New teaching approach boosts learning for engineering students

February 12, 2013  

Krousgrill and Rhoads

Jeffrey Rhoads, left, and Charles Krousgrill are using a new teaching approach for large classes that allows students to interact with each other and faculty online while accessing hundreds of instructional videos and animations. Krousgrill, a professor of mechanical engineering, pioneered the system, called the Purdue Mechanics Freeform Classroom. (Purdue University photo/Mark Simons)
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Engineering professors at Purdue University are using a new teaching approach for large classes that allows students to interact with each other and faculty online while accessing hundreds of instructional videos and animations.

The system, called the Purdue Mechanics Freeform Classroom, was pioneered by Charles Krousgrill, a professor of mechanical engineering. It has been used for two years in two mechanical engineering core courses with hundreds of students enrolled annually.

"Since we've implemented this we've seen much higher matriculation," said Krousgrill, who is working with Jeffrey Rhoads and Eric Nauman, both associate professors of mechanical engineering.

The teaching approach addresses the challenges of educating large classes, he said.

"There is a huge national shortage of engineers, and we have seen a large growth in the number of students taking core classes recently," Krousgrill said. "Six years ago, the average class size in some core courses might be 80 students and now it's 130."

The Freeform Classroom has dramatically reduced the number of students who receive a grade of D, fail or withdraw from the course. The rate of students in these categories has fallen from around 20 percent to around 5 percent

"When you move to over 100 students in the classroom, unless you come up with a creative solution, you no longer have direct access to students," Krousgrill said. "A key driving force was the need to educate more students, but also we wanted to be able to provide deeper knowledge. We don't want 20 percent of our students to be unsuccessful. You have to figure out how to ensure that they are getting access to resources and faculty members when they need it and as they need it."

The Freeform Classroom enhances learning for certain students, he said.

"We are making sure students have the proper skills and competence, but without lowering the bar," Krousgrill said. "This isn't grade inflation. There is not a higher percentage of A students. We are essentially creating more B students. We are taking students from the C-through-F group and moving them up, which is great."

Traditional textbooks are replaced with "lecturebooks" - binders that contain text and diagrams and white space for note-taking. The students access videos and interactive simulations, via a course blog, to learn the material and solve problems.

"The videos and simulations all feed into the course, and the lecturebook and blog are the glue that holds them all together," Krousgrill said. "We find that little obstacles will keep students from reading the traditional textbook, whereas they have to use the lecturebook in class. We track the numbers and we get nearly 100 percent purchase, and about 100 percent of the students bring them to class."

The approach also helps faculty members gauge how students are doing in class.

"I can read the blog to find out where they were having difficulty so I can emphasize those things in class," Krousgrill said.

About 400 videos of faculty members solving lesson problems are available to students on the blog for each course.

"We also do about the same number of videos for homework problems, so they can look at their homework after it's handed back side-by-side with the faculty member solving the problem to see where they went wrong," Rhoads said. "For every problem in the book they can go online and get a video of one of the faculty members solving the problem. So instead of having static content on the page you have an interactive video. You can deliver a much greater depth of content."

The blog for one of the courses, ME 274, receives more than 2,000 student comments and posts and 160,000 page views each semester, with an average viewing time of 26 minutes.

"Because the blog responses were mainly by students, it allowed us to work together to come up with the answer, which I thought was a large confidence booster," said Bryan Wagner, who took ME 274 from Krousgrill and will graduate in May. "Compared to traditional courses, Professor Krousgrill showed a lot more directly observed phenomena that helped his students understand the concept he was teaching. One that comes to mind was a board resting on a roller. When he rolled the roller, the board moved double the distance of the roller. It was small things like that that made it very easy to understand what he was trying to teach."

Other universities have introduced online courses called MOOCs, or massive open online courses. However, one drawback to MOOCs is that they remove the student from the classroom, Krousgrill said.

"We think we have an alternative approach to more effectively teach large numbers of students," he said. "This is in fairly stark contrast to MOOCs because it allows for more interaction between students and faculty."

The Freeform Classroom approach germinated from an effort sponsored by the National Science Foundation aimed at exploring the educational effectiveness of blogs in higher education.  The program subsequently evolved with the support of efforts spearheaded by Tim Sands, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost, which sought to boost the success rate in certain large-enrollment courses critical to a student's success. More than 7,500 students are currently benefiting from the teaching environments created through the resulting IMPACT program at Purdue. The program was developed to transform large-enrollment foundational courses to achieve a more student-centered learning environment, fostering student engagement, confidence, increased attainment of course-specific goals and higher-order thinking skills.

 "Students have 24/7 access to experts," Rhoads said. "A student might want help at 3:30 in the morning while doing homework, and chances are, with 700 students in the class, someone else is online at that time."

The instructors also step in to provide commentary and help.

"And I think it helps the students who otherwise might fail, not due to their own accord but because they aren't getting enough help, and it pushes those students up," Krousgrill said. "It also caters to a variety of learning styles because they can learn from their peers in an anonymous setting. I think that anonymity makes them less afraid to ask questions of each other.

"There's an old adage: 'The best way to learn is to teach,' and we try to enforce that among all of our students. I was skeptical about the blog, but after a semester I firmly believed it was an excellent idea. The best way to learn is to try to explain it to your peers."

Writers: Emil Venere, 765-494-4709,

Linda Terhune, 765-494-9996,

Sources: Charles Krousgrill, 765-494-5738,

Jeffrey Rhoads, 765-494-5630,

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