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Successful Course Redesign, Part 2: Introductory Biology

Hanover Research examined the NCAT profiles of multiple redesign initiatives at American colleges and universities and chose four examples for their demonstrated success. Introductory level courses in general subjects were chosen, as these are often required for a majority of undergraduate students. Our first case study examined Iowa State University’s Discrete Mathematics Course.

Case #2: University of Massachusetts–Amherst

Introductory Biology


Original Course Format:

Four faculty members team-teach 2 sections: 3 traditional lectures (1 hour) and 1 lab (3 hours).


  • Low attendance
  • Insufficient reasoning and problem solving material
  • Low exam scores

Course Redesign:

This course redesign utilizes ClassTalk, an interactive classroom technology that divides class time into 10-15 segments, followed by small group sessions. In these small groups, students work together to complete problems assigned by the instructor. Each problem is designed to challenge students through the application of new concepts. After discussing a problem, small groups present their answers to the class, and an instructor moderates discussion to reinforce important concepts or correct common errors.

The learning goals identified by the biology department and the University require students to:

  • Construct and critique logical arguments in biology;
  • Generate and state testable hypotheses;
  • Communicate ideas and arguments in biology;
  • Work effectively as a team;
  • Apply problem-solving to the learning process; and
  • Self-assess progress in learning.

Online resources for students include quizzes, supplemental instruction and tutoring, and materials for class preparation. After reviewing learning objectives and key concepts, students complete online quizzes to evaluate their preparation for class. Based on data from online quizzes and assignments, teachers can tailor instruction to address areas of student need, as well as identify students requiring additional support.  The use of online resources enables faculty to decrease the number of class sessions (two per week, as opposed to three) and reduce the number of exams per semester from four to three.

The redesigned course also requires only two full-time faculty members, instead of four, with each instructor teaching one section of the course. Instructors are responsible for preparing and teaching all class sessions; holding two office hours and one review session per week; and designing, administering, and evaluating exams, online course materials and quizzes. TAs are each responsible for one office hour per week, and also review course materials online, operate ClassTalk during lectures, and manage lab sections. The Biology Center director assists in the development of curriculum and manages the ClassTalk network, while undergraduate peer tutors conduct study sessions with students requiring additional academic supports. An instructor apprenticeship program has also been created to ensure the sustainability of the redesigned course.

Implementation issues during the pilot led to a few changes to the original initiative:

  • Students adjusted slowly and thought about biology less when taking two 75-minute classes per week, prompting a return to the three-session per week, 50-minute class schedule.
  • Compatibility issues between new materials and students’ used textbooks, and between platforms and hardware, motivated a shift from publisher-produced materials to free online providers.


University of Massachusetts Amherst Introduction to Biology Course Redesign


Iowa State University Course Redesign Cost SavingsAlthough the cost of the redesigned course actually increased upon implementation (from $174 to $199 per student) due to technology expenses, the redesign eventually decreased the cost of the course to $117 per student.

Iowa State University Course Redesign Student Improvement

Instructors were motivated by improved student interaction and focus. Students in the redesigned sections scored 12% higher on the new examinations, which were determined to be more challenging than traditional exams. Additionally, student attendance increased from 67% in the traditional course to 90% after the redesign.

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