Richard Saudargas has turned introductory psychology classes at UT Knoxville into a living laboratory. He’s testing new teaching methods to see if they increase student success in the class. If so, he hopes students will incorporate what they’ve learned into the rest of their academic experience.
Professor Saudargas, the director of undergraduate studies in the Psychology Department, has taught at UT Knoxville since 1976. A member of the campus retention task force, Saudargas focuses his scholarly investigation on freshman success, so applying his research interest to Psychology 110, the course he already teaches, came naturally.
Psychology 110 is taught in several large sections of 200 to 300 students each, and the instructors are psychology graduate students who take a course in college teaching taught by Saudargas. On average, about 3,000 students, or about 75 percent of UT Knoxville freshmen, take the class every year.
In a large lecture class, it’s common for students to skip class and not think anything of it. To remedy this, the instructors were giving quizzes in class, but Saudargas noticed students would come to class, take the quiz, and leave.
Another problem he saw was students with laptops in class. Some took notes on the laptop, but about half of them were on the internet keeping up with Facebook, checking e-mail, or watching videos.
Not surprisingly, students who don’t attend class or are distracted once they get there do not perform well.
“One of the biggest problems is they don’t know how hard college is. For them, in high school studying two hours was enough. It’s not enough in college,” Saudargas says.
Last spring, Saudargas used three sections of the class as pilots for a “blended” course, meaning parts of the class are online and others are face-to-face in the classroom. Studies have shown students learn about the same amount from online classes as from traditional classes, but they learn more in a blended format.
“That got me to thinking,” Saudargas says.
The three pilot sections used an online textbook with embedded tools. Students could click on videos demonstrating certain concepts and read the instructor’s notes and the study questions. Besides regular class lectures, students also had access to video lectures—different from ones in class—that were available online anytime students wanted to watch them.
At the end of each chapter, students took an online quiz for credit on their own time outside class. They received their scores immediately, and they could review the questions they missed.
Following the first hour exam, students were given class-attendance options based on their grades. For example, in a class meeting Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, students with passing grades had the option to attend just the Monday class for discussion and demonstration.
Students who did not pass also attended classes on Wednesday and Friday with regular lectures and scored quizzes that could help them earn back some points. The Wednesday and Friday classes were much smaller, which allowed more student–instructor interaction and helped instructors focus on the students who needed extra time and attention.
The purpose of the multiple options wasn’t to complicate the class or confuse students but to give them a variety of ways to study, more interaction with the class, and more flexibility. If students completed all assignments and attended class, they would have been studying and learning psychology every weekday.
The expected results? “Other studies have shown the more time you spend studying, the more you learn,” Saudargas says.
“What I’m hoping is students will improve their study skills, improve their grades, feel better about themselves, and as a result, stay in school.”
If the results are favorable, Saudargas hopes all Psychology 110 sections this fall will be presented in the new format.