Many UM-Dearborn faculty and administrators are currently engaged in an effort to transition three-credit courses to four credits.
The thinking behind the Four-Credit Transition Initiative is that if faculty are able to focus on two four-credit courses per semester instead of three three-credit courses, they’ll have more time and energy to work on other things they enjoy, like research, course development and new initiatives.
The question of how to transition a course, however, isn’t always straightforward, according to Autumm Caines, an instructional designer with the UM-Dearborn Office of the Provost.
“A lot of people think adding that extra credit hour means adding more content — like, you could just add a couple extra readings,” Caines said. “But from a design perspective, that’s certainly not the only option or probably the best one. You could actually keep the amount of content the same, but go deeper. In some cases, an instructor might think about reducing content.”
So how does the idea of less content jibe with adding an extra credit hour?
First, it helps to understand that when Caines talks about reducing content or increasing credit hours but keeping the amount of content the same, she’s not talking about making classes lighter weight or less challenging. Rather, it’s about being conscious of the amount of material that students can realistically learn, given the time constraints of the course, and finding ways to use that time to produce learning outcomes that last.
For example, let’s say an instructor has traditionally organized a three-credit course around 12 core subjects. With an extra credit hour to play with, they could potentially cover 16 subjects. Or, Caines says, they could stick with 12 and add different kinds of learning activities that allow students more exploration in those essential areas.
A unit that is usually covered by a textbook chapter and lecture could be developed further with an active assignment that asks students to apply what they’ve learned to a problem facing their own community, or engage in a group project, or write a personal reflection about how a key concept relates to something in their lives.
Caines says the possibilities for these types of active learning assignments are basically unlimited.
The approach of going deeper with less material is gaining momentum in academia, in part, because emerging research suggests it enhances learning.
Caines pointed to recent work from Bryan Dewsbury, an associate professor of biological sciences at Florida International University and current scholar in residence at UM-Dearborn, who’s an expert in inclusive teaching, a philosophy that emphasizes providing equal opportunities for students of all backgrounds to have successful learning experiences.
In a 2022 study, Dewsbury and his co-authors followed students over two semesters of sequential introductory biology courses that used different instructional formats.
During the first semester, three sections of the intro course used a traditional lecture format. A fourth mixed active learning and inclusive teaching with a reduction in content to make room for these more learning-centered pedagogies. In the second semester, students took either a lecture-based section or an active learning one.
The result: Students who took the non-lecture sections both semesters had the highest grades in their 200-level biology courses the following year, with students from traditionally underrepresented identities showing some of the largest gains.
Caines said outcomes like this suggest active learning and inclusive teaching approaches help students hold on to the information and skills they’re learning because they’re able to spend more time with the content and experience it in different ways.
It’s also a counterpoint to one of the most common arguments against active learning — namely, that it might be a good idea, but there simply isn’t time for it if students are going to get through all the material an instructor has deemed important.
“But if students aren’t holding on to what they’ve learned beyond the course, that’s obviously not a great thing. What we’re seeing is more content doesn’t equal more learning,” Caines said.
Grace Helms-Kotre, a social work lecturer on the Dearborn and Ann Arbor campuses, described it as the difference between “making a point and driving a point home.”
Over the past several years, she has revised her Stress Management course multiple times, and each time it’s trended in the direction of less content.
Initially, her course was organized around a traditional (thick) textbook, lots of assigned reading, quizzes and tests. But she noticed that the pace of the class and amount of material they were covering meant students were often just regurgitating the material on quizzes and tests rather than experiencing any kind of transformative learning.
So she reduced the amount of required reading, shrunk the textbook, cut the number of core topics to just the essentials, and added some active assignments.
For example, rather than assigning all the reading, sometimes she asks students to find an article or video on the topic themselves and do a report back to her or the class. Often, she assigns a reflection piece that challenges students to engage with the material in a personal way.
Helms-Kotre said the new approach has paid all kinds of dividends, including in richer class discussions and students reporting positive changes in their daily lives. Now, the most common feedback she gets about her course is that “it’s a class I’m really getting a lot out of.”
Incidentally, Caines finds student perceptions of active learning to be another interesting area of emerging research. She points to a Harvard study that found outcomes similar to Dewsbury’s recent research when it comes to learning outcomes.
“But when students were asked how they felt they were doing, the students in the active learning and inclusive teaching sections felt like they weren’t doing as well, even though they were doing better,” Caines said. “And the students in the lecture class felt like they were doing great, even though they weren’t doing as well.”
Caines suspects this may have to do with the nature of active learning assignments. They’re usually less prescribed, less predictable, involve problem solving or innovating, and rarely reduce to right and wrong answers. As such, uncertainty and failure are par for the course.
In some cases, trying and failing and trying again might lead to the deepest learning experience of all. But as classes are made more active and inclusive, Caines said, that’s a lesson instructors will have to help their students understand.
“The way I explain it to students is that it’s sort of like going to the gym when you haven’t been working out for a while,” she says. “The sore muscles don’t feel good, but that’s an indication it’s working.
“So if you feel like you’re struggling with this stuff, that’s completely normal. It might even mean you’re on the right track.”