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UNT leads a nation revolution in teaching, learning by Kelley Reese
Winter 2007      


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The Next Generation



Freshman Xavier Cinque and his UNT classmates scoured a decades-old crime scene in a CSI-like video game to analyze whether horse wrangler Philip Nolan was killed unfairly. Or whether his 1801 killing in Texas was a fair maneuver in Spain's fight to keep the province.

After weeks of studying witness statements and other information from historical documents, Cinque and two of his classmates determined the evidence was not sufficient to prove the case decisively either way.

UNT's U.S. History 2610 course, which encourages students to ask questions, make connections and solve problems rather than just know dates and names, is being taught at other universities as part of a state-funded pilot project. A virtual CSI game (screen captures from the online game are shown here) invites students to explore a historical case study as a way of learning how to interpret and evaluate history.

"It remains unclear if Nolan was merely horse wrangling illegally or making maps for America's conquest of the territory," said Cinque while delivering the verdict after a two-hour history class court hearing in October. He and 14 of his more than 200 classmates were participating in the second in-class game of their American History 2610 lecture course.

The course was designed to provide an intensive, small-class experience in a large lecture course by blending proven teaching methods with technology.

Leading the way

History 2610 is part of UNT's Next Generation course redesign program, which is leading the way in the nation's revolution to fight the listen-memorize-regurgitate doldrums of large lecture learning. The history course aims to improve student learning and strengthen critical thinking skills such as analyzing and synthesizing information. It's one of 12 Next Generation courses available to UNT students today.


UNT leads the way in transforming learning

During the past four years, UNT faculty members have worked hard to develop a better learning experience for students. By completely deconstructing and rebuilding basic courses to use proven, effective teaching methods supported by technology, UNT now offers a host of Next Generation courses that stand as a national example of how to improve learning.

In May, 60 faculty members from across the globe who are grappling with how to improve classroom learning on their campuses came to UNT. They learned how a course may be redesigned not only to improve efficiency and reduce costs but also to improve the quality of what a student learns.

In addition, many of UNT's Next Generation courses are part of the state-legislated Texas Course Redesign Project. UNT's courses have earned nearly $2.5 million in grants from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and U.S. Department of Education over two years and are being designed so others may use them on their campuses.

"While our primary goal is to ensure UNT students have access to the best quality education possible, we also are interested in ensuring professors and teachers everywhere can use these courses in their own way to teach students across the state and around the globe," says Kelly McMichael ('01 Ph.D.), adjunct professor of history whose redesigned course is one of the lead classes in Texas' pilot project.

The work to redesign these courses, which include a variety of disciplines in the arts, humanities and sciences, is supported by nearly $2.5 million in grants from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and the U.S. Department of Education. Texas, like many other states, is investing heavily in course redesign as a way to improve learning retention while potentially cutting costs.

"UNT's efforts in this area are unique in their explicit commitment to enhancing critical thinking skills as part of the measurable redesign process, and that improves the quality of the state's course redesign pilot project," says Kevin Lemoine, coordinating board senior program director.

As part of the state's pilot project, UNT's history course is being taught at two other universities and two community colleges. In addition, a version of the course materials is being created for use with high schools as a dual credit course to allow students to earn college credit before starting at a university. The state project also has given UNT funds to build a Learning Objects Repository, or virtual library, to house the basic technology of the different elements within a redesigned course so other faculty members may use the teaching materials.

"The idea is to make course redesign accessible to faculty and teachers across the state and nation," Lemoine says.

Carolyn Jarmon, senior associate at the National Center for Academic Transformation, says UNT's dedication to improving critical thinking skills is valuable for students.

"UNT, a member of the center's Redesign Alliance, has done an excellent job of learning from what others have done. UNT has made a commitment to intentionally focus on improving higher-level learning skills as well as improving overall student learning," she says. "The university is working to expand the benefits of course redesign in many academic areas so that many students will benefit."

Building on success

Four years ago, UNT began its efforts to increase learning and further challenge students to think critically and apply their knowledge by completely re-creating what the traditional classroom experience looks and feels like. After a pilot program showed a potential for increased student involvement and better learning retention, the project was refined and expanded. By 2011, 25 of UNT's large lecture courses will be redesigned to focus on improved student learning.

As a result, UNT's students are among the nation's first real winners in the quest for a better education in classes that include more than 150 students.

"Universities nationwide have struggled with how to maintain quality learning as enrollment figures break records and class sizes continue to grow," says Phil Turner, vice provost for learning enhancement. "UNT was no different, and for many years, we had been grappling with how to make sure all of our students truly learned the higher-level thinking skills that attaining a bachelor's degree requires.

"Finally, technology gave us tools that allow us to truly break our classes apart and rebuild them in a way that lets students experience intense, intimate instruction and learning."

He says blending online learning with high-impact classroom lessons provides optimum learning potential for students. It also allows professors to create online environments that present lecture materials using media-rich, interactive elements such as games, quizzes and video clips and provides students with a place for bulletin board discussions and other interactions.

And capitalizing on technology to provide students with online materials and information that typically would have been delivered in a lecture frees up face-to-face class time for applying that new knowledge in creative, interactive and analytical ways.

"Today's student arrives with a predisposition to visual, interactive learning, and today's business environment demands that employees collaborate effectively to solve problems," President Gretchen M. Bataille says. "By enhancing the classroom experience and using the technologies that students are naturally comfortable with, UNT is ensuring that our graduates are challenged to develop their ability to apply knowledge so they may easily and readily think critically, solve problems and generate ideas of their own on the job and in their lives."

Endless possibilities

The only limitations in redesigning a course for the Next Generation program are a faculty member's imagination and knowledge, Turner says.

Kelly Donahue-Wallace and Denise Baxter, faculty members who are working together to redesign a sophomore-level survey course in art history, imagined the best way for students to learn was to experience, in person when possible.

And when it wasn't possible they turned to technology. Because an important lesson within the baroque period is exploring how Louis XIV used the rhetoric of power to shape a visitor's reception into the Palace of Versailles, the professors decided they had to find a way to let students experience a walk through the path the French king designed. With the help of an instructional consultant in UNT's Center for Distributed Learning, they are creating a virtual tour of the palace and grounds' reception tour.

Tracey Gau, lecturer in the Department of English who built UNT's sophomore-level world literature course in the Next Generation style, says she has been amazed at the different level of student participation. She designed her course to require students to read materials and complete self-tests before coming to class for group discussions.

"For the first group discussion, a student showed up without the book and no notes, and I thought, 'Oh boy, he's not at all prepared,'" she says. "But he participated the entire time. He'd read everything and had come to class ready to talk. The new class format gives us the entire class time to really explore the text and understand the context and meaning."

In Bob Insley's business communication course, students study course materials online and then come to class ready to apply what they've learned in team projects and other in-class activities — similar to the way they'd have to perform in real-world business offices.

Mike Udoessien, a senior finance major from Dallas, says, "It's a good way to learn, but it's also a lot of work."

Empowering students to think

Back in the History 2610 class, students study and analyze the Nolan case in hopes of solving a mystery that remains hotly debated among today's historians while learning about the era in American history that led up to the Louisiana Purchase.

Using standard criminal justice methodology, students conduct research on their own to build their cases, and they manage their own learning pace and style. They can spend as much time as necessary with the material, taking self-study quizzes and playing the application games as often as they want.


Students in History 2610 (U.S. History to 1865) with course designer Kelly McMichael (left) discuss Philip Nolan's place in history. The Next Generation course includes a court hearing at which students determine if Nolan was mapping the Spanish province of Texas for the American government or simply wrangling horses when he was killed in 1801.

"The point is not to present the material once and then test to see what they've remembered," says Kelly McMichael ('01 Ph.D.), adjunct professor of history who designed the course. "Instead, we want the students to do what they need to do in order to learn, so they come to class prepared to discuss and analyze and make connections."

At the end of the two weeks, students conduct a hearing to determine Nolan's place in history. One small group argues for Nolan's innocence, a second argues his guilt and a student panel judges the evidence presented.

The debate that takes place during the hearing mimics the continued discussions of historians today who have yet to agree on an interpretation of the documents. However, the student judges' decision that the evidence was inconclusive left Charlotte May, a Canton freshman who participated in the October classroom hearing, convinced justice was not served.

"We did a lot to build our case," May says. "I think we proved he was guilty. It was clear to me from everything I read that he was mapping the land for the American government. I think they should have made a decision. Eventually, I'm sure historians will agree he was mapping the land."


"Being a great student of history isn't about remembering dates and events any more than being an educated, thoughtful person is about being able to recall facts, figures and quotes. Being able to do those things allows someone to seem smart, but we're interested in making sure higher levels of critical thinking, assessment, analysis and connection are applied and used repeatedly regardless of the subject matter."

— Kelly McMichael
('01 Ph.D.), adjunct professor of history

That determined passion is exactly what McMichael hopes for.

"Being a great student of history isn't about remembering dates and events any more than being an educated, thoughtful person is about being able to recall facts, figures and quotes," she says. "Being able to do those things allows someone to seem smart, but we're interested in making sure higher levels of critical thinking, assessment, analysis and connection are applied and used repeatedly regardless of the subject matter."

May, who plans to earn a pre-med degree and study occupational therapy, says the unique structure, games and online materials make the class fun.

"I like this class a lot," she says. "We actually have to think about what we're reading and put things together — not just memorize. It's a lot of fun and I want to participate. I can't wait to know what comes next."

Next Generation courses

Art history screen capturesArt history

Launching in the spring, the course will blend lectures with visits to area museums, exhibitions and monuments while also using a media-rich environment of online learning tools to help students solve fictional, yet realistic, problems. In one lesson, students will argue for adding a painting to the Dallas Museum of Art collection based on how it complements the current holdings. In another, students will use a virtual tour of the Palace of Versailles to explore how the rhetoric of power was used to shape the way visitors enter the palace. The course is designed to help students advance art history as a discipline rather than simply memorize an art work, title, date and artist.

Communicating in business screen capturesCommunicating in business

Students work in teams for the entire semester in this course so they not only study the theory of teamwork, leadership and communication in a business setting, but apply that theory in every aspect of the course in order to succeed. Interactive online materials and videos (like the self-quiz shown here) enhance the teamwork and the individual learning experience.

World literature screen capturesWorld literature

Completing the path to enlightenment helps students understand the writings of Confucius. Throughout the course, students participate in online quizzes and games to solidify the meaning of the great works they read prior to participating in small-group in-class discussions. The course is structured to ensure that students learn how to summarize, analyze, evaluate and synthesize — the critical thinking skills that are the basis of all knowledge.



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