Self-paced option offers more time to learn
Pamela Kessel finished the self-paced statistics class in early May 2013. She timed it so she was done with it just before the finals in her other classes were to begin.
Subimal Chatterjee thinks students learn at different paces, a fact that has been ignored in the traditional 15-week college semester.
“Some students are quick learners, and they can get bored in 15 weeks. Others need more time,” says the professor and associate dean of Binghamton University’s School of Management.
So the School of Management is turning tradition on its head in its freshman statistics class.
Instead of the conventional structure in which time is fixed and the grade variable, the new approach allows for variable time but fixes the grade. Specifically, the students who took Chatterjee’s spring-semester, self-paced class have up to a year to finish their work. In return, they are expected to earn an A by scoring a grade of 90 or better on the final exam to successfully complete the course.
This different way of learning also requires a different way of teaching. Instead of attending conventional classroom lectures, students worked online at their own pace through four modules of a statistical reasoning course provided by Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative.
They met every four weeks, in groups of 10, with Chatterjee and Kristin Sotak, a PhD student who co-taught the class, to brainstorm problems. Chatterjee also checked students’ progress every two weeks. And he and Sotak posted short videos and practice problems on Facebook to supplement the Carnegie Mellon material.
The whole idea is to give students different learning options and get away from “the one-size-fits-all approach,” says Upinder Dhillon, dean of the School of Management. “Who says 15 weeks is the ideal time for someone to learn a subject?”
Freshmen could take statistics the conventional way, or they could sign up for Chatterjee’s non-traditional approach. Forty-one students took the plunge.
Chatterjee wanted to pioneer extended time because he believes that the traditional format can fail certain students, especially in courses such as statistics, which is a required course for Binghamton accounting and management majors.
What happens in the traditional format is that students can pass a course with a grade of 70 or 80, but still have a knowledge gap of 20 to 30 percent, meaning they will struggle as they advance to higher-level courses in their major, he says.
Lengthening the learning time can give these students more time to master the material. At the same time, the quick learners can finish early.
Chatterjee also wanted to experiment with the hybrid format that blends online with local instruction because he thinks technologically savvy students are increasingly going to demand it. “This is the wave of the future,” he says.
As he ran the course, however, Chatterjee found that some students were procrastinating. At the end of spring semester, 15 of 41 students had completed the course with an A; six more finished in the summer.
“I found that when you give students a lot of time, some will keep putting off their work,” he says.
Students made the same point. “You had to discipline yourself,” says sophomore Marissa Sarfati. She welcomed the flexibility of the course and finished the work in the spring semester, but she thinks students were split “half and half.”
“Those actually doing the work felt good; people who were a little less motivated didn’t,” she says.
Fellow student Pamela Kessell agrees. The format kept her from “being bored out of my mind,” and she finished early. But it does require self-discipline, she emphasizes.
Based on feedback, Chatterjee plans some changes. Next spring, he will give students two schedules, one for 15 weeks and the other for up to 25 weeks, and require that they stick to one. Otherwise, they fall too far behind.
Managing the hybrid format was challenging, Chatterjee says. He had to be a coach, guiding students through the material. “Sometimes I would get a late-night e-mail asking a question on the first module and another e-mail asking a question on the fourth module. I knew that I would have to respond to them right away.”
Chatterjee also had to prepare customized final examinations for each student. “They have to pass a Binghamton University exam. That’s non-negotiable,” he says.
While they have pros and cons, the extended-time and hybrid formats clearly have a place, Dhillon says. The School of Management continues to innovate and is offering a second course, Excel, in a hybrid format this semester.
– By George Basler