Jump to other news and events

Learning

Two of Purdue's many strengths have been its world-class research and its commitment to "excellence in teaching with innovative pedagogies and curricular synergies for improved learning and student success."[48] We have an opportunity to combine these strengths by making Purdue known for field-defining research on the scholarship of teaching and learning. Multiple campus initiatives and entities support this goal, both directly and indirectly, including the development of a core curriculum, creation of an Honors College, the IMPACT program and trailblazing federally funded research by the Discovery Learning Research Center (DLRC).

Purdue uses continual assessment and measurement of learning outcomes to discover what is working and to further improve what is already a widely respected (and sought-after) educational experience. Key empirical findings include orientation courses and programs that better prepare students for higher education, learning communities that increase student success and teaching technologies that reduce dropout rates. Our challenge lies in coordinating and disseminating these many successes and replicating them across campus.

Effective Teaching and Learning: A Brief History at Purdue[49]

Purdue has a long-standing reputation for excellence in undergraduate, graduate and professional education. The University values this reputation and seeks to uphold it by providing faculty, future faculty (i.e., graduate students) and teaching staff with a wide range of effective teaching support programs, professional development opportunities and technical and infrastructure support and by recognizing and rewarding teaching excellence and innovation. Effective teaching that results in effective learning for all students remains at the core of Purdue's mission. It begins with the faculty and is encouraged by an active and highly visible support and reward structure.

Center for Instructional Excellence (CIE)[50]

The Center for Instructional Excellence is the primary resource on campus for teaching and learning support services. CIE provides opportunities for faculty development through workshops, seminars and teaching consultation. More than 50 teaching skills workshops are offered every year, addressing the basics of teaching (including effective lecturing, designing a syllabus and leading discussions) and the more substantive elements of critical thinking, active learning and testing and grading.

CIE also provides faculty with a number of support services, including a proctor pool to assist with test administration; instructional data processing (scoring bubble sheets); consultation with academic units and individual instructors on specific classroom teaching improvements; and an online resource with teaching topics and tips, ranging from cooperative and collaborative learning techniques to large class teaching and learning styles.

CIE-facilitated workshops are assessed through pre- and post-workshop surveys to measure learning and workshop satisfaction. These results drive the design and facilitation of future workshops and other CIE services.

CIE plays a proactive role and provides stewardship for the scholarship of teaching and learning through its affiliate membership in the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning; as an active member of the Big Ten's Committee for Institutional Cooperation directors of teaching centers group; beginning a new program for improving teaching and retention in chemistry gateway courses; and providing leadership for service learning. Academic units also conduct teaching workshops, often with CIE input, designed specifically to the pedagogical aspects of their discipline.

The Teaching Academy[51]

The Teaching Academy is a group of master teachers brought together through a competitive nomination process to create a collective voice for teaching and learning on campus. The academy's mission is to provide leadership and resources to enhance the quality of undergraduate, graduate and outreach teaching and learning. Academy fellows lead a seminar series, Conversations about Teaching, on important educational issues and the Academy regularly invites prominent teaching and teaching assessment scholars to present seminars on campus. The Academy's faculty mentoring network connects fellows with junior faculty members to support their development as scholarly teachers and the competitive travel grant program provides financial support for travel to professional conferences focused on teaching and learning. Faculty, professional teaching staff and graduate teaching assistants are eligible for membership in the Academy.

Graduate Student Teaching Assistants[52]

Graduate students are an essential component of undergraduate education at Purdue, particularly for first-year undergraduates. For graduate students aspiring to academic careers, the development of teaching skills and credentials is an important part of their graduate education. Of the 7,937 graduate students enrolled in the University in fall 2011, 25 percent held an assistantship with responsibilities for teaching or teaching support. In 2011, 23 percent of all teaching contact hours on the West Lafayette campus were provided by GTAs, primarily in laboratory courses and recitation sections for large enrollment first-year and sophomore-level courses. GTAs have access to the wide array of teaching support services available to faculty on campus.

Learning Goals

At the onset of the Foundations of Excellence process, there was no University-wide set of common learning goals for first-year students, although many activities directed to first-year students (including Admissions, Student Affairs and Residence Halls) have stated learning goals for the first year. Among the units that have learning goals, publicity of these goals varies widely. Some are not clearly articulated and there has not been an attempt to coordinate these goals across units.

As described earlier, the recent move toward a core curriculum and a series of common "competencies"[53] appears to be a strong step toward coordination.[54] When fully implemented, the University core would not only clearly state the common learning goals for all students (including foundational competencies for first-year students), but would require every unit to track students' success and outcomes on those goals. The University has appointed a Director of Assessment to oversee learning outcomes assessment at Purdue and has formed the Undergraduate Curriculum Council (UCC) to oversee the implementation of the core curriculum.

Many units both within and outside the academic curriculum (many of which are accredited externally) already have publicized learning outcomes and goals that are clearly specified and tracked. For example, the Purdue University Student Health Center (PUSH) has worked in cooperation with the Vice President for Student Affairs to expand alcohol awareness education on campus. Other first-year goals that are clearly articulated through Admissions and Residence Halls include academic success in classroom and developing a basic skill set (something the University core would also address).

More generally, many academic colleges, schools and departments, such as Pharmacy,[55] Psychological Sciences, Engineering[56] and Chemistry have courses or programs that orient students to their majors and help them select appropriate courses. The primary learning objective for these courses is to give students a clear sense of careers in those areas and the pathway to those careers at Purdue (e.g., majors, courses, etc.). For example, the College of Engineering has representatives for each of its schools come in and talk about careers in their respective areas as well as outline the pathways to success in those areas. Similarly, the Department of Psychological Sciences has individuals and students from each of its areas talk about careers and courses necessary to succeed in those careers. The Department of Consumer Sciences and Retailing has seniors and alumni mentor first-year students. Again, the goal is to give students a bridge from the classroom to lifelong success outside of college (a core value within our strategic plan). Other programs dedicated to giving students a common learning experience include Learning Communities and the Common Reading Program (used at least once by about 32 percent of incoming students[57]). We concur with the Faculty Dimension Committee in the pressing need to expand these programs and in the need for more faculty involvement in them.

Instructional Methods and Engaging Students

Of the large-enrollment courses listed, all but PSY 120 have traditionally made use of GTAs to teach recitations. This arrangement allows for more personalized contact with students and smaller class sizes (something students often request[58]). Each of the respective departments supervises their GTAs closely, albeit in different ways.

The Committee for the Education of Teaching Assistants (CETA) is a group of faculty, GTAs and staff appointed by the provost and led by CIE to help prepare graduate students in their roles as teachers. Prior to the beginning of each fall semester, CIE conducts "get ready to teach" workshops for new GTAs. All participants have opportunities to practice-teach and receive performance feedback from Teaching Academy fellows and CIE professional staff. CETA sponsors an annual awards banquet to honor excellence in graduate student teaching, a campus-wide event at which academic departments are invited to recognize their outstanding GTAs. GTAs may further enhance their teaching skills and credentials through CIE's Graduate Teacher Technology Certificate program.[59]

Within the academic colleges, the Department of English requires instructors to complete a yearlong preparatory course before they teach and the Department of Mathematics rehires instructors based on teaching evaluations. The Department of Chemistry also makes innovative use of "idea learning communities," small groups of like-minded students who stay together throughout the class. This helps students feel a sense of community and has received positive feedback from students.

While this innovation in teaching continues across these classes, the Committee felt that a more robust process for documenting and evaluating effectiveness of specific support services for instructional practices is needed. At Purdue, there are multiple potential avenues for preparing instructors for teaching first-year students. These include the CIE, which offers, in addition to workshops, graduate teaching certification; Information Technology at Purdue (ITaP), which offers workshops and numerous resources on teaching with technology; the Teaching Academy, as well as numerous individual units who offer aid to instructors of first-year students. There are numerous opportunities and possibilities for improvement, but there is no list of best practices (specifically tied to outcomes) across these entities. (See the recommendations by the Improvement Dimension Committee for examples of how this could be accomplished.)

A possible model for coordinating these efforts is suggested by the success of the IMPACT program, described earlier.[60] The collaborative process is empirically driven with careful documentation of student learning outcomes. When combined with the University core curriculum, IMPACT should have a strong positive effect in the coming years.

It should be noted that it is difficult to engage students that do not attend class. Attendance in large lectures, particularly those with no set attendance policy (such as MA 161), ranges from 70 percent to as low as 50 percent. With large multiple-choice exams as the norm, students may feel that they do not need to attend and too many students simply cram (or even cheat) to pass their exams. Those students that do attend class can often feel lost in the crowd.[61] We feel that this is a recipe for non-engagement and shallow learning. High-stakes testing creates a climate that is ripe for cheating and cursory, rather than deep, learning. Regular quizzes, group work or an attendance policy that gives students a reason to come to class would seem a necessary first step toward engaging students.

The Committee also noted a common theme and challenge, for Purdue — the balance of power in determining what is taught in class moves from faculty to unit to college to University. This means that in many ways, the classroom is a monarchy, where the individual faculty member has the most influence in what and how material is taught—as it should be. Any large-scale change of curriculum or teaching methods must begin with faculty and be fully supported by the colleges and departments. (See similar discussion in the Faculty Dimension Committee report.) This is especially true given that as a Research I university, many faculty do not receive tenure (or even much credit) for excellence in teaching. Pedagogy often takes a backseat to research and there has traditionally been little motivation to revise courses once they have been prepared. Moreover, it is rare for instructors or departments to embark on major course revisions (unless accreditation is involved).

Course Outcomes

Consistent University-wide evaluation of learning outcomes for these particular courses is lacking, but it is worth noting that many courses and programs at Purdue do a good job of tracking learning outcomes, especially programs accredited by outside bodies. In addition, the PSY 120 course redesign (as part of the IMPACT program) represents an interesting test case for a pathway to outcome tracking in large enrollment courses.

PSY 120 was one of the first large-enrollment courses to participate in the IMPACT program and it now documents specific student outcomes and ties curriculum changes directly to these outcomes. Indeed, a fundamental component of the IMPACT program is to work backward from desired student outcomes to design curriculum, classroom technology and other aspects of the course, including delivery method. In this case, PSY 120 went from a 500-student large lecture that met three hours a week to a hybrid format with two hours of online lecture and one hour of live recitations that range in size from 40 to 80 students.

Once again, the smaller class size and group projects resulted in increases in student ratings of engagement, attendance that approaches 98 percent, higher grades and some improvements on standardized test scores of content. As more of the large enrollment courses become involved in the IMPACT program, they will more directly tie classroom activities and curriculum to learning outcomes.

When implemented, the University core curriculum (and the proposed UCC) will provide another mechanism for global tracking of student skills and accountability in courses for teaching foundational skills.

There is a need for broad, consistent tracking of course outcomes across the University and, again, we concur with the suggestions of the Improvement Dimension Committee detailing additional ways and means for tracking student outcomes and dissemination of best practices.

Courses with High D/Failure/Withdrawal/Incomplete (DFWI) Rates

The University's commitment to supporting and improving effective teaching and learning is underscored by the attention and energies that faculty and staff devote to improving student learning experiences associated with high-risk gateway courses. Gateway courses — 100- and 200-level courses with enrollments of 50 or more students in which 25 percent or more earn a grade of D, F or W — serve as a crucial milestone of progress toward degree completion.[62]

The Office of the Provost is constantly monitoring DFWI rates. Many ongoing efforts (e.g., IMPACT, Signals and HORIZONS) are evaluated, in part, on how well they lower these rates. Ongoing efforts center around three areas:

  1. Professional development of instructors.
  2. Enrolling students into courses that are right for them (through excellent academic advising and pre-tests).
  3. Giving students early feedback on their progress in the course.

Enrolling students in the right classes involves advising and pre-tests. Recently, the Department of Mathematics has instituted an online math pre-test assessment (ALEKS assessment tool) to determine which students are ready for calculus-based courses. Interestingly, this had the effect of putting one-third more students into calculus-based courses. It seems that when students were simply asked if they were good at math, many would say no and wind up in a class that didn't challenge them or fit their existing background. Instead, pre-testing helped students choose classes more appropriate to their level, helping more students succeed and even thrive. Again, this model is one that could be replicated in other courses. Through pre-testing, we can give students the help and appropriate level of challenge that they need to succeed.

As described earlier, programs like Course Signals seem to have a strong effect on retention rates. We believe that its success indicates the importance of frequent feedback and helping students understand that someone cares about their performance. Students often feel lost in large lecture courses and may get the impression that the University doesn't care if they fail or succeed. In fact, some classes still employ scare tactics, exemplified by the classic "look to your left, look to your right."

DFWI rates in mathematics, for example, began to improve when the classes began to give email feedback to students. Presently in online and night classes, math is piloting a program in which a paid assistant is mining data from the class to urge students to keep up with homework and let them know that someone is paying attention to their success. Between homework and attendance, they are able to gauge which students are at risk. One particularly concerning statistic from this data mining is that more than half of students who retake will still get a DFWI. Here again, students believe they should be doing better than past performance and all indicators suggest they should. This overconfidence is an enormous challenge in that the students most in need of help are often the ones who don't believe they need it.

Placement

Purdue has always provided excellent resources for helping students' outside of class. Purdue is home to the nationally recognized Online Writing Lab (OWL),[63] which is used around the world to help improve students' writing proficiency.

Individual majors, departments and colleges as well as Admissions work to provide students with the tools they need to succeed before they even get to the classroom and there are many helpful resources for new students or those new to the major.[64] Despite these successes, we identified two challenges in addressing student needs — overconfident students and international students.

While students are proud of the level of education they receive at Purdue and student answers for the Student Survey questions related to the Learning Dimension were well above the mean, students generally feel they are well-prepared for college. However, the Faculty and Staff Survey reveals that faculty feel at least some students are not as prepared as they think. This lack of awareness is particularly damaging because it causes students who most need remediation to avoid it, sometimes until well after the damage to their GPA and self-confidence has been done.

Additionally, while international students are prepared academically, transitions to the classroom culture are more challenging and may require more targeted interventions. Language and cultural barriers can be quite formidable for students who are far from home.

As to helping students feel challenged, the creation of the Honors College will help implement this more consistently across the University. Again, it is worth noting that programs such as Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS), the Center for Authentic Science Practice in Education (CASPiE) and service-learning courses provide unprecedented levels of student engagement and challenge in applying their knowledge outside the traditional classroom and provide models for other units.

Special Learning Opportunities

While students are generally positive about their education at Purdue, two requests with regard to learning are frequently voiced—"more faculty teaching class rather than GTAs and smaller classes." These requests would appear to be in conflict, because smaller class sizes are typically achieved by making use of GTAs. Thus, it would appear students could have large lectures with experienced faculty or smaller classes taught by GTAs.

A possible solution to this paradox may lie in the underlying reason for these requests—student fear of getting lost in classes that in some cases are larger then their entire high school. Students transition from small classes and individualized attention in high school to an often confusing world of being both independent from parental supervision and yet still needing guidance. In short, students need to feel that someone cares and that they belong, whether it be through Learning Communities, an advisor, Resident Assistant, GTA or faculty member. Through special learning opportunities, Purdue has the ability to make the large campus feel smaller and more personal.

The special learning opportunities at Purdue are often mentioned in student surveys and are successful (e.g., EPICS, BGR, Learning Communities, Purdue Promise, HORIZONS, etc.) However, the degree to which we measure student outcomes in these programs is variable across units and programs. Again, programs with accreditation (or programs that have some degree of University oversight) tend to have more robust explorations of the connection between action and outcome.

Furthermore, these successes should be replicated and extended throughout campus. For example, other programs could benefit from student mentors similar to the successful mentorship within Purdue Promise. Insights from HORIZONS could be applied to increase retention across a broader array of students. Orientation classes could benefit from producing YouTube videos in the same way that other campus entities have.

These examples highlight the fundamental challenge of consistency faced by an organization as large as Purdue. We already do many positive things in select classes, recitations and areas around the University. The challenge is to popularize these successes and replicate them across campus.

Recommendations

  1. Increase the number of large enrollment courses in the IMPACT program.
  2. Provide professional development for instructors of first-year courses.
    • First-year courses and instructors are important, as they set the tone and behaviors for all courses that follow. Many of these courses are also unavoidable and show vast variability in quality.
    • Ensure that graduate instructors who currently teach first-year students have a graduate instruction certificate through CIE.
    • Ensure that departments have required courses taught by instructors who are recognized for their teaching skill.
  3. Complete implementation of a University-wide core curriculum.
    • More than half of our students will switch majors during their time at Purdue. It is imperative that some standardization in competencies and curriculum occur. Furthermore, centralized and consistent tracking of student progress on these competencies is necessary.
  4. Ensure that students receive an orientation course experience in the first year.
    • Given the large discrepancy between student beliefs about academic preparation and actual preparation reported by faculty, it is clear that enrolling students into a course (or experience, such as Learning Communities) which exposes them to the major and college and also helps students on fundamental study skills and foundational competencies is a must.
  5. Support and expand research on teaching and learning.
    • Given its status as a Research I University, one way to distinctly elevate the quality of education at Purdue is to make a commitment to advancing and rewarding more research on learning and pedagogy at Purdue. With the DLRC, Libraries, School of Engineering Education and the IMPACT program already having received major grants, blending of Teaching at Purdue with Research on Teaching at Purdue would seem to represent a powerful means to advance the science of teaching and learning and to improve pedagogy.
    • This represents an opportune time to strengthen the connections between researchers with interest in pedagogy and learning and to publicize best practices.
  6. Establish, standardize and publicize University-wide first-year learning goals, in coordination with the core curriculum. These goals should be communicated clearly at BGR, STAR, on the Admissions Facebook page and blog. It must include academic integrity, the Purdue Code of Conduct and lifelong learning.
  7. Provide more and earlier feedback to students on their progress in courses.
    • Given the dramatic gains in retention for students who have taken at least one course with Course Signals, an easy, yet potentially transformative step would be to ensure that more courses adopt Signals or other means of frequent early student feedback.
  8. Make large enrollment courses core curriculum foundational courses.
    • Some University oversight of first-year courses is crucial. Our suggested mechanism is the core curriculum and the UCC that would oversee these. This would help ensure that our high enrollment courses have some degree of accountability.
  9. Move toward all courses having a clear attendance policy.
    • Students can't be engaged if they don't attend class. It is not enough to pass a test; part of the collegiate experience is participation. One of the best ways to fix engagement problems is to make sure students have a reason to be in class. Students that consistently miss class are at much higher risk of dropping out or failing.

48. 2008-2014 Strategic Plan: New Synergies. Purdue University. http://www.purdue.edu/strategic_plan/ (accessed July 12, 2012)

49. 2010 Re-accreditation Self-Study Report for the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools: Reaching New Heights. Purdue University. http://www.purdue.edu/accreditation/2010/index.php (accessed July 12, 2012)

50. Ibid.

51. Ibid.

52. Ibid.

53. Evidence Library #296: Learning Outcomes. Purdue University.

54. Evidence Library #580: Proposal for University Core. Purdue University.

55. Evidence Library #502: PHPR100 Syllabus. Purdue University.

56. Evidence Library #582: Program for First-Year Engineers. Purdue University.

57. Evidence Library #567: Open-ended Questions by Filter of Office Visited. Purdue University.

58. Ibid.

59. 2010 Re-accreditation Self-Study Report for the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools: Reaching New Heights. Purdue University. http://www.purdue.edu/accreditation/2010/index.php (accessed July 12, 2012).

60. Evidence Library #470: Mission and Goals of IMPACT. Purdue University.

61. Evidence Library #567: Open-ended Questions by Filter of Offices Visited. Purdue University.

62. 2010 Re-accreditation Self-Study Report for the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools: Reaching New Heights. Purdue University. http://www.purdue.edu/accreditation/2010/index.php (accessed July 12, 2012)

63. Library #369: Online Writing Lab Web Site. Purdue University.

64. Evidence Library #370: Biology Resource Center Web Site; #371: Chemistry Resource Room Web Site; #372: Math Help Room Web Site. Purdue University.