Course Redesign in Math?

October 8, 2010 at 7:38 am 3 comments


Course Redesign

Course Redesign is all the rage in math and science at the college level. I must say that I am torn on the topic. Just like so many other movements, there are parts that I think are fantastic and parts that I see as flawed. I’m going to go through some of the pros and cons, not necessarily to convince you to try Course Redesign for yourself or to bias you against Course Redesign, but instead to give you (and myself) something to think about.

I’ll apologize in advance to anyone currently involved in Course Redesign if you feel my opinions are off or if I am overgeneralizing the situation, and I encourage you to share your opinions if that is the case.

Pros (In My Opinion)

  • If things aren’t going well in my classes, I’m supposed to consider doing something different to affect a change. I’m not supposed to bury my head in the sand and blame it on today’s “flaky students”. This idea seems to be at the heart of Course Redesign. Schools that are having poor success despite their best efforts are reconsidering the way they teach and assess their students. Out with the old, in with a new student-centered approach. I really respect that. They support the redesign with new facilities like state-of-the-art computer labs, as well as training for instructors and support staff.
  • Many redesign projects focus on allowing students to work at their own pace. Students who have stronger math backgrounds can work at a quicker pace, which is a great motivator. Students with weaker math backgrounds and skills can take a little more time to develop their understanding without having to keep up with the others. This is difficult to achieve in a traditional course.
  • Many redesign projects give students ownership over their math education. They realize that their success is dependent on themselves, not necessarily on their instructor. This can help a student break free from being the victim, which is important for any student low on confidence or self-esteem.
  • There seems to be a focus on how students learn, rather than on how instructors teach. The best instructor thinks about the strengths and preferences of students, not on their own.
  • The course can be customized for an individual student. Tim Britt’s project in Tennessee helps students to determine their entry point in the developmental math sequence rather than having students arbitrarily all start with material they already understand.

Cons (Again, In My Opinion)

A popular Course Redesign model is the Emporium model. Students work on their own in a lab setting that is staffed by instructors, staff, and/or student tutors. They are able to get help on an as-needed basis, and there are frequent mini-lectures delivered to small groups of students. To me, this has a feel of independent study to it, and independent study is a model that for most was unsuccessful. We tried this at my college about 10 years ago (without MyMathLab or other computer homework/quizzing package) and it was a dismal failure. It worked well for students who would have also succeeded in a traditional math class, but most students did not even finish the semester.

I am having trouble seeing how this approach can help students develop an understanding of mathematics. This approach seems to be skill based – it is hard to develop true understanding through passive reading, watching videos, and trying homework exercises. A well designed classroom learning experience that involves and engages students can develop true understanding. Students who are actively participating in the development of material have a much higher chance for understanding. They also will develop the critical thinking skills that will serve them well in future classes and later in the workforce.

My strengths as an instructor would be downplayed and nearly negated if I were forced to participate in an Emporium model. Don’t get me wrong, I work in our Math Center and enjoy walking from table to table helping students with their problems and I think I do it pretty well. But my strengths as an instructor include motivating students, developing understanding, engaging students in the process, encouraging collaborative efforts, and establishing the proper pacing to learn the material in a course. These strengths would be taken away from me in this model.

I think that no two instructors are quite the same, and I am unsure that forcing everyone to work out of the same playbook is a good idea. I teach at a college with several outstanding colleagues, and while I consider myself to be a capable and flexible instructor, I do not think I can teach in exactly the same manner as they do. I don’t think they would particularly want to follow my blueprint exactly either. Many Redesign projects seem to take away individuality, and I’m not sure this is a good idea.

Is There Another Way? The Personal Redesign

Are your students struggling? Reconsider your methods.

  • Can you change or adapt your lecture style?
  • Are there other types of assessments that you can incorporate into your course?
  • Are there ideas that work for your colleagues that you can borrow or adapt?
  • Can you change the way you assign grades or shift weights in your grading categories?
  • Can you come up with projects that will engage your students and grab their interest?

Create your own personal redesign. I did several years ago when I started using Student Contracts, and it has really worked for my students. And I continually evaluate how I am teaching, how my students are learning, how I am assessing my students. In allows me to take the best ideas from Course Redesign without being locked in to a particular department strategy.

Do you have any experience with course redesign? Or thoughts on course redesign in general? Please share your experience and thoughts by leaving a comment, or reaching me through the contact page at my web site –


I am a math instructor at College of the Sequoias in Visalia, CA. Each Friday I usually post an article related to technology on my blog. If there’s a particular topic you’d like me to address, or if you have a question or a comment, please let me know. You can reach me through the contact page on my website –


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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Kathleen Almy  |  October 8, 2010 at 11:10 am

    George, I’m with you. While I’m a big believer in course redesign, that term is coming to mean the emporium model for many people. It doesn’t for me. To me and my school, it was looking at our courses, our placement, how we’re teaching, and how we help students and improving all of them. It’s old school and tons of work but it does work. We tried versions of the emporium model years ago before we did our full-on redesign and it just didn’t work. Not all students learn that way and many felt the instructor wasn’t teaching. Instructors weren’t happy with it either. Sure, we had more students passing because the learning was not authentic. They played the game: watch the video and take the test. But when they took later classes, the learning was not there. Neither were the connections or concepts. I really believe there is no panacea for developmental math. We can improve but to make it real, it takes a lot of work on the student’s part but also the instructor’s part.

    • 2. georgewoodbury  |  October 8, 2010 at 6:36 pm

      Thanks Kathy. By the way, I should have added “consistency in material covered” to the Pros list. I like the idea of being free to cover the topics in the fashion that works best for me, but everyone in the department should cover the same material. I like how you’ve done it at your school, and every school should be interested in improving courses that are not successfully helping our students to learn.

  • 3. The Teaching Tips Machine  |  October 8, 2010 at 2:51 pm

    […] Course Redesign in Math? « George Woodbury's Blogarithm […]


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