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Reflecting on Course Redesign: How Faculty Can Measure the Impact of Instructional Changes

For some faculty members, redesigning part or all of a course can feel overwhelming. Where do you start? How do you know that you’ve had a positive impact on student learning? As you finalize preparations for the fall, the following steps can provide a roadmap for designing and implementing a plan to improve student learning in your courses.

Clarify where student learning could be improved. Focus first and foremost on your goals for student learning and where students struggle. Start by defining and writing student learning outcomes for your course and its major units, concentrating on what students should be able to do to demonstrate they achieved an outcome.

Next, find out where students are struggling. Are they having difficulty with a single outcome? A particular assignment? Or are students having broader issues with applying knowledge gained earlier in the course to later projects? Sometimes, smaller changes to instructional content, an activity, or an assignment may be all that’s needed. If students’ struggles are broader, more comprehensive pedagogical changes are warranted. Consider prioritizing the issues you identified in a way that makes sense to you and then decide on an issue to tackle first.

Decide on the instructional changes that will address your students’ learning gaps. There are several research-based best practices that faculty can use when considering new instructional strategies.

Improving instructional alignment. Do you have strong alignment between course outcomes, course activities and content, and assessments? If a course doesn’t feel cohesive for students, being explicit about these connections can be very helpful. Many instructors find it easy to ensure the topics covered in a course are covered in assessments. However, it’s much more common for a faculty member to misalign the skills needed to complete an assignment and the skills they specified on the syllabus or in an outcomes statement.

Adding frequent, low-stakes assessments. Students’ learning benefits from frequent assessments that are graded but have a small effect on final grades. These may be weekly quizzes to encourage students to keep up with course reading, or they could be reflection posts or course discussions that encourage students to think about their own learning.

Scaffolding a high-stakes assessment. When scaffolding a larger assignment, instructors guide students from simpler to more complex tasks, creating intentional opportunities that allow students to focus on one skill or component of a project. For example, assigning each section of a large research paper to its own deadline gives students plenty of opportunities to prepare, reflect on, and finalize their work before it’s due.

Giving early feedback while keeping your workload manageable. Feedback is essential for learning. Assignments that you give within the first few weeks of a semester allow students to adjust their expectations and approach to your course, setting them up for more success. For scaffolded assessments, you can consider giving each student more detailed feedback on earlier pieces and less detailed feedback on the final product. Time-saving tips for giving feedback include using rubrics, including peer feedback, and prioritizing the most critical improvements that students need to make.

Student-centered teaching methods. If your course is in need of a big change, consider adopting a new teaching methodology. Active learning techniques and assignments such as debating current events, conducting case studies and simulations, creating their classmates’ quizzes, and interviewing experts are great ways for students to engage with course material. Flipped courses and team-based learning methods can work for even the largest courses. Adaptive learning software can shore up gaps in students’ background knowledge and ensure students truly master the material.

Create an implementation plan. It is okay to make smaller changes each semester that build toward a final goal. Beyond helping you manage the work, making course revisions slowly will give you insights on what works to improve student learning and what doesn’t. Writing out a plan for executing your changes over time, or visualizing your course changes in a course map, might help you see how your modifications fit into the “big picture” of your course.

Determine how you will measure changes in students’ learning. How will you know if your instructional change benefited learning? What evidence of learning will you collect as performance measures? Many campuses have assessment experts to help faculty collect data on student learning. You may be able to compare your current students’ performance on an assessment with other course sections or past semesters. Allow time in your implementation plan to collect and analyze your assessment data.

Reflect on the results. Once you’ve implemented your plan and collected your assessment data, carve out time to reflect on what happened, what went well, and what further improvements might be made. You can modify your plan as you gain new information. Creating a cycle of seeking continuous improvements to student learning will yield benefits for your students and can also keep your teaching practices fresh and rewarding.

Elise Demeter is the senior assessment research analyst and an associate graduate faculty member at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. 

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