Unexpected Benefits of Redesigning a Course
Back when America Online was the biggest Internet service provider in the market, what game was extremely popular and came free with Windows 95? Solitaire. Why was solitaire so popular on those dinosaur computers? Shuffling a deck of cards is so much easier for a computer than for a human. Moving cards from one location to another is so much easier when you let a computer do it.
In the early days of personal computing, we learned a very important lesson: let computers do what computers are good at. I have tried to apply that lesson to my classroom. So I inventoried the regular tasks that I perform:
- Motivate students about topics
- Determine objectives
- Present content
- Help students individually
- Create practice work
- Grade practice work with feedback
- Create assessments
- Grade assessments with feedback
- Relate material to real life
Some of these tasks can be mind-numbingly tedious. Have you ever spent your Friday night with a stack of 100 factoring practice worksheets? One day I made a joke that I could give my answer key to my children and I’d have some free labor to do the grading. With every joke, there is a little bit of truth. Why was I spending my Friday nights doing something that a computer could do? That’s when I started looking for electronic solutions.
After looking at a lot of different options, I ended up liking MyMathLab the most as it seemed to have the most potential. It was more than a content management system, or just a computer-based homework system. It was a fully functioning learning management system with the backbone of a computer-based homework system. This got me excited because I knew I could do as little or as much with it as I felt comfortable.
In the beginning of my foray into using more technology in my classroom, I decided to avoid the late night grading marathons by requiring homework to be completed on MyMathLab. At first my goal was to let the computer do what the computer was good at – grade whether answers were right or wrong. In requiring online homework though, I noticed a lot of unexpected benefits. For example, students could identify what they were doing wrong, get help from MyMathLab and/or email me. Students could then spend their weekends much more efficiently.
This led to another unexpected benefit – better class time management. Before I started assigning the online homework, I would spend 30 minutes of a two-hour class answering homework questions. It was very inefficient: a student would ask about a question from 5.3, and I’d have to find that section in the book, write the problem down, and discuss it. Then the next student would remember a question from 5.2, and we’d all have to flip our books back to that section, find the problem, write it out, etc. With the online homework system, there are fewer questions, due to the help features and the ability to easily answers questions via email. When a question is harder to answer via email, I’ll prepare it for discussion in class the next day.
Furthermore, with the online system, I can analyze how students do on each problem. This has allowed me to change the way I teach completely. Instead of blindly going into each class ready to present the next topic, I’m able to reiterate difficult concepts without the students even telling me they are having challenges. I am able to teach much more proactively, rather than waiting for the exam and telling them what they did wrong.
Phase 1 of my transformation continued for a few years. Then the next major change to my teaching, again, started as a joke. I joked that I’ve been giving the same lectures in my Intermediate Algebra course for years. I felt bad for students that retook my course, because they probably heard the same jokes semester to semester. This comes back to the original idea about computers – what are they good at? Computers are good at things that require repetition. You know, like repeating the same lecture over and over again. I decided that a computer could do the presentation of material as well. Not truly by a computer. I was going to record the lectures, but students could watch it on a computer. YouTube!!!
I had the computer doing what it was good at; now it was time for me to focus on what I was good at, helping students learn. I was good at talking to individual students, motivating them, helping them, guiding them. If I spend ¾ of my class period lecturing, I’m not really helping students and guiding students. It was time to help students on a one-on-one basis. I recorded my lectures, set up guided notes, and embedded the videos into MyMathLab. I structured my lessons as follows:
- Prep Assignment – At home, students watch a 5-minute video on a single topic, do a couple practice exercises about that topic, and move on to the next topic.
- Class Worksheet – Students come to class, work on math problems. Ask for guidance from the instructor. Ask for guidance from classmates.
- Quiz – Students go home and take a quiz over the material (MML).
- Personalized Homework – Students are given personalized homework based on their performance on the quiz (MML).
My initial goal of this class structure was simply to make better use of class time. I wanted students to actively learn, not sit there passively. What I got out of this change was many more unexpected benefits:
- Student-Student Interaction – I was amazed how beautiful it could be when students help each other. To walk around my classroom and have students talking in proper mathematical language to one another has been fantastic.
- Using Notes – In the past, students were unable to find the area of their notes that held the key to a problem. Now that students are doing this at home, based on videos, they are organizing their work much better.
- ESL – Multiple ESL students have thanked me for the recorded lectures, because they are able to pause, rewind, and replay so easily. If they don’t understand a word in a live lecture, they may be hesitant to stop the class to ask a question. In a recorded lecture, it’s easy to pause and rewind.
- No Down Time – With recorded lectures, students start watching the lectures for the next chapter right after taking their exam. This better use of time provides more exposure to the material and therefore more learning.
- Snow Days – Here in Michigan we sometimes have to cancel school for a snow day (or two). In a traditional classroom, this means we have to choose what material we must speed through. With video lectures, it is easier to adjust the class time to address the biggest concerns students have.
My students are doing much better with this class structure, student retention is amazingly better, and I’ll continue doing it. If you want more details about actual results, here is my case study.
About the Author
I’m Brad Stetson, math instructor as well as the developer and instructor of many Online Faculty Professional Development courses. I love incorporating technology into my classes, both fully online as well as traditional classes. I’m very excited about the potential for education as we blend the human skills of professors and the computing power that technology brings us. I also love to see it opening doors for people that would normally not be able to take classes and/or have a difficult time learning in traditional settings.
As for my professional history, I started teaching online at the University of Florida in 2001. I then had some experience at some fully online universities before finding my home at Schoolcraft College in 2005. I began full time in the math department in 2006 after doing my obligatory circuit of part time teaching and wasting more time on the road than in the classroom.