July 26, 2016 by Kevin Wilcox

A team at Purdue University is researching the role that a collection of innovative education techniques known as the ‘freeform classroom’ has played in reducing by half the number of struggling students in a sophomore dynamics course and how scalable those techniques are to different academic institutions.

The team is led by Jennifer DeBoer, Ph.D., an assistant professor of engineering education at Purdue. DeBoer joined the faculty at Purdue in 2014, just as Charles Krousgrill, Ph.D., and Jeffrey Rhoads, Ph.D., both professors of mechanical engineering, were publishing the promising results of early work with the freeform classroom, which integrates blogs, workbooks, and streamlined textbooks to better reach today’s “digital native” students.

The results are encouraging. In one dynamics course typically taken by sophomores in the spring semester, the rate of students earning a D or an F or withdrawing from the course—known in education parlance as DFW—was reduced from approximately 20 percent to about 10 percent. When DeBoer learned of the results, she sought out Krousgrill and Rhoads.

“I said, if this is what you are seeing, we should study this. Let’s make sure that this is indeed a trend that can be empirically supported. Then let’s dig further to see what’s going on and who’s benefitting,” DeBoer recalls.

The freeform classroom incorporates what are known in academia as active, blended, and collaborative (ABC) techniques: active learning with students as participants, blended online and classroom resources, and collaboration between students. “Each of these, taken separately, has become more and more common in some, but not all, university classrooms. But we don’t often see all three of these elements—which we know could and should be beneficial—in combination,” DeBoer says. “It’s even more rare that we see them in something like a sophomore-year engineering class, where you typically get a very traditional, very theoretical [course] with an overwhelming amount of information for students.”

The sophomore year has become critical for engineering students, DeBoer notes. It’s when the more holistic, engaging, interactive courses of freshman year have ended, replaced with the more dense, lecture-based courses in which some students struggle. Many students drop their dreams of becoming an engineer at this point.

The team that is investigating the new methodology, which includes DeBoer, Rhoads, and Edward Berger, an associate professor of engineering education and of mechanical engineering at Purdue, is focusing its research on what role the freeform classroom has played in improvements at that university, whether it has helped certain students more than others, and how adaptable and scalable it is outside of large research universities. “We have seen a precipitous drop in the DFW rate. But we needed to rigorously ascertain that it was really because of the implementation and growth of freeform,” DeBoer says. “In those same years that we saw freeform rolled out, students coming into Purdue had higher and higher admission test scores. And, in fact, students coming into [the dynamics course] had higher and higher performance in their [previous] courses at Purdue.”

Although the researchers are still teasing out all of the various factors that can affect student performance, it appears that the innovative approach to learning accounts for a significant proportion of the improvement in student performance and retention. “Even controlling for [the fact that] student performance in prior courses [was] improving, we saw that over the years, the DFW rate was still getting better as freeform was being rolled out and becoming the standard,” DeBoer says.

To answer the question of how scalable and adaptable the approach is to other institutions, Purdue is working with Trine University and Purdue University Northwest-Calumet Campus (PNW). Trine University focuses heavily on its teaching methods, placing a premium on small class sizes and a close relationship between professors and students. PNW, located outside of Chicago, serves a heavily nontraditional, commuter student population.

“By partnering with these institutions, [which] are still within Indiana but have diverse institutional missions and different student cohorts, we are able to really start to understand what the freeform environment looks like in different settings,” DeBoer says.

So far, the results are encouraging. The team recently presented research papers at the American Society of Engineering Education’s 123 rdAnnual Conference & Exposition in New Orleans. The research indicates that the freeform classroom’s ABC techniques work well at Trine, reducing DFW rates.

“One of the big challenges in going to these other institutions is there is a different culture. There are variations in terms of the instructor’s understanding of their role, their own typical practices, and how they adjust to this new environment,” DeBoer says.

“One of the things that really stood out was that it seems that the [freeform] environment itself helps to standardize or support the instructors who are enacting it,” she adds. “For us, the null result of not having [performance] differences between instructors who have highly varying backgrounds and practices seemed to indicate that [freeform] is an environment that helps mitigate those differences.”

Purdue will continue the research at Trine and PNW in the coming years and plans to soon add two international universities to this four-year research project, which is funded with a $1.4-million grant from the National Science Foundation.

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