Foundational Courses – Learning Statistics with a Small Town

During its long history, the University of Michigan has grown along with our state: from an entering class of 7 in 1841 to a total enrollment of 44,718 in 2016. Along the way, we built a large faculty, growing from just two in 1841 to 6,884 in 2016. This growth has been essential to meeting our public mission. We teach a lot of students because we have a lot of students to teach. That’s our job.

There are many ways to educate at scale.

First, you might just teach a lot of classes. Michigan lists about 9200 courses in its course catalog these days, and teaches nearly 5000 every semester. Almost all are small, changeable, and taught in idiosyncratic, engaged, and creative ways by faculty members whose research expertise influences both course content and their pedagogical approach. I’d call them artisanal. Courses like this make up one absolutely essential aspect of a liberal arts education. Our University is built around teaching like this, and these courses have everything they need to be great.

But some of our classes – just a few really – are very different. In them, we introduce thousands of students every year to hundreds of topics as various as Linguistics, Cosmology, Academic Writing, Engineering, and Screen Arts. Large foundational courses play an outsize role in this process. Most have a well-defined, shared purpose. As introductions to disciplines and gateways to careers, they strongly influence major choice and provide essential elements of liberal education. Remember, these courses aren’t big just for convenience. They’re big because so many students want to be introduced to these topics.

Even when teaching at scale, there are many approaches to take. A few classes at Michigan – first semester calculus, first year writing – are taught to thousands of students in hundreds of small, more or less parallel sections. Teaching and learning in small groups provides an array of familiar advantages. There are challenges though. How do we identify, hire, train, and support hundreds of instructors, giving each enough freedom to be an engaged, effective instructor while ensuring that all of the students are getting the foundations they need?

The other approach, of course, is to go large. Here at Michigan one course – Stats 250 – teaches introductory statistics and data analysis to more than 2000 students every semester. Sounds scary, but this monster is a great class, prepared in a more reflective, student-centered way than almost any other on campus. If you take it, you’ll learn statistics with a small town’s worth of classmates, supported by a highly collaborative team of faculty, graduate students, and advanced undergraduates wielding a thoughtfully assembled array of materials and technological resources. In many ways, Stats 250 provides a model for what all Foundational Courses should be.

What are some of its key traits?

  1. It’s designed to respond in effective ways to the multi-dimensional diversity of its students. Because they are entry points, foundational courses enroll students with especially various backgrounds. Stats 250 is explicit about what students are expected to bring to class. It also gives them effective opportunities to refine or obtain any necessary skills they might lack. Students in FCs are also diverse in interests and goals. Stats 250 responds to this as well, taking care to design in activities and examples drawn from a wide spectrum of applications, to connect course material to current events, and to welcome rather than dismiss students who enroll in the course ‘only’ to meet a requirement.
  2. It is designed and delivered by a highly collaborative, multi-generational team. This group includes senior lecturers, research faculty, graduate student instructors, and advanced undergraduates who have completed the course in the past. This layered approach mirrors the design of large research groups, and provides the same advantages observed there. Younger participants bring creativity, energy, and a more precise understanding of the student experience. Graduate students and research faculty keep the course in contact with the latest advances in the field. Senior lecturers combine expertise in instructional design and pedagogy with immense practical experience.
  3. It provides students with a rich array of opportunities to learn by doing. While traditional homework provides a baseline, Stats 250 use technology to offer students unlimited practice in the kinds of activities which lead to learning. Tools like ‘Name That Scenario’ give students adaptive practice in identifying the correct approach to a problem, while others like ‘Problem Roulette’ provide access to hundreds of practice questions from previous exams.
  4. It is the site of continuous research and development. This work is informed both by persistent problems of practice in the course and by new ideas and opportunities which emerge from the broader landscape of education research. Because its instructional team includes members focused on education research, Stats 250 can be an ideal laboratory for learning. It provides the opportunity to rigorously test modes of engagement, motivational designs, and methods of assessment in context. Research done here in Stats 250 has an immediate effect on practice. It also provides guidance to comparable courses across the landscape of higher education.

Michigan’s new Foundational Course Initiative aims to take the lessons learned from examplars like Stats 250 and spread this collaborative, evidence-based approach to the creation and instruction of these courses. In the FCI, faculty, staff, and students from departments will join together with instructional consultants from the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching to form Collaborative Course Design teams. These teams will work together over a multi-year period to design, develop, and deliver next generation versions of foundational courses. They will combine the best evidence-based approaches to engaged, inclusive learning, the most appropriate and effective technology solutions, and an assessment toolkit focused on measuring and improving student learning.

During the first five years of the FCI, we will transform more than 30 courses, significantly impacting the lives of 80% of Michigan undergraduates. By doing this, we expect both the image and the reality of large introductory courses at Michigan to be transformed. Students will come to Michigan eager to participate in well-designed and carefully delivered foundational courses – to learn together with a small town of their colleagues. These renewed foundational courses will enhance inclusive student success, ensure that students can complete the degrees they desire on time, and enrich their experience with topics outside their major.

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