An investment worth making

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Last Wednesday, teams from the biology, chemistry and statistics departments presented the first round of results of the University’s Course Transformation Project.

The CTP is a collaborative effort between various colleges and the Center for Teaching and Learning. Its goal is to transform large, entry-level courses at the University into active learning experiences that engage students and, the hope is, increase their success rates by restructuring classes to take advantage of recent research in cognitive science and education theory.

Professors from introductory biology, chemistry and statistics courses presented their results from the first round of transformed courses. These classes are massive. Although the oft-maligned 500-person lecture is more mythical than menacing, more than 4,500 students take introductory biology each year, and at 450 students, two professors, four graduate student TAs and seven undergraduate TAs, the transformed chemistry course is larger than some Texas high schools.

The stakes are high; success or failure in these large classes, where professor interaction is often limited, can be the difference between moving forward in degree plans and foundering. Additionally, these science classes often include students from many different colleges seeking to complete their breadth requirements, and the challenge for professors is daunting.

Smaller classes and more interaction between students and professors, while presenting a more effective way to structure these courses, is not viable for a university as large as ours. Yet all three groups of professors presented innovative ways to work around, and even take advantage of, this apparent disadvantage. Students worked in small groups during lectures, answering questions on iClickers and presenting their thought processes at the front of the room. The statistics course replaced one lecture a week with a small, group-oriented lab session. Chemistry professor David Vandenbout described his team’s approach as moving from the instructor as the sole expert in the classroom to a multi-expert model, wherein students and teachers serve as co-experts instructing others.

The results, from higher test scores to students’ reporting a more positive and valuable class experience, testified to the program’s success. The collaborative, engaging approach helped students learn more. These early results from the CTP clearly demonstrate that there is a better way to teach students than lecturing at them. Applying techniques used by these CTP classes across the University would help students graduate on time and, more importantly, guarantee that they would know more as they walk across the stage.

But as a number of professors noted, scaling the CTP presents a challenge. Senior biology lecturer K. Sathasivan adamantly, and commendably, insisted that the physical resources in his classroom did not prevent him from trying new things. However, working in groups is hard when the desks don’t move or when forming a discussion circle is a perilous, multi-level ordeal. Sathasivan noted that his TAs were often running around the lecture hall delivering the microphone to students who wanted to speak. Video recordings, touted as a great resource, are not available in most classrooms. The University should do everything in its power to update the physical plant to be more conducive to the CTP’s new style of teaching and learning.

UT came under incredible scrutiny last year as outside observers from the Texas Public Policy Foundation to the state government criticized the University’s approach to teaching. The CTP demonstrates that UT can fulfill its teaching mission. And if being a top-tier teaching university takes more time and more money, the results of the CTP demonstrate that the investment is worth making.