In my last post, I described positive but mixed results of an effort by MSU's psychology department to flip and blend their classroom:
- On the 30-item comprehensive exam, students in the redesigned sections performed significantly better (84% improvement) compared to the traditional comparison group (54% improvement).
- Students in the redesigned course demonstrated significantly more improvement from pre to post on the 50-item comprehensive exam (62% improvement) compared to the traditional sections (37% improvement).
- Attendance improved substantially in the redesigned section. (Fall 2011 traditional mean percent attendance = 75% versus fall 2012 redesign mean percent attendance = 83%)
- They did not get a statistically significant improvement in the number of failures and withdrawals, which was one of the main goals of the redesign, although they note that “it does appear that the distribution of A’s, B’s, and C’s shifted such that in the redesign, there were more A’s and B’s and fewer C’s compared to the traditional course.”
- In terms of cost reduction, while they fell short of their 17.8% goal, they did achieve a 10% drop in the cost of the course....
It’s also worth noting that MSU expected to increase enrollment by 72 students annually but actually saw a decline of enrollment by 126 students, which impacted their ability to deliver decreased costs to the institution.
Those numbers were based on the NCAT report that was written up after the first semester of the redesigned course. But that wasn't the whole story. It turns out that, after several semesters of offering the course, MSU was able to improve their DFW numbers after all:
When I asked Danae Hudson, one of the leads on the project, why she thought it took time to see these results, here's what she had to say:
I do think there is a period of time (about a full year) where students (and other faculty) are getting used to a redesigned course. In that first year, there are a few things going on 1) students/and other faculty are hearing about “a fancy new course” – this makes some people skeptical, especially if that message is coming from administration; 2) students realize that there are now a much higher set of expectations and requirements, and have all of their friends saying “I didn’t have to do any of that!” --- this makes them bitter; 3) during that first year, you are still working out some technological glitches and fine tuning the course. We have always been very open with our students about the process of redesign and letting them know we value their feedback. There is a risk to that approach though, in that it gives students a license to really complain, with the assumption that the faculty team “doesn’t know what they are doing”. So, we dealt with that, and I would probably do it again, because I do really value the input from students.
I feel that we have now reached a point (2 years in) where most students at MSU don’t remember the course taught any other way and now the conversations are more about “what a cool course it is etc”.
Finally, one other thought regarding the slight drop in enrollment we had. While I certainly think a “new blended course” may have scared some students away that first year, the other thing that happened was there were some scheduling issues that I didn’t initially think about. For example, in the Fall of 2012 we had 5 sections and in an attempt to make them very consistent and minimize missed classes due to holidays, we scheduled all sections on either a Tuesday or a Wednesday. I didn’t think about how that lack of flexibility could impact enrollment (which I think it did). So now, we are careful to offer sections (Monday through Thursday) and in morning and afternoon.
To sum up, she thinks there were three main factors: (1) it took time to get the design right and the technology working optimally; (2) there was a shift in cultural expectations on campus that took several semesters; and (3) there was some noise in the data due to scheduling glitches.
There are a number of lessons one could draw from this story, but from the perspective of educational efficacy, I think it underlines how little the headlines (or advertisements) we get really tell us, particularly about components of a larger educational intervention. We could have read, "Pearson's MyPsychLabs Course Substantially Increased Students Knowledge, Study Shows." That would have been true, but we have little idea how much improvement there would have been had the course not been fairly radically redesigned at the same time. We also could have read, "Pearson's MyPsychLabs Course Did Not Improve Pass and Completion Rates, Study Shows." That would have been true, but it would have told us nothing about the substantial gains over the semesters following the study. We want talking about educational efficacy to be like talking about the efficacy of Advil for treating arthritis. But it's closer to talking about the efficacy of various chemotherapy drugs for treating a particular cancer. And we're really really bad at talking about that kind of efficacy. I think we have our work cut out for us if we really want to be able to talk intelligently and intelligibly about the effectiveness of any particular educational intervention.