Better learning through technology

May 9 2007

Course redesign aimed at improving student outcomes, reducing costs

Can college students actually learn more in a larger class and remember more of what they learn?

Some educators at Indiana State University say the answer may well be “yes” - if the larger class incorporates the technology today’s young adults have grown up with and if students have more “face time” with professors.

Redesign of the course, Psychology 101: Understanding Human Behavior, is aimed at improving learning outcomes, reducing costs and increasing the use of technology.

“Remember, today’s students were practically born with a computer game in their hands and are simply not programmed to learn via traditional classroom lectures,” said Jennifer Boothby, associate professor and interim chair of the psychology department at Indiana State.

“Incorporating technology, using any sort of media to get them involved, that’s where they’re at. That’s what they expect and it seems to work better for their kind of learning. It’s really important,” Boothby said.

Students at Indiana State will soon be required to own laptop computers, starting with new freshmen this fall, but many students already have them and the psychology department is already using them for everything from taking attendance to answering questions during classroom discussions.

Those laptops will soon get an even greater workout, with interactive videos in the works aimed at explaining psychological concepts that have proven to be most challenging for students to comprehend, said Brad Brubaker, the professor who teaches the class.

“Usually, a course re-design doesn’t really go into technology, but we really want to use the laptops and have students use them to enhance learning. The Center for Instruction, Research and Technology is helping us come up with some learning modules to run on the laptop that will help us explain those concepts,” he said.

One such concept is the difference between positive and negative reinforcement and positive and negative punishment, Brubaker explained.

“In my experience in teaching, when somebody thinks they’re talking about negative reinforcement, they tend to believe that it’s punishment, but negative reinforcement is not punishment,” he said. “We can provide reinforcement in two ways: We can add things to your environment that you like and that are rewarding, or we can take away things that you don’t like, such as your chores that you are dreading, and that is rewarding. You will work to eliminate these undesired demands. This is negative reinforcement. It’s reinforcement because the targeted behavior increases when these undesired chores are taken away. We call it negative because something is being subtracted from their environment.

“It is very easy to confuse the positive and negative with reward and punishment, so we’ve designed a computer exercise that provides a video that demonstrates these concepts and asks students questions about them at the end. We’re hoping this increased experience and the examples - and the fact that it is interactive - will help students fully comprehend these concepts.”

Another key element of the redesign is aimed at providing students more interaction with faculty. The introductory psychology course has traditionally been taught by graduate students. As a result, “there was not consistency across the courses,” Boothby said.

“With the redesign, a faculty member is teaching the class and we will have small breakout sessions where faculty can talk to students about their research,” Brubaker said. “Through these breakout sessions, faculty can get an idea of what the students might be interested in and students get an idea of what kind of research goes on at ISU. We want to hit them early.”

This fall, the psychology department plans to have 400 students enrolled in laptop sections of the introductory class and 400 in traditional sections.

“We will have common exams, test questions and activities so we can evaluate whether we are actually making a difference with the new format,” Boothby said.

Indiana State is one of approximately 60 colleges and universities in the nation - and the only one in Indiana - that is part of the Redesign Alliance of the National Center for Academic Transformation (NCAT).

From 1999 to 2004, NCAT worked with 30 two- and four-year colleges, representing 50,000 students per year, to prove that it is possible to improve quality and reduce costs in higher education. Of 30 course redesign projects that incorporated technology, 25 showed significant increases in student learning. Of the 24 projects that measured retention, 18 reported a noticeable decrease in drop-failure-withdrawal rates, ranging from 10 percent to 20 percent, as well as higher course-completion rates.

The institutions also reduced their costs by 37 percent on average, producing a collective annual savings of about $3 million. Other positive outcomes included better student attitudes toward the subject matter and increased student and faculty satisfaction.

Photo: Laptop, laptop -everywhere a laptop
A class taught by Brad Brubaker, assistant professor of psychology, incorporates laptop computers as part of a course redesign aimed at improving student learning.

Contact: Jennifer Boothby, associate professor and interim chair, department of psychology, Indiana State University, (812) 237-3950 or; Brad Brubaker, assistant professor of psychology, Indiana State University, (812) 237-2457 or

Writer: Dave Taylor, media relations director, Indiana State University, (812) 237-3743 or

Bookmark and Share

Story Highlights

Redesign of an introductory psychology class may help improve learning by incorporating the kind of technology today\\\'s students have grown up with. Indiana State is the only university in Indiana and one of approximately 60 instutitions nationwide selected to be part of the Redesign Alliance of the National Center for Academic Transformation.

Bookmark and Share