Viewpoint: Ed tech helps with tough-to-teach courses

Web-based tools helped one instructor teach one of the toughest psychology classes at his university.

As a former computer science undergraduate major who has done graduate work in cognitive science, I have been following the development of new internet-based, interactive, and adaptive higher-education platforms currently on the market.

These programs incorporate the most recent developments in cognitive science and artificial intelligence to customize the learning process while providing instructors with new course preparation and administrative tools.

The reason I decided to switch to internet-based education tools was mainly because of Introduction to Psychology, which is known as one of the most difficult courses in the psychology curriculum to teach. Classes tend to be very large, and students come to the course with a wide range of prior knowledge, expectations, and preconceptions.

Owing to the large number and diversity of students in each section—a single class can have more than 100 registrants—this makes it difficult to engage all of them equally and keep them focused over an entire semester.

Studies show that students in the course do not spend as much time with their textbooks as they should. Students read, on average, only about 27 percent of assigned reading before class, and 66 percent before an exam, according to recent research. They also typically spend less than three hours a week with their textbooks; most of their reading begins a scant three days prior to a major exam.

But students today do spend increasingly more time with their computers, cell phones, iPods, and other devices capable of downloading content.

In the fall of 2009, after reviewing many of the latest programs available for post-secondary and professional education, I gave McGraw-Hill Education’s Connect Psychology a trial run for the Introduction to Psychology course I was about to begin teaching at New Mexico State University (NMSU) in Las Cruces.

I chose Connect principally because I wanted an internet-based platform that would be fully integrated with a corresponding text; Connect Psychology is designed to be used in conjunction with McGraw-Hill’s Psychology: Making Connections.

Design and implementation of the course

Introduction to Psychology at NMSU is a 14-week, three-credit course meeting twice a week. There were 110 students in my section last fall, of which 104 (94.5 percent) completed the course.

Given the challenges inherent in teaching PSY 201G, I had three primary goals as we went into the semester—two for the students, one for me.

For the students:

  • I wanted to increase their engagement in the material by offering them the kind of individualized, computer-based learning resources with which students of all ages—but particularly younger students—are increasingly more familiar and comfortable; and
  • I wanted to encourage my students to study more by offering them the kind of personalized, interactive tools that would allow them to create and manage their own pathway into the material based on their individual interests.

For my part, I wanted an assignment, assessment, and grading tool that would allow me to manage the administrative and housekeeping demands of teaching a course with more than 100 students, freeing me up to focus more of my energy on teaching and working more individually with those students who needed additional help.

Exercises and practice tests were assigned and delivered over the Connect platform, and students were encouraged to use as much time as they could accessing Connect’s student-centric study features, such as LearnSmart, to review course content and previously submitted homework assignments.

All homework was submitted by students via Connect, and my teaching assistants scored all homework automatically using Connect’s Smart Grading feature.

Program results

At the completion of the first semester of PSY 201G, I evaluated Connect’s impact on the course in terms of student achievement as well as course administrative goals. I concluded that Connect did, in fact, help me achieve my dual objectives of increasing student engagement and reducing administrative burdens, enabling me and my assistants to focus our time and energy on teaching.

Although we are working with limited data and some self-selection—and therefore cannot make a strong claim for causation—it does appear that those students who chose to take advantage of the LearnSmart adaptive diagnostic tool in particular performed measurably better on their exams.

Students who completed all the assigned LearnSmart modules had average test scores 10 percent higher than students who hadn’t done any LearnSmart modules. The more time students spent with LearnSmart, the better scores they achieved.

Administrative time savings were significant. I was able to create all homework assignments for the entire semester in just a few hours using Connect Psychology’s Instructor Library and Simple Assignment Manager features. And a 90-percent reduction in the time my teaching assistants had to spend grading homework and exams freed us up to spend more time working with individual students.

I found the Connect Psychology platform to be a highly effective system for easing the logistics of teaching a large and demanding course. The most useful benefits from the new technology included:

  • The ability to pre-load homework assignments online;
  • The instantaneous grading feature;
  • The LearnSmart study modules, which provided students with targeted, individual study materials; and
  • Lecture capture (using Tegrity—added during the spring semester).

The LearnSmart modules provided a way for students to drill themselves for exams, eliminating the need to hold weekly review sessions. And the availability of the recorded lectures ensured that students who missed a class did not have to miss any of the material presented.

Lecture capture also allowed students who had been in class to revisit a lecture for purposes of review, enabling them to search for particular topics or sections of the presentation.

The tools provided by Connect Psychology allowed me to devote more time to individual students when they were in need of assistance, and they helped me to continue improving the course from semester to semester.

I believe internet-based assignment and assessment platforms like Connect represent a real breakthrough, particularly for instructors teaching survey or introduction courses with large numbers of students and a wealth of content to impart.

Igor Dolgov, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at New Mexico State University.

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