Course design changes for a student-centered class in a low resource environment

published May 26, 2010 12:00am

David Steer
Editor and Immediate Past President

This column briefly discusses course design issues when teaching large enrollment geoscience courses using a student-centered approach with the help of a teaching assistant. If the financial situation in your state is like mine, budget projections for upcoming funding cycles are dire. Many state-funded institutions have already imposed austerity measures and more are sure to come. This is occurring at a time when enrollments are increasing and many institutions have limited flexibility to raise tuition. As such, it is reasonable to expect larger classes and fewer resources. Therefore, it is prudent to analyze the potential impacts of these changes on teaching and learning in a student-centered class. For those who already operate in an environment where resources are severely limited, we encourage you to write in with your suggestions when designing and managing similar large enrollment classes.

The following discussion is based on current resource usage in my own 160-student Earth Science class for non-majors. This general education course has no lab component and is taught with the assistance of a graduate student in a standard lecture hall with fixed seating facing a projection screen. Students are randomly configured in 4-person groups with assigned seats. Prior to class, students print and complete a 1-2 page homework assignment that guides them through the reading assignment. That homework is collected and checked by the TA. Students also complete weekly on-line quizzes as a formative assessment of progress and to keep them current. During class, each student is provided a 1-2 page worksheet to be completed in class and a 1-page handout with selected PowerPoint slides. Students work through the exercise as concepts are discussed, occasionally answering conceptual questions using a classroom response system. The class meets three times per week for 50 minutes. Written exams are completed in class and include multiple choice questions as well as several exercises similar to those completed in class.

Funding of a teaching assistant to help with this course is by far the highest cost resource that could face reductions (if graduate or student assistantships are lost). Student assistant duties in this course fall into three main categories: teaching assistance during class, class management and out-of class teaching. Of these, the TA teaching duties during class are most critical to student success. Actual solutions to exercise problems are rarely directly presented in this class. We have found that too many students will simply wait for an "answer." Rather, the instructor and TA circulate through the class checking work and providing guidance where needed. If students do not complete the group work, they leave without the information they need to be successful on the exam. In the absence of a TA, one would need to plan for more effective use of groups to help one another. One might consider randomly working with a few groups that then get out of their seats and circulate through the class to help others. This could actually enhance learning as it would require students to explain their solutions to a problem to others who may not understand the concept. The instructor could focus on guiding students as they assist one another. One might also consider greater reliance on the student response systems (Clickers) to monitor student progress during class exercises. In our setting, one-on-one tutoring does not consume significant resources since our students rarely seek assistance out of class.

Class management functions consume a significant amount of time in an active-learning setting. TAs in this course assist with distribution of class exercises, organize, check and return the homework, stage as many as 40 sets of modeling materials and prepare rocks samples or other hands on activities for class. Of those tasks, organization of homework could be accomplished using a class management system if that resource is available. Should a TA not be available, the effort of checking that work would fall to the instructor since much of that homework consists of open-ended questions. Automated grading options for short answer questions are available, but random checking of some portions of the homework would likely be essential to ensure quality student effort. Staging of hands-on activities would have to fall to the instructor. One might consider combining groups to reduce the quantity of materials needed to accomplish the learning goal. Exams could be completed on-line if a secure computer-based testing center is available. Again, some additional grading may be required by the instructor. As class sizes increase, such adjustments may become necessary.

In summary, as resources tighten, changes will likely be necessary to both in- and out-of-class functions associated with teaching and learning in an active-learning setting. Homework, periodic quizzes and exams can be streamlined if proper facilities are available. More effective use of students groups could be used to simplify some classroom management functions. The key to such designs will depend on your setting, the learning activities you use and how you assess your students. NAGT stands ready to facilitate discussions or disseminate your good ideas related to this topic.

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