Going Active & Adaptive to Help Business Students Master Statistics

A lecture-driven, one-size-fits-all approach just wasn’t working for Senior Instructor Rachel Webb’s introductory statistics course.
She redesigned the course with a focus on personalized learning and data-driven, interactive teaching –
and earned an OLC 2018 Digital Innovation Award for its impact on student success.

Image: Rachel Webb designs her active adaptive statistics course
Rachel Webb worked with an instructional designer and a UX Designer to plan, design and launch her course. / Photo credit: Sophie Soprani

It’s safe to say most students in Rachel Webb’s statistics for business class at Portland State University (PSU) aren’t there for a love of mathematical data. The course is a core requirement for business students, and for many, it’s a difficult one.

“The students are only there because it’s required,” Webb said, “so you need to teach differently.”

Primarily taught by part-time adjuncts and graduate teaching assistants, the course sees large fluctuations in DFW rates. Students have a wide range of backgrounds in terms of prerequisite math knowledge, technology skills, study skills, and interest in the topic. The accelerated course packs a high volume of content into 10 weeks, adding to the challenge.

Spending the limited class time lecturing wasn’t allowing students the chance to apply what they learned. Webb had tried flipping the classroom with static online homework in the past, but both the class and faculty found that system confusing to navigate – and it wasn’t affordable for students.

Making the Shift to Active Learning

Webb knew what she wanted to do: shift delivery of learning content online and use face-to-face time for group activities, worksheets and simulations. Her goal was threefold: find a platform that could standardize content delivery of the original OER material she and other faculty had created while also making it more dynamic; decrease costs for students (via the OER); and increase passing and retention rates.

Meanwhile, PSU’s Office of Academic Innovation (OAI) and Math Department had received an APLU Active and Adaptive grant. OAI identified 19 adaptive software vendors, and the team chose Realizeit as the best fit for Webb’s vision. For Webb, Realizeit stood out over other options for three main reasons: the interface was simple and intuitive for students, the system integrated fully into PSU’s LMS – including the gradebook – and she could customize the course to align with how she preferred to teach.

“[With other systems], most of those complaints were about, ‘It’s not the way we did it in class.’ Because this is so customized, we are able to deliver lessons exactly how we would in class,” she said.

The Impact on Student Success

In PSU’s first session using Realizeit for Stats 241 in early 2018, students’ final exam grades were 12% higher on average. For the first time, everyone who took the final passed, which was particularly notable as the course’s foundational content and exams hadn’t changed.

Webb pointed to a few factors that likely contributed to this success. First, she noted, the way Realizeit is set up, students must complete prerequisite work before moving on to the next topic, whereas in the past they may have just skipped ahead. Additionally, the learning analytics let her see what students covered and how much they knew, helping her plan her class time – and interventions – accordingly. “The diagnostics are great. I can go in and see what they’re doing, and catch students that are really falling behind,” she said.

The adaptive approach also provides students the flexibility to move through the course at their own pace, reinforces their knowledge as they progress, and provides those who fall behind multiple opportunities for getting back on track.

Webb’s success with Stats 241 earned her a 2018 Digital Innovation Award from the Online Learning Consortium for innovation and creativity in accelerating the adoption of digital courseware for general education or gateway courses.

Since the Stats 241 pilot, Webb has redesigned the next two courses in the sequence with a similar approach. In spring 2018, Stats 243 saw pass rates increase from 69% in the former, lecture-style version of the course with online homework to 77% in the active, adaptive version. Final exam scores rose from 77% to 82%. For each course, Webb and her team use the post-course analytics to continually evolve and optimize the teaching and learning experience for both students and faculty.