent to 70 percent. Fifty percent more of them succeeded in second-year chemistry than did their predecessors. The redesigned course has been expanded to other sections.

"It was gratifying to see the success rate of students who otherwise would have failed," said Dr. Jacobs, vice president and associate provost. "It also was a much more engaging and exciting classroom environment."

At Carnegie Mellon, about 150 students in David Yaron's modern chemistry class work in a "virtual chemistry lab," part of an ongoing redesign that lets them experience the work that chemists do. Dr. Yaron said online lectures that students listen to before showing up enable him to skip a lot of talking and get right to working on their skills.

"Classes become more diagnostic," he said. "You're spending more time assessing how they did on the problems and working to strengthen areas where they need to be strengthened."

The changes aren't limited to four-year schools.

At Westmoreland County Community College, faculty and staff grew tired of watching first-year students with reading problems founder.

"It's difficult to expect a student to succeed if you tell him, 'You can't read at college level, but here's a history textbook. Go take this history course.'"

So this fall, an experimental course will be co-taught by a history instructor and a developmental reading instructor, whose reading assignments will tie in with history.

Similarly, a speech course is being paired with a class on college success. And instead of taking a three-credit developmental math class one semester, followed by a three-credit algebra course the next, some students can take a four-credit class that combines the two, cutting time and saving $200 in tuition costs.

The school, among community colleges receiving grants from a national student success initiative called Achieving the Dream, says the payoff may be in fewer dropouts.

"For every 100 students that we lose now," said staffer Randy Finfrock, "if we can save five of them this year, I'll take it."

Bill Schackner can be reached at or 412-263-1977.


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