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College of Natural Sciences To Transform Intro Courses Impacting More Than 10,000 Students

College of Natural Sciences To Transform Intro Courses Impacting More Than 10,000 Students
Biology, chemistry and statistics have been selected by the provost’s office to launch the university’s Course Transformation Program (CTP).
AUSTIN, Texas—Three large introductory courses in the College of Natural Sciences—biology, chemistry and statistics—will be transformed through the use of technology as inaugural recipients of the provost's  Course Transformation Program (CTP).

The program, which will run for three to five years, is designed to improve student success in large, lower-division gateway courses by incorporating innovative approaches to instruction and learning. There will be a particular focus on using online modules and web-based tutorials to further the development of foundational academic skills and core conceptual knowledge.

“It’s a central element in President Powers’ campaign to make UT Austin a leader in reinventing higher education for the twenty-first century,” says Vice Provost Gretchen Ritter.

The three projects selected for the first round of the CTP are Introductory Biology, Principles of Chemistry and a statistics course called Data Analysis for the Health Sciences. The lead faculty for the three proposals are Dr. Catherine Stacy (statistics), Dr. David Vanden Bout (chemistry) and Dr. Sata Sathasivan (biology). Typically taken by freshmen, the combined annual enrollment in these courses exceeds 10,000 students.

"The new effort to transform our lower division biology courses will improve students' foundational understanding of biology, and is going to be very important as they move on into upper division coursework," says Dr. Marty Shankland, who will oversee integration of the course into the biology curriculum.

Independently of CTP, the College of Natural Sciences is also redesigning introductory courses in mathematics and physics.

The College of Natural Sciences is committed to dissolving the traditional boundaries between content delivered during the lecture by the instructor and content available outside the classroom in the form of textbooks and problem sets. There’s also a commitment to taking the kind of interactions that are usually confined to office hours, when a professor can engage with a student one-on-one, and bringing them into the classroom.

In order to facilitate this transition, the college is putting topic-specific lectures, tutorials, homework drills, tests and quizzes online. Students will be required to complete online work before every class period, with the expectation that they will arrive in the lecture hall familiar with the day’s concepts and aware of what kinds of help they might need.

In this model, the instructor and teaching assistants will be able to design lessons that are premised on students already possessing basic knowledge, and won’t have to devote much of the lecture time delivering basic content. They will also be able to respond flexibly to students’ needs.

The advantages of this approach should be considerable, says Sacha Kopp, associate dean for curriculum and programs in the College of Natural Sciences.

Students should be able to absorb the material better because the online content will be richer, more accessible and more interactive than the traditional textbook. Instructors will have far more data with which to keep track of how individual students are doing, in terms of their grades, and precisely which material is being grasped and which is not. Class time, as a consequence, will be used more flexibly to reinforce learning and shore up weaknesses.

“There will be continual assessment,” says Kopp. “The instructors can peek in at any point and see how students are doing with the online modules and can adapt. They can re-adjust in light of the feedback. The instructor becomes value-added on top of the content, rather than functioning so exclusively as a deliverer of content.”

As part of CTP, statisticians from the college and from the university’s Center for Teaching and Learning will analyze the data coming out of the courses over the next few years. They’ll be looking to see whether the students are learning better, which kinds of students are learning best, and which content areas or classes are being best served by this new model of teaching and learning.

The long-term goal, says Ritter, is nothing less than the reinvention of higher education.

“Universities around the country are increasingly aware that the Internet has significantly changed the way our students learn,” says Ritter. “Most students today are digital natives who learn and connect with others through computers and smartphones. Further, students come to UT Austin with a range of academic preparation. Many come from communities where few of their peers or elders have gone to college, so they have less exposure to the skills and habits that are important for success in college. For these students, traditional approaches to instruction can create roadblocks to success. Innovative, technology-enhanced approaches to teaching and learning will help us better connect to all of our students, better support their academic and professional goals, and better prepare them for tomorrow’s workplace."

For more information contact: Sacha Kopp, associate dean, 512-232-0677.
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