Wilfrid Laurier University - case study

Wilfrid Laurier students working on online assignments in a student lounge.

Laurier’s blended approach to calculus and chemistry helps students succeed

A growing number of calculus and organic chemistry students at Wilfrid Laurier University are being inspired to greater academic success thanks to innovative blended teaching models that mix class time and online learning.

For many of the students who walk into Introduction to Organic Chemistry, the topic can seem daunting. Stephen MacNeil, an assistant chemistry professor at Laurier, has been teaching the course in a large lecture hall since 2004. Despite having made numerous attempts over the years to increase student engagement in the classroom, he didn’t feel students were sufficiently engaged with him, each other or the course content when he used the traditional lecture format.

“Part of that was probably because they were coming to class with little information,” said MacNeil. “They were hearing the material for the first time and were not really confident with giving me answers.”

When MacNeil took a sabbatical in 2009/2010, he began researching different blended learning approaches. Based on his research, he transformed his approach into pre-class, in-class and post-class components. Before class, students are asked to go through online slides and videos on the topic to be discussed in the lecture. They are also given assignments that are due ahead of the class. The assignments are worth additional marks. Participation is about 90 per cent.

“Before class, I can quickly identify the questions they struggled with and based on that information I will spend a bit more time on those concepts in class,” said MacNeil. “If students have done all the pre-class work reasonably well, I don’t have to waste time lecturing and we’ll spend class time going through additional questions together.”

Post-class, students are asked to complete online homework assignments with questions handpicked by MacNeil to address problems experienced in the pre-class assignments or brought up during class.

“This step provides some closure to the chapter before we move onto the next week’s work,” said MacNeil, who won a 2011 Award for Teaching Excellence in part for his efforts to use innovative ways to share this knowledge with his students.

Mary Samimi, now a third-year chemistry student at Laurier, admits she was very nervous going into organic chemistry.

“My main concern was I was going to fall behind because there is so much information you need to learn,” said Samimi. “Having to go through the material before it was taught was great because it really solidified the concepts in my mind as opposed to seeing it for the first time in the lecture.”

 It’s not just organic chemistry students who are benefitting from a new blended-learning approach. David Vaughan, a Laurier math professor and associate dean of Priorities and Planning, noticed many first-year calculus students were coming into the program with a varied math background.

Vaughan decided to offer students online calculus modules consisting of a number of assignments that aim to help them review key prerequisite material for calculus, and give them an opportunity to demonstrate mastery of the concepts. The module program is a way of putting those skill sets on more level ground.

“What we wanted is for students to go back and review those basic math concepts that we could then build on,” said Vaughan.

The calculus modules are incorporated in three first-year calculus courses: Calculus I, Introduction to Differential and Integral Calculus, and Introductory Calculus for Business and Social Sciences. When the modules were first introduced in 2008/2009, overall participation was a mere 10 per cent. By 2010/2011, while still an optional component of the courses, the overall participation rate had soared to 46 per cent, with students in Introduction to Differential and Integral Calculus having the highest participation rate, at 85 per cent.

“As more students became aware of these courses, they became more and more popular,” said Vaughan. “By filling in gaps in their education, the modules take away students’ anxiety and help them better prepare for classes.”

Students receive additional marks for achieving a grade of 80 per cent or more on the modules. However, students who completed the online modules in 2010/2011 had, on average, final grades that were actually two-to-three grade points higher (on a 12-point grade scale) than those who did not participate. By strengthening these fundamental skills, they are also performing better on course assignments and tests.

Vaughan says the success of the program is largely due to Tina Balfour, the coordinator of the Mathematics Assistance Centre, who administers the program and keeps track of the marks.

“In order for this program to work, you need to have a dedicated individual who can facilitate and support the program,” said Vaughan.

“Blended courses such as these support students in making the transition from the way they learned in high school to how they need to approach material at the university level to be successful,” said Deborah MacLatchy, Laurier’s vice-president: academic & provost. “The pedagogical method uses the best tools available – including online technology – to achieve that.”

Once students have successfully made the transition to university, Laurier works to ensure they have opportunities to integrate their classroom study with applied experiential learning opportunities – whether in the form of co-op, internships, collaborative research, community –service learning, or other opportunities. This is part of a new teaching and learning initiative known as “integrated and engaged learning at Laurier.”

“For students to be successful in the second stage, we need to first be deliberate in how we approach the transitional first stage,” said MacLatchy. “And by all accounts, these blended approaches in math and science are working to do that.”