Bottleneck Course Redesign
Rethinking the Instructional Model to Expand Capacity and Improve Success
High-enrollment, lower-division undergraduate courses are typically the most difficult challenge within the "iron triangle" of cost, access, and quality in higher education.
- Cost: Large enrollments necessitate additional instructors and classroom space, straining faculty capacity and institutional resources
- Access: Many of these courses create “bottlenecks” in the curriculum, particularly as required prerequisites are accompanied by waitlists and high failure rates
- Quality: Unbundling and redesigning the instructional model creates legitimate concerns about pedagogical rigor, particularly when success rates are already unsatisfactory
Target the institution’s most challenging curricular “bottlenecks” for blended course redesign, transitioning away from a traditional lecture-based model toward one that combines web-based content delivery with face-to-face interaction.
This alternative model allows for a reduction in per-student costs by increasing section sizes and eliminating one or more in-class meetings, while often improving success rates through the use of small-group exercises (typically led by teaching assistants or peer instructors within a larger class) and gradual, mastery-based assessment.
Most institutions engaged in bottleneck course redesigns measure their success according to three key metrics:
- A reduction in the drop / fail / withdraw (DFW) rate for the course, measured against previous offerings or another concurrently offered version
- An increase in the enrollment cap for the course per term
- A reduction in instructional cost per student headcount (typically calculated by dividing instructor compensation per course by the number of enrolled students)
Measure cost per successful student (dividing total instructor compensation by the number of students who received a passing grade). Track performance in subsequent courses to gain even greater insight into a course’s impact on student ability.
To estimate the potential for improvement along these assessment metrics, require course design proposals to include projections of capacity (increases in section size) and cost savings per student, as measured against the previous term’s course. Conduct analyses at the end of each term to assess performance against projected goals, including cost per successful student and DFW reductions.
The National Center for Academic Transformation (www.TheNCAT.org) has helped to coordinate over 150 course redesigns since 1999. It found that institutions reduced their instructional costs by an average of 34%, while 72% showed improved student learning outcomes.
Well-intentioned blended learning initiatives often fail to achieve the desired course conversion or student success results because of an imbalance between central administrative oversight and ground-up faculty support.
One method of balancing both the interests of the institution and the curricular flexibility desired by faculty is to administer a provost-level grant program for course design innovation. By using targeted investments through an RFP process, the administration avoids interfering with uninterested instructors, while ensuring that willing faculty have plentiful support and recognition throughout the redesign and assessment process.
Redesign grant programs should prioritize proposals that meet the following criteria:
- Redesigns entire courses within a department, rather than individual sections
- Targets general education, introductory, and/or prerequisite gateway courses
- Targets courses with historically high DFW rates
- Targets high-enrollment courses
- Demonstrates support from departmental faculty, chairs, and deans
- Includes a plan for financial sustainability and/or an overall reduction in costs
- Describes how the course will use technology to reduce costs and improve outcomes
Once eligible courses are selected for revision, it is critical to provide faculty with resources and expertise to guide them through best practices in blended pedagogy in order to maximize the likelihood of the desired reduction in instructional cost and improvement in learning outcomes. Without adequate guidance, revamped courses may prove a daunting and difficult experience for both faculty and students, hampering progress across the institution.
Exemplar blended learning support
The University of Central Florida, a national leader in blended pedagogy, has compiled a Blended Learning Toolkit, which includes extensive resources designed to accelerate faculty comfort with and implementation of alternative instructional models.
EAB research has surfaced three high-level characteristics common to successful "high tech, high touch" blended instructional models which can help inform the design process.
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The University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s physics department faced a combination of disappointing success rates and strained capacity in several of their introductory courses, providing the perfect context in which to ask whether an alternative instructional model might not only improve outcomes, but allow for more students without adding additional classrooms or faculty.
By replacing their traditional two-lectures-per-week model with a blended model including online content modules, pre- and post-class quizzes and exercises, and a teaching assistant-led problem solving session, faculty were able to reduce the drop/fail/withdraw rate by 12%, expand the enrollment cap by 45%, and achieve significant cost savings per student in the space of one semester.
This new model also reduced the anxiety and limited long-term retention problems associated with high-stakes midterm and final tests by focusing on periodic mini-examinations throughout.
Each year, the provost’s office provides $30,000 in redesign funding per course for three to five faculty teams, with preference given toward large enrollment introductory courses with high DFW rates. The winning teams then engage with UNC Charlotte’s Center for Teaching and Learning to create a full proposal for the provost’s review, build and carry out the new course format, and assess their results during and after the term.
For greater detail on UNC Charlotte’s "Large Course Redesign" process, see their Center for Teaching and Learning’s web portal, which features analyses of past projects, current RFP outlines, and a form for faculty to request a consultation.
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How to Use the Guide
Remedial Ramp-Up Courses