Center for Teaching and Learning

Nestled on the ground floor of the Graduate School of Business Building, the Center for Teaching and Learning’s testing facilities serve thousands of students.
Photo Credit: Jack DuFon | Daily Texan Staff

As the University continues to expand its range of online classes, officials at the Center for Teaching and Learning said they have recognized a need for a larger testing center.

The Center currently operates a testing space in the Graduate School of Business Building, although the space is not considered an official testing center. The space has 23 seats for testing, according to executive director Harrison Keller, and allows students to take exams in a proctored location. Students come to take exams for online courses, take placement exams to test out of courses or receive testing accommodations for a disability.

David Laude, senior vice provost for Enrollment and Curriculum Services, said an increased number of online courses has accordingly increased demand for using the testing facilities. Laude said the government and psychology departments offered a combined total of around 1,000 online courses in the fall and spring this year alone. 

“We absolutely need a substantially larger testing facility,” Laude said. “We’re in the planning stages, but this is something that’s going to have to come.”

Keller said other universities in the U.S. have established testing centers.

“We’re scanning right now for what kind of facilities other universities have,” Keller said. “We’re also looking at what kind of technologies are available.”

The current space where students can take proctored tests relies heavily on old technology, such as scantrons, according to Keller.

“It’s clear that this is a pinch point that needs to be addressed,” Keller said. “As the pace of innovations is accelerating on campus, that puts a different kind of demand on our facilities.”

Laude, who teaches an introductory chemistry course with approximately 500 students each semester, said not every student is able to make the testing course’s time. He said he offers a makeup date for every exam and has generally been able to accommodate each student.

“Because we hold evening exams, there’ll always be lots of conflicts,” Laude said. “[But] there’s almost never any issue with students missing an exam.”

Kelli Bradley, executive director of Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD), said the number of students registered with SSD has increased from around 1,500 in 2009 to 2,300 this year. Bradley said 80–85 percent of registered students request testing accommodations.

“The more students register, the more students receiving extended time or test accommodations, the more likely there’s going to be the need for this space,” Bradley said.

Erin Gleim, Student Government director of the Students with Disabilities Agency, authored a resolution that supported the construction of a larger testing center. SG voted in support of the Center on Tuesday.

“It’s an expectation that we have [a testing center], and the fact that we don’t is a disservice,” Gleim said.

Over the past five to six years, SSD increased the number of exams they proctored, from 500 tests a semester to 6,000, according to the resolution.

“We’re mostly hoping to raise awareness that this is an issue,” Gleim said. “This is something that benefits everyone.”

Photo Credit: Caleb Kuntz | Daily Texan Staff

Editor’s Note: This column is one in a series by associate classics professor Jennifer Ebbeler on the changing nature of higher education at UT-Austin and other institutions. Look for Prof. Ebbeler’s column in the Opinion section of this paper every other Wednesday.

At a select number of high schools and community colleges around Texas, venturesome students and their teachers are pioneering a bold initiative called OnRamps. Coordinated through the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Teaching and Learning and directed by former senior educational researcher at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences Julie Schell, OnRamps courses offer high school students the opportunity to take dual credit UT-Austin courses with their own teachers and on their high school campus.

An OnRamps course differs from an AP or IB course in that it is designed by UT-Austin faculty, with guidance from learning specialists, and is meant to be equal to the difficulty level and content coverage of a UT campus-based course. Credit is received by completing the course with a passing grade rather than by passing an examination set by a third party. The goals of the initiative are two-fold: to help high school students meet some of their state-mandated core requirements before they arrive on campus and to acclimate high school students to the rigor and pace of college-level coursework in an effort to ease the transition between high school and college for freshmen. 

Among the more serious social and economic problems facing the state of Texas is low college completion rates. Only 25 percent of enrolled students graduate in four years and 34 percent after seven to nine years. While completion rates aren’t the only measure of college success, these numbers are shockingly low. The rates are higher for UT, where 52 percent of enrolled students graduate in four years, but increasing the four-year graduation rate to 70 percent is an important priority as the University moves forward. We know that there is a strong correlation between higher levels of initial transfer credit and faster graduation rates. 

Yet it is not just about checking off a box — after all, high school students have been doing that for generations by taking AP/IB courses or community college courses. The truly significant benefit of an OnRamps course is the access it provides to a challenging, well-designed course that helps high school students prepare for the kind — and depth — of learning they will be asked to do in college.

“All too often students report that the dual credit courses they completed in high school didn’t align well with the expectations at UT-Austin,” said Harrison Keller, vice-provost for Higher Education Policy and Research and director of the Center for Teaching and Learning. “By providing engaging, rigorous dual credit courses that are directly aligned with our expectations, working in close partnership with school districts, community colleges and other universities, we want to eliminate that expectations gap and help students transition seamlessly into subsequent courses.”

All OnRamps courses are designed and delivered as blended courses. That is, they utilize a mix of online and in-class learning activities. There is strong evidence that a blended model supports increased student learning, but it is not without its challenges — particularly when the instructors of the course were not the primary course designers. Megan Parry, the OnRamps partnership coordinator, reports that as the initiative continues to evolve and expand, opportunities for professional development for the high school teachers who are running the courses will be critical. Teachers will need specialized and likely extensive training to run a blended classroom, which can be a significant obstacle to implementation. It will be crucial for teachers to be provided with a strong network of support from the administration of their local school districts, from OnRamps staff, and from fellow OnRamps teachers around the state. It will also be important for the teachers and students to have opportunities to provide detailed feedback on what works and does not work in the pilot versions of the courses and to have the opportunity to work with the course designers to adapt future iterations to the specific needs of their students.

Ideally, an OnRamps course will balance the autonomy of the local high school instructor with the core content and learning activities designed by teams of UT faculty. It is an initiative that has the potential to dramatically change the often rocky transition between high school and college and, in so doing, to edge up four-year and six-year graduation rates around the state of Texas. Freshmen will continue to arrive with significant numbers of transfer credit, but now those credits will truly represent UT-level coursework and prepare students to succeed in more advanced courses on the UT campus.

Ebbeler is an associate classics professor from Claremont, Calif.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this column incorrectly stated that the OnRamps program is funded through the Center for Teaching and Learning. It is funded by the state legislature. 

Mario Guerra, instructional technology specialist at the Center for Teaching and Learning, talks Canvas versus Blackboard with Daily Texan reporter Niq Velez.

Niq Velez: What are the top five reasons why Canvas is better than Blackboard?

Mario Guerra: 1.  A more robust feature set.

2.  More opportunity to be innovative.

3.  Integrations with other tools like Google Drive.

4.  Better look and feel/more intuitive.

5.  More frequent updates and bug fixes.


NV: How will the cloud functionality of Canvas be utilized?

MG: Canvas, hosted in the cloud, allows Instructure — the creator of Canvas — to push bug fixes and feature enhancements to its platform every three weeks with no downtime. UT has not had this functionality with Blackboard — which was updated every one to one and a half years. One great attribute of Instructure as a company is their willingness to listen to their user community. They’ve created a forum where users can post a feature request and others can vote. This has already worked well with UT with the updated look of the Canvas Inbox.


NV: What is the cost of the transition process?

MG: One-time transition cost funded by ITS is estimated to be $63,500. This cost includes $52,500 to provide 24 hour/seven days a week Canvas help support for students, faculty and staff by live phone, live chat and email, plus $11,000 for custom software to migrate Blackboard course and quiz material to Canvas.


NV: What are some difficulties that have been encountered by faculty and students in the transition process?

MG: We have seen the most trouble with faculty who expect Canvas to look and act like Blackboard. While they’re both learning management systems, they behave in very different ways. We have been offering faculty training specifically for migrating from Blackboard to Canvas to help faculty with this problem. For students, I think the biggest problem is using Canvas and Blackboard simultaneously. To help with this problem, CTL and ITS created a module in Blackboard that displays courses from both Canvas and Blackboard.


NV: What are some common complaints about Blackboard today?

MG: Blackboard is slow, clunky and out-dated.

Marilla Svinicki passes out notes in preparation for her lecture over maintaining student engagement in the classroom.

Photo Credit: Jono Foley | Daily Texan Staff

In hopes of encouraging faculty to apply student-centered teaching techniques to their classrooms, educational psychology professor Marilla D. Svinicki lectured on how professors could apply recent discoveries in psychology to their curriculum as part of the Academic Transformation lecture series by the Center for Teaching and Learning.

At the FAC, Svinicki lectured to a group of nearly 60 professors from different UT departments interested in improving their teaching methods using Svinicki’s data from current research literature.

“They want to get a dialogue going on what students can do to regulate their own learning experience,” said Michael Sweet, director of Instruction and Development at the Center for Teaching and Learning. “Our goals are to talk more and more about learning and less and less about teaching.”

After a short introduction by Sweet, Svinicki began her lecture by pointing out long term changes in education resulting from behaviorist theories about the way people learn.

“We felt we could know everything by observing what people did and not what they thought, but modern theories have replaced that and now we believe that the learner ultimately controls learning,” Svinicki said. “Unfortunately, every tool our students have now is based on old models — taking notes and reading the book and writing down anything the teacher says.”

Svinicki then listed ways in which teachers can work to improve their students self-efficacy, that is, their ability to work and learn on their own. Interested professors were then given time to discuss the different methods they used in their own classrooms to address these issues.

“I think what’s being said here is about important motivation in teaching,” said kinesiology professor Dolly Lambdin.

“There are always better ways to teach, and everybody here is anxious to find better ways to do what they are doing.”

However, the reality of applying these issues is more difficult than simple discussion. In class sizes like those at UT, some students wonder if a professor can really attend to the education of every student in the classroom.

“You can’t attend to 300 kids in one class, but if you got 30-40 in a single class then, yeah, you can do that,” freshman Brent Schiffman said. “I think the better question is, ‘Do kids take advantage of what’s already there?’”

This will be the only lecture by Svinicki this semester, although the Academic Transformation series will continue in October with a presentation on integrating technology into the classroom.

Faculty and administrators are redesigning large, entry-level undergraduate classes to better engage students with hopes they will learn and retain more from the courses.

The University, with funding through the provost’s office, has committed $2.5 million to the newly created Course Transformation Program over at least three years, said Harrison Keller, vice provost for higher education policy and executive director of the Center for Teaching and Learning. The program provides funding and expert support from the Center for Teaching and Learning for faculty to design, implement and assess new teaching methods. The program focuses on courses that enroll more than 1,000 students at a time in multiple sections.

In the large courses, one in five students receive a failing grade or withdraw from the class, Keller said.

He said the program aims to lower the number of students who fail or withdraw while maintaining or improving the rigor of the courses.

“Can we help more students successfully navigate these gateway courses while at least maintaining and hopefully improving quality?” Keller said.

He said staff at the Center for Teaching and Learning spend much of their time supporting the faculty who wrote proposals and were chosen last year to participate in the program. He said five classes which serve more than 9,000 students — two introductory biology, two chemistry and an introductory statistics class — will begin implementing methodology changes this fall.

Senior biology lecturer Sata Sathasivan led a group of faculty to write the proposal to include biology courses in the program. He said he has planned methods to improve students’ ability to prepare for class and allow instructors to use lecture time more effectively. He said the planning has taken place in weekly meetings with the other biology faculty participating in the program and the teaching center’s experts.

“We start with the learning objectives, examine the best ways of addressing them to students and then examine how we can assess the learning,” Sathasivan said.

One possibility for improvement is to broaden access to online material organized by topic, including lecture segments on materials or concepts a student may be expected to know from a previous class but may have forgotten, said associate chemistry professor David Vanden Bout.

He said in his weekly meetings he has helped develop methods to improve students’ ability to prepare for class, including simply reading textbooks and using technology aids. He said if this system were fully implemented, all class sections of the introductory chemistry courses would have access to the same set of online material.

He said this systematic approach to organizing access to online content would consolidate any efforts professors may already be making to free up lecture time by enabling students to better prepare for class. He said lecture time would be freed up to interactively cover more relevant and applicable topics and problems.

“I would love it to be a time where everybody wants to go to class because they know they are going to learn something new and interesting not just ‘I have to go so I can get the notes,’” Vanden Bout said.