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July 11, 2002

IMPROVING TEACHING:Instructional designers provide faculty with individualized help

IMPROVING TEACHING: Instructional designers provide faculty with individualized help

One of Charlene Trovato's goals this year is to scrutinize — down to the last detail — each of the half-dozen graduate courses she teaches, and determine how she could be teaching it better.

It's an ambitious goal, but Trovato isn't pursuing it alone. She's working with Carol DeArment, an instructional designer at the Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education.

DeArment and CIDDE's four other instructional designers work one-on-one with Pitt faculty to revise existing courses and develop new ones. This may involve tweaking a syllabus, incorporating new technologies into the classroom, or completely rethinking how a course is structured and delivered.

The service, funded by the Provost's office, is available for free to all Pitt faculty by appointment.

"In my meetings with Carol, one of the things we've been focusing on is the syllabus for each of my courses," said Trovato, a clinical assistant professor in the School of Education's administrative and policy studies department.

"It's a process that makes me clarify every detail of the syllabus and set instructional objectives for each class meeting," Trovato said.

"When the syllabus is completed, there is absolutely no guessing about what I'm going to do in each session and what I expect my students to do — and how this cumulative knowledge, and students' application of that knowledge, will lead to them achieving the learning goals that I've established."

By the time Trovato revamped one syllabus to include detailed learning objectives, a description of her grading standards and a class-by-class schedule of readings and discussion topics, the syllabus ran to 10 pages.

"At first, some of my students were overwhelmed," she recalled. "One of them said, 'We're used to one page!' But then my students found that this new syllabus enabled them to know exactly what would be required of them, each step of the way."

CIDDE's DeArment noted, "In many cases, faculty don't have the chance to reflect on a course with other faculty members in their departments. An instructional designer can work with that faculty member to determine what is working well with a course and what is not.

"One of the first things we ask is: Who are your students? Have they taken prerequisite courses? Are most of your students majors in your discipline, or are they taking your course as an elective?"

CIDDE instructional designers urge faculty to make what they call a paradigm shift: designing courses based on what faculty want their students to learn, rather than on the material faculty themselves believe they must cover.

Instructional designer Carol Washburn said: "We ask faculty, 'Exactly what skills and knowledge do you want your students to acquire in your course?' Once those objectives have been determined, they should drive everything else in the course, including the questions that appear on tests."

Instructional designers en-courage faculty to use "active learning" exercises such as role playing and group problem-solving sessions.

"These exercises give students opportunities to practice thinking skills that their instructors are lecturing about," said CIDDE Associate Director Joanne M. Nicoll.

She likened academic teachers to swimming instructors. "A swimming instructor can only talk about theory for so long. At some point, you have to get your students into the pool to work on their motor skills. Similarly, a university instructor has to give students opportunities to apply the theories they're being taught. Active learning exercises provide such opportunities."

They also break up long class periods, which instructional designers say is especially important in once-a-week courses and 3-credit courses that are shoe-horned into six-week summer sessions.

"We know from cognitive science that people can only assimilate so much information in a given period of time," said DeArment (who, like CIDDE's other instructional designers, holds an advanced degree in learning and instructional theory). "We find that students learn better when class lectures are broken up into segments, interspersed with active learning exercises and, perhaps, brief quizzes and paper-writing assigments."

It's part of CIDDE's strategy of "chunking" courses into intellectually easy-to-digest segments that build upon one another. "Rather than having students cram the night before a big exam, we help faculty to design courses in which students build knowledge cumulatively, toward a larger instructional goal," DeArment said.

To schedule a consultation with a CIDDE instructional designer, contact Joanne Nicoll at 412/624-7372 or e-mail:

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