This discovery emerged from a recent wave of redesigned college courses in Maryland, an initiative the state plans to expand, drawing on a $22 million higher education enhancement fund the legislature approved this month. Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) has embraced the idea.
The initiative coincides with a national movement to improve teaching. Colleges are absorbing lessons from the online education boom, including the growth of massive open online courses, or MOOCs. And some professors are “flipping”their classrooms to provide more content to students online and less through standard lectures.
William E. “Brit” Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, said the system hopes the redesigned courses save money and boost performance.
“The passive, large lecture method of instruction is dead,” Kirwan said. “It’s just that some institutions don’t know it yet. We do.”
No one involved in these experiments claims that raising class size by itself leads to improvement. Colleges everywhere say the strength of the relationship between a student and a professor is crucial to learning.
But in an era of tight cost constraints, educators say it is equally crucial to set aside old thinking about course configurations and lecture methods and be willing to use computers and other technology in new ways to spur student engagement.
UMES, a historically black college in this small town in Somerset County, found that grades rose in chemistry, psychology, biology and visual arts even as more students were packed into each class.
Faculty, including Joseph Pitula, an associate professor of biology at UMES, used to lecture three times a week to each of four introductory biology class sections. Now the faculty lecture twice a week to each of two sections. Before the redesign, which has been phased in over a few years, there were about 55 students per section. Now the sections are twice as large.
The class growth enables the university to spend about 40 percent less per student on Pitula’s course, according to Jennifer L. Hearne, an associate professor of biochemistry and a faculty leader on UMES course redesign efforts.
To augment the lectures, the university set up a computer lab staffed by a biology instructor. There, students complete lessons, quizzes and problem sets with automated grading. The lab gives Pitula detailed information about when his students succeed and when they stumble. Last semester, he said, grades on final exams were significantly higher for students in the redesigned course than for peers who studied under the old model.
Pitula said the computer-assisted format helps students and teachers stay focused, ensuring the course does not drift. Pitula said his lectures are now more concise and on point.