Transforming the learning process for students in large first-year classses

An innovative course design model recently introduced at Queen’s University is transforming the learning process for students in large first-year classes.

The new format – a combination of self-paced online learning and hands-on small group activities – was incorporated last fall into the university’s Psychology 100 course. With a total of 1800 students, it has the highest enrolment of any course at Queen’s.

“Rather than supplementing the traditional lecture format, we are transforming the way courses are designed and delivered through a type of ‘blended learning,’” says Brenda Ravenscroft, Associate Dean (Studies), Faculty of Arts and Science. “These innovations are based on what we know about student learning and engagement.”

Blended learning can take many forms, but the common components include moving the transmission of fundamental information online, where students can work at their own pace, and focusing on active learning in the classroom.

In the case of Queen’s PSYC 100 course, students attend one lecture a week, which builds on the basic content learned online. Then they apply these new concepts in small learning labs facilitated by fourth-year and graduate students. The traditional format included three weekly lectures in a large auditorium, with an optional tutorial.

Concurrent Education/Psychology student Jessica Rich is a facilitator in this year’s weekly learning lab, as the practicum component of her fourth-year course in the pedagogy of teaching and learning. “This is an exceptional experience for undergrads, and will definitely give us an edge when we’re looking for future teaching responsibilities, either as TAs in graduate school or pursuing a teaching career,” she says.

Unlike traditional tutorials taught by one person, the labs involve small group, hands-on activities related to topics under study in each module. Students in a recent lab were asked to identify a psychological disorder and prescribe treatment based on information from a case study. For a session on brain anatomy, each group created and labeled a model brain using different colours of modeling clay, while another lab required students to apply research findings through a debate on the impact of environment versus genetics to intelligence.

“As facilitators, we manage the material that’s been prepared by the professors,” says Ms Rich. “Because we are undergrads, it’s also very much a mentoring role.”

Reflecting on her own experience of the course’s traditional lecture format three years ago, she adds, “Blended learning enables a much more holistic understanding of concepts. And since students remain in the same small lab groups all year, they often study and interact outside the classroom, reinforcing social networks with their peers. That sense of community is what Queen’s is all about!”

As well as providing enhanced learning and teaching opportunities, the new psychology course also has a research component. The four professors responsible for its redesign are co-investigators on a research project that will compare effectiveness of the traditional and blended formats.

“The results obtained through a student survey will be analyzed and studied to prove the effectiveness of this type of blended learning for students at Queen’s,” says co-investigator Ingrid Johnsrude, who spearheaded the course redesign. “Data are being collected about student engagement, student learning and student satisfaction. The data will be analyzed and reported on, and will guide further developments in the future.”

The overall goal of this faculty-wide initiative is to improve the way students learn, Dr. Ravenscroft emphasizes. “While new developments in technology have provided the tools to help achieve our goal, the purpose of blended learning is, and has always been, to provide students in large courses with a better learning experience,” she says.

Other Arts and Science courses being developed in a blended learning format include first-year offerings in sociology, calculus, and gender studies, as well as a second-year course in classics. A first-year geography course currently combines online lectures and small group active learning components.

Universities Canada