A quest for a cheaper, better college course, sometimes in a bigger class

April 19, 2013

Many colleges struggle with high failure rates in large undergraduate courses. But the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and others have learned that bigger classes sometimes get better results, and at lower cost.

The essential step is to change how the big classes are taught.

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.


Denzel Blanks, 18, left, and Genece Matthias, 18, of Prince George's County, work in a biology computer lab at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore in Princess Anne, Md. (Nick Anderson/The Washington Post)

“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.

“Education is an evolving process,” he said. “There's no reason for us to be stuck in old paradigms.”

Soon, in another experiment, Pitula plans to incorporate a MOOC from Duke University into a course on genetics.

Some students yearn for the old ways.

“I had one student sit here in my office and say, ‘Why did I pay to go to college if you’re not going to be lecturing me?’ ” Pitula said. “I said to her, ‘I’m still here. You can still come to my office and discuss anything you want about science.’ ”

In the computer lab one Monday, students were plowing through an assignment involving questions about amino acids, enzymes and other topics. Students had multiple chances to get the right answer, as well as hints if they got stuck.

“It explains it to you,” said Kidane Corbin, 18, a student from Prince George’s County. “So I can remember to make a note about that.” He added: “Certain classes, it’s better to do online. Others are better for lectures.”

Denzel Blanks, 18, also of Prince George’s, was sitting at a nearby terminal. He said that the computer lab is convenient. But he confessed: “I like it better in class. I’m a hands-on learner.”

Maryland’s course redesign effort began in 2006, with consultation from the nonprofit National Center for Academic Transformation, based in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. The center tracks projects around the country that seek to use information technology to get better student outcomes at reduced cost. Maryland’s is one of the largest, according to Carol A. Twigg, the center’s president and chief executive. Other states with large-scale projects include Arizona, Mississippi, Missouri, New York and Tennessee.

According to the University System of Maryland, about 70 courses have been redesigned in community colleges and four-year colleges and universities statewide.

The University of Maryland Baltimore County, known as an academic innovator, has redesigned courses in chemistry, sociology, psychology and English composition. For the latter, UMBC students now spend less time in a traditional classroom and more time in small groups with writing faculty. Students also work in a computer lab with undergraduate writing mentors.

UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski III said the new courses take different shapes, depending on the subject. What unites the innovators is a desire to stimulate students who often feel lost in big introductory courses.

“In some cases, let’s admit it, students are bored in class,” Hrabowski said. “For this generation, we have to find ways to ensure they are engaged in the work.”

The more engaged they are, he said, the less likely it is they will have to retake a class, at major cost to themselves and the university.

Hearne, of UMES, said the university cut costs 70 percent in an introductory chemistry course — from $268 per student to $80 per student. It also raised the rate of students who passed that class with a grade of C or higher to 70 percent, up from 55 percent.

In a redesigned visual arts course, the share of students who passed with at least a C rose from 60 percent to 80 percent, Hearne said.

Solomon Isekeije, an assistant professor of fine arts, said the visual arts class benefits from a new computer lab staffed with upper-class students. Online lessons can illuminate points about art and graphic design sometimes lost in the best of lectures, he said. Through the lab, Isekeije said, he knows more than ever what his students need.

“A lot of these students are coming into the field for the first time,” he said. “Maybe it’s the first time they will have heard the name Picasso.”

For the teacher, much was at stake in this class revision. Students who fail might get turned off of art entirely. “We pay for that 20 years down the line,” Isekeije said.

A former Post education editor, Nick writes about college from the perspective of a father of three who will soon be buried in tuition bills.
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