Dr. David Rousseau arrived at the University at Albany in 2005. At his previous institution, he had taught using a standard lecture format and believed that the method was successful with that student population. In his first semester at UAlbany, however, it became clear that this format was not working with the population of students at this institution, finding Albany students to be more passive overall. Additionally, he knew that he wanted to focus and develop students’ critical thinking skills, but he wasn’t doing that as effectively as he believed he could have in his current courses. This was becoming more of a focus in his thinking about his teaching than the content itself. He found himself asking, “How can they come out of this class able to think about new problems?”
Toward this end, Dr. Rousseau initially tried some innovations on his own, including shifting from lecture format to student presentations, using clickers to improve student engagement, and introducing permanent teams for a variety of tasks, including presentations, leadership of discussion, and constructing a class wiki. He had some success with these experiments but found that the results of these efforts were sporadic and that improvements came very slowly.
Working with ITLAL
After engaging with ITLAL staff in 2007 to continue refining these strategies, Dr. Rousseau observed that the additional support helped improvements come more quickly and systematically. He began to place greater emphasis on structuring student encounters with content to meet the critical thinking goals he had envisioned. A key innovation following from conversations at ITLAL was re-designing assignments that required students to spend more time thinking about problems before getting information through reading or lectures.
As the various changes that he had implemented began to yield more visible results, Dr. Rousseau contacted ITLAL to learn Team-Based Learning (TBL), which he has fully implemented in two iterations of his RPOS 399 course. This method helped him to build on his previous successes by focusing courses on the problem-solving skills he had identified as a goal early on and creating more coherent courses.
Now my courses are student-focused and driven by problem-solving. I am able to use activities in class to really get students to grapple with something in a productive way. I have also found that TBL lets me use some activities that I had used previously as “add-ons” in a more integrated way. I had previously used debates, but it wasn’t clear how they were really integrated; now they are part of the overall mission of the course because they are essential to develop the critical thinking skills I want students to have when they leave.
By designing courses around student-driven activities, he has found that lectures are nearly non-existent in his TBL courses and that his relationship with content coverage has changed as well. This has required some adjustments in his thinking about content. Early in the process of transforming his course design, Dr. Rousseau reports some frustration with this problem.
I was frustrated about doing less coverage and more depth. I think it requires a kind of re-socialization to learn that you just won’t make it through half the chapters in the textbook. It’s easier to do when you’re converting a newer course or designing a new one. In those cases it’s easier to let go and say, “We just aren’t going to talk about X this year.”
He has grown more comfortable with this process and is willing to sacrifice some of the content coverage for the improvement he has seen in his students’ critical thinking skills.
Another instructional design experiment that Dr. Rousseau has undertaken with ITLAL’s help is the adoption of blended learning for a graduate course in 2009. After participating in the Technology Leadership Academy on Blended Learning in May 2009, he developed a modified approach to a blended design, continuing to hold regular class meetings but shortening each meeting by one hour to allow students to work individually in the online environment.
I used the blended approach to create a reflective, assignment-driven approach. I was able to combine interactive class meetings with students’ individual online work to integrate the course readings, class discussion, and assignments in a meaningful way.
In addition to a blended approach, Dr. Rousseau used TBL-inspired team activities in this course as well. While he believes that he would need to make modifications to the design in order to use this model again (this iteration proved more time-consuming than anticipated for both students and instructor), he enjoyed it and would like the opportunity to experiment further with this model. He found that he was able to use the blend of in-class and online work to continuing pushing students toward the kind of critical thinking he values most in his courses.
Changes in Learning Outcomes
Overall, Dr. Rousseau reports outcomes that have made his teaching innovations worthwhile, including improved critical thinking and argumentative skills and positive changes in student expectations and behavior. Perhaps the greatest change has been in the levels of student engagement he reports in his classes. In his initial encounters with UAlbany students, he reports that he found the majority of the students were passive and disengaged. Since the changes in his courses as a result of his work with ITLAL, he reports a drastic shift in that distribution with the vast majority of students engaged in the work of the course.
Dr. Rousseau has found that his efforts have produced some tangible results in student performance, reporting that in-class debates are much better after TBL than they had been in earlier courses. Students require much less coaching outside of the classroom and the depth and sophistication of the arguments students make are overall much better. In addition to changes in students’ performance, Dr. Rousseau reports some important changes in their attitudes and behavior.
I have seen great changes in their expectations of themselves and others. They expect others to do equal work and participate in the teams. This has transformed the culture of the class because it has also led them to expect more of themselves. And now I expect and get a lot more of them than in the past.
He has found that these attitudinal changes carry over into students’ behavior outside the formal classroom setting in very positive ways as well. One of his favorite things about TBL classes is the charged atmosphere that exists even before class begins.
I love the noise and the talking that is happening when I walk into class. Students are arguing about the reading, chatting with each other, having real conversations. It is a very different environment from the dead silence when you walk into in a traditional classroom.
Changes in Student Satisfaction
While Dr. Rousseau has consistently received high ratings on student evaluations in his time at UAlbany, there have been some identifiable improvements as he has modified his teaching. These changes are most visible in courses using student teams. In courses where Dr. Rousseau had used permanent teams prior to formal training with ITLAL, the average instructor rating was 4.1 and course overall rating was 3.64. In courses with full implementation of TBL, average instructor rating was 4.51 and course overall rating was 4.14. Scores measuring students’ perceptions of academic rigor were higher as well, including “intellectual challenge” (4.7) and “stimulated interest” (4.2).
Dr. Rousseau’s blended course received particularly high ratings, with an overall instructor rating of 4.9 and a course rating of 4.5. The majority of students reported spending 5 hours a week or longer on the course, also giving high scores to the level of “stimulated interest” and “intellectual challenge” (4.8 for both), suggesting that the course’s rigor correlated with students’ satisfaction.