University System of Maryland

Carnegie Course Redesign Initiative

  What is Course Redesign?


Public higher education in Maryland, as throughout the nation, continues to be challenged by the need to increase access, to improve the quality of student learning, and to control or reduce rising costs. These issues are, of course, inter-related. The solutions to these challenges appear to be inter-related as well. Historically, improving quality or increasing access has meant increasing costs, while reducing costs has generally meant reducing both quality and/or access. To sustain its vitality while serving a growing and increasingly diverse student body, higher education must find a way to resolve these familiar trade-offs among quality, cost and access.

To address these challenges, USM and other institutions nationwide, have adopted techniques to redesign courses based on principles established and validated by the National Center for Academic Transformation (NCAT - The USM, as a System, began an initiative in 2006 to develop course redesigns that used models recommended by NCAT that change the nature of student and faculty interaction in large enrollment courses that had been traditionally taught in lecture or multiple small section format. These courses often had multiple academic problems including high failure (D, F, W) rates, student dissatisfaction, and high cost per student. These were most often core curricular or departmental "gateway" courses, lacked mechanisms to encourage student and faculty interactivity, were unresponsive to individual learning styles and had no strategies for efficient and effective cost management.

The results of the 2006-9 USM initiative tended to mirror the national results which NCAT identified based on its own program. Consistent with USM's approach, NCAT's redesign projects focused on large enrollment, introductory courses. As an initial target, these courses have the potential of generating large cost savings and having significant impact on student success. Studies have shown that undergraduate enrollments in the United States are highly concentrated in introductory courses. On average, nationally, at the baccalaureate level, the 25 largest courses generate about 35 percent of student enrollment. In addition, successful completion of these courses is key to student progress toward a degree. High failure rates in these courses--typically 15% at research universities and 30-40% at comprehensives -- can lead to significant drop-out rates between the first and second years of enrollment.

NCAT has required each of the institutions in its programs to conduct a rigorous evaluation focused on learning outcomes as measured by student performance and achievement. National assessment experts have provided consultation and oversight regarding the assessment of learning outcomes to maximize validity and reliability.

There are now nearly 200 courses nationwide that have been redesigned under the NCAT approach. Studies indicate:

  • Improved learning in most courses. In those courses where improved learning could not be demonstrated, students achieved at least at the level of traditional instructions
  • A high percentage of courses resulted in a decrease in drop-failure-withdrawal rates
  • All redesigned courses showed a significant drop in overall cost of instruction
  • A significant improvement in student attitudes toward the subject matter
  • An increase in student satisfaction with the mode of instruction.

For case studies, go to

These results were highly consistent with findings by USM redesign faculty in our first initiative.

NCAT identifies a number of common elements in successful course redesigns:

1. Whole course redesign. In each case, the whole course--rather than a single class or section--is redesigned. Faculty members begin by analyzing the time that each person involved in the course spends on each kind of activity. This analysis often reveals duplication of effort. By sharing responsibility for both course development and course delivery, faculty members save substantial time and achieve greater course consistency.

2. Active learning. All of the redesign projects make the teaching-learning enterprise significantly more active and learner-centered. Lectures are replaced with a variety of learning resources that move students from a passive, note-taking role to active learning. As one math professor put it, "Students learn math by doing math, not by listening to someone talk about doing math."

3. Computer-based learning resources. Instructional software and other Web-based learning resources assume an important role in engaging students with course content. Resources include tutorials, exercises and low-stakes quizzes that provide frequent practice, feedback, and reinforcement of course concepts.

4. Mastery learning. The redesign projects offer students more flexibility, but the redesigned courses are not self-paced. Student pace and progress are organized by the need to master specific learning objectives--often in a modular format, according to scheduled milestones for completion--rather than by class meeting times.

5. On-demand help. An expanded support system enables students to receive assistance from a variety of people. Helping students feel that they are a part of a learning community is critical to persistence, learning and satisfaction. Many projects replace lecture time with individual and small-group activities that take meet in computer labs--staffed by faculty, graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) and/or peer tutors--or online, thus providing students more one-on-one assistance.

6. Alternative staffing. Various instructional personnel--in addition to highly trained, expert faculty--constitute the student's support system. Not all tasks associated with a course require a faculty member's time. By replacing expensive labor (faculty and graduate students) with relatively inexpensive labor (undergraduate peer mentors and course assistants) where appropriate, the projects increase the number of hours during which students can access help and free faculty to concentrate on academic rather than logistical tasks.

Based on its nationwide experiences, NCAT has identified five different models for applying these elements. The five models represent different points on the continuum from a fully face-to-face course to a fully online course. The Carnegie Course Redesign Initiative will support redesigns that utilize any of these approaches for the redesign of an entire course:

The Supplemental Model  The supplemental model retains the basic structure of the traditional course and a) supplements lectures and textbooks with technology-based, out-of-class activities, or b) also changes what goes on in the class by creating an active learning environment within a large lecture hall setting.

The Replacement Model  The replacement model reduces the number of in-class meetings and a) replaces some in-class time with out-of-class, online, interactive learning activities, or b) also makes significant changes in remaining in-class meetings.

The Emporium Model  The emporium model replaces lectures with a learning resource center model featuring interactive computer software and on-demand personalized assistance.

The Fully Online Model  The fully online model eliminates all in-class meetings and moves all learning experiences online, using Web-based, multi-media resources, commercial software, automatically evaluated assessments with guided feedback and alternative staffing models.

The Buffet Model  The buffet model customizes the learning environment for each student based on background, learning preference, and academic/professional goals and offers students an assortment of individualized paths to reach the same learning outcomes.

What does cost savings mean in practice?

It is important to understand the context for reducing costs. In the past cost reduction in higher education has meant loss of jobs, but that's not the NCAT approach. For the long term creation of a self sustaining redesign program, the cost savings achieved through the redesigned courses should remained in the department that generated them, and the savings achieved should be used for instructional purposes. NCAT thinks of cost savings as a reallocation of resources that allows faculty and their institutions to achieve their "wish lists"--what they would like to do if they had additional resources.

Institutional participants have used cost savings in the following ways:
  • offering additional or new courses that previously could not be offered;
  • satisfying unmet student demand by serving more students on the same resource base;
  • breaking up "academic bottlenecks"-courses that delay forward progress of students within a subject area or program because they are oversubscribed
  • increasing faculty release time for research, renewal or additional course development; and,
  • a combination of these activities.

The USM will build on the successful models and lessons learned both from NCAT's national course redesign programs and from our own 2006-2009 initiative. The Carnegie Course Redesign Initiative establishes three cohorts of faculty redesigners. The first cohort will begin planning and implementation during the 2010-11 academic year, with a target for a pilot offering in Fall 2011 and complete course redesign in place for Spring 2012. The second cohort will start planning and implementation in Fall 2012 with pilot in Fall 2013 and the third cohort will begin Fall 2013 and pilot in Fall 2014.

Focus: Large-Enrollment Courses

In order to have maximum impact on student learning and achieve the highest possible return on the USM's investment, redesign efforts supported by this Initiative will focus specifically on courses with high enrollments, in particular, those with multiple sections. In addition to having an impact on large numbers of students, there are other advantages of such a focus. In many large-enrollment courses, the predominant instructional model is the large lecture. While recognizing the limitations of the lecture method, many departments continue to organize courses in this way because they believe that it represents the most cost-effective way to deal with large numbers of students. The Initiative will demonstrate that alternatives that improve quality and are less costly than lecture-based strategies are possible.

In addition, many large-enrollment courses are introductory. These introductory courses are good prospects for technology-enhanced redesign because they have a more or less standardized curriculum and outcomes that can be more easily delineated. They also serve as foundation studies for future majors. Successful learning experiences in them will influence students to persist in key disciplines like the sciences. Finally, because those courses are often feeders to other disciplines, success in them will help students make the transition to more advanced study.

To view the USM Call For Participation