New format is improving large-class performance

Pennebaker and Gosling Psychology class 2012

I’d like to share an article currently on UT’s website about classroom innovation that’s paying off. As part of our Course Transformation initiative, a new platform developed at UT Austin is helping find better ways to use online technology in higher education and increasing success in classes with 500 students or more.

Psychology professors James Pennebaker and Sam Gosling have been team-teaching Introduction to Psychology since 2006. With more than 1,000 students, the pair interacts with 12 percent of the University’s freshmen each year. Their effort to help students have meaningful, online discussions about the course materials has evolved into a system that uses a student’s own laptop or tablet to deliver personalized in-class quizzes, class exercises, small discussion groups, and online texts.

The results are higher test scores, increased attendance, and significantly fewer disparities in performance among students of different backgrounds. The benefits also appear to improve a student’s performance in his or her other classes. You can read the full story here. (

These are exciting times in higher education, and I’m proud UT is leading the way.

What starts here changes the world.

East to West and Home Again


Me with (from left) Boston Exes Valerie Pronio-Stelluto, Francis Cruz, and Laura Cuthbert, and UT "Game Changer" Tinsley Oden

Over the past week, I’ve traveled to Massachusetts and Colorado to talk about what we’re doing as a university and to learn from others.

In New England, I had the pleasure of being with the Boston Texas Exes for an event we call UT Game Changers on the Road. We heard a fascinating talk by faculty all-star Tinsley Oden, director of UT’s Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences. (Several weeks ago we held a UT Game Changers on the Road in Dallas as well, at which Dallas Texas Exes heard from psychology and neurobiology professor Russ Poldrack.)

My trip to Colorado was to attend an annual meeting of the Aspen Symposium, three days of panels and discussion about higher education productivity among leaders from a wide variety of universities. I always come away from these summits with new ideas but also with a renewed pride in UT Austin and the leading-edge changes we’re making here. In fact, this very day we are hosting a summit on campus devoted to our course transformation initiative.

Wherever I travel across the country, I’m proud to be a Longhorn.

Transforming the Classroom


A student-centered chemistry course taught by David Vanden Bout and Cynthia Labrake

On Tuesday night, President Obama, speaking about controlling the rising cost of college in his State of the Union address, said, “Some schools redesign courses to help students finish more quickly. Some use better technology.”

Earlier that day, UT Austin faculty, students, and administrators were briefed by three teams of professors who are leading the charge in these two interrelated areas — course redesign and educational technology. They are pioneering a campus-wide initiative to transform the student experience in our large, entry-level courses. Specifically, we heard from teachers of gateway, introductory courses in biology, chemistry, and statistics.

This experimental effort is guided by vice provosts Gretchen Ritter and Harrison Keller.

The goal of course transformation is to improve student learning and academic success. Until now, the assumption across higher education has been that the only way to teach large numbers of students is in a traditional lecture format, what I call “the sage on the stage.” But is it possible to teach students in our largest classes more by using a more interactive, student-centered format? The answer seems to be yes.

With the first semester of this experiment behind us, the results are encouraging. Attendance in these classes is up to 92 percent, it appears that students are learning more, and new course offerings filled up instantly. Moreover, teachers of mainstream courses fed by these entry-level courses report a dramatic increase in the interaction from and expectations of students coming out of the pilot courses.

On the technology front, some of these new courses feature classroom response systems, like “clickers” with which students can respond to multiple-choice questions from the teacher in real time, telling the professor whether the class is grasping the material. Outside class, students use interactive websites that feature well-produced videos and animations illustrating concepts covered in class and assess their own progress with quizzes.

But many of the changes require no new technology; they only require a shift in class design. In biology – the largest major at UT Austin – professors are using more case studies to illuminate key principles instead of relying on an orderly memorization of material. In statistics, students are using public health issues as a means of understanding how to analyze data. And in chemistry, students are asked to collaborate with their neighbors during class to solve problems and often are invited up to the blackboard to demonstrate their conclusions.

As for the faculty, they show little nostalgia for their old lecture formats and report being energized by greater interaction with students. Indeed, far from making professors less important, the consensus is that these student-centered formats make professors more crucial than when they simply paced the stage.

I’m heartened by the early success of these “course transformation” experiments and am proud that The University of Texas is leading for change in an area of national consequence. Especially, I want to thank the faculty members who have stepped up to lead us into a new era of more effective teaching.

Bill's Signature

A New Era of Collaborative Innovation in Public Higher Education

I wanted to share this message, which I sent to our faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends yesterday:

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

Recently I attended a meeting of the Association of American Universities in Washington, where I invited the presidents of six prominent public universities to discuss the future of higher education in America. In addition, with help from the Lumina Foundation, I’ve been meeting regularly with presidents of several community colleges and four-year colleges in Texas to explore ways we can help improve the success of all our students. There is a great deal of discussion regarding budget reductions, but a more fundamental conversation about higher education is taking place across the nation. This is the first in a series of communications about these issues.

Our social landscape is shifting in fundamental ways. Families are recovering from a deep recession. Using the Internet, smart phones, and other technologies to learn and communicate is second nature to today’s students. Current demographic and social trends are greatly expanding the number of people who seek higher education. State appropriations, once a primary source of funding, now make up a small fraction of public university budgets (about 14 percent at UT Austin). Far more than merely being a training ground for future employees, universities must be partners in innovation for the private sector, entrepreneurial communities, and other educational institutions. Society’s tectonic plates are shifting, and universities must adapt.

From energy to medicine to the space program, Texas and its universities have long been fertile ground for innovation. This innovation must extend to public higher education, and our University is ideally positioned to lead this effort.

In my five years as president, I have worked with colleagues to strengthen undergraduate teaching, to advance research and problem-solving by our faculty, to foster deeper relationships with our alumni and leading corporations, to improve institutional productivity, and to make UT Austin accessible to a cross-section of Texans and exceptional students from across the United States and around the world.

When I was dean of the Law School, I worked with the Commission of 125, a group of about 200 citizen leaders from all walks of life who studied UT in 2002-04 and made recommendations to shape its future. It became clear to everyone engaged in the Commission’s work that the traditional model for public higher education had to change. Indeed, the overarching theme of my State of the University Address last year was the need to increase our productivity and effectiveness in an environment of diminished resources. But while we introduce change-as one of the world’s great research universities-we must be steadfast in our commitment to teaching and research.

With UT’s large student body and influential alumni network, acclaimed faculty, and powerful research enterprise-combined with its depth and diversity of programs and overall excellence-no university is better positioned to pursue new approaches and make an impact. We must cultivate innovation, exploring new, more effective pathways for how our students and faculty learn and create new knowledge.

In my view, the public research university of the 21st century must:

  • Engage in solving major global problems, expanding knowledge, and improving lives throughout society
  • Offer the highest-quality undergraduate education, graduate programs, and research to prepare the next generation of leaders who will change the world
  • Exploit the opportunities that new technology creates in learning and educational research
  • Develop new revenue streams to become even more financially self-sufficient
  • Focus resources on those programs that can achieve true excellence and that offer strategic opportunities to advance knowledge
  • Increase efficiency and reduce costs in university operations on a continual basis
  • Share educational resources with emerging research universities, regional universities, community colleges, and high schools to expand educational opportunities for everyone

This vision for the future is taking shape in many ways on our campus, much of it inspired by the Commission of 125. The Commission emphasized the importance of pursuing excellence, enriching the undergraduate experience, and developing strong leadership for academic departments and research centers. Here are some of the changes under way that reflect our commitment to this vision.

UT has overhauled its core curriculum for all undergraduates, adding a mandatory rigorous intellectual experience known as the First-Year Signature Course, which includes coursework in disciplines such as English, history, social sciences, math, natural sciences, and the performing arts. These courses are designed to develop important skills in writing, critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, ethics, and independent inquiry.

We are redesigning key gateway courses in chemistry, biology, and statistics to shift the emphasis from traditional teaching methods to more innovative and effective student-centered learning. This Course Transformation Program uses technology to gain immediate insights into teaching effectiveness and to individualize learning both inside and outside the classroom. Transformation of these three initial courses will affect more than 9,000 UT Austin students per year.

We are partnering with Harvard and Carnegie Mellon universities to use advanced instructional technology and interactive tools to develop free educational materials and online interactive tutors to help students realize their potential on our campus and at other Texas colleges and universities. One of the objectives of the project is to help students reach similar levels of proficiency across learning environments at institutions with a wide range of missions.

Innovation also requires that we manage costs. In fact, our administrative costs are about half the average rate for state universities in Texas. Current efficiency initiatives in information technology, data storage, purchasing, water and energy conservation, and other areas are projected to save $565 million over a 10-year period.

In addition to finding new efficiencies, we must also create new income streams to support our academic priorities.

  • We are aggressively pursuing the commercialization of our intellectual property through programs to create new companies and connect them with investors.
  • In 2010 we launched H2Orange bottled water, a partnership that generates scholarship funds from water packaged in a recyclable bottle shaped like the UT Tower.
  • Earlier this year we announced the Longhorn Network, a 20-year partnership with ESPN and IMG College that will guarantee $300 million in revenue to support UT Austin. We have already committed funding from this agreement to create new faculty chairs in philosophy and physics.

American research universities are the envy of the world. Nations worldwide are aggressively trying to replicate them because they attract the best faculty, who attract the best students, who become tomorrow’s leaders. Research universities drive economic development in their regions because they produce the educated workforce companies need and new knowledge that generates innovation and economic development.

Texas has a history of leadership and innovation. To build a stronger future for the people of our state, we need to lead in higher education. At UT Austin, we are working to unify our 470,000 alumni and many other important constituent groups to make this shared vision a reality. It’s a vision that will strengthen all public universities, our state, and our nation.


Bill's Signature