Freedom to fail: Engineering course redesign enhances learning while reducing student stress

Liberated by the pandemic, instructors produced 30,000 quizzes to replace exams and homework with individualized assessments. It worked.

Written by Patricia DeLacey.

A new way of evaluating fluid mechanics students at the University of Michigan, with 92 individualized quizzes that students could retake as many times as they needed, resulted in 80% of students earning A grades the first semester. 

The approach, which rewarded students for understanding and correcting their errors, can be extended to almost any other lecture course, the researchers say.

“I actually had the incentive to see where I went wrong and work backwards, instead of getting one chance, being upset with trying and getting partial credit, and then never looking at the problem again because of frustration and knowing the grade won’t change,” said a student in their course evaluation.

Periodic homework assignments, two or more exams, and a cumulative final exam, aren’t aligned with research-based best practices in education, the researchers say. The pandemic provided an opportunity to develop assessment methods that were.

“Based on the very positive response by the students and the fact that no one has failed this course in the last three years, I feel like we have hit the mark,” said Mark A. Burns, the T.C. Chang Professor of Engineering in the U-M Department of Chemical Engineering and first author of the study published in Advances in Engineering Education

Returning to teaching in the middle of the pandemic after a decade in administration, Burns says he couldn’t bear to continue with methods he now knew weren’t as effective as they could be, especially with the additional challenge of virtual instruction. Instead, he and his colleagues transformed Chemical Engineering 341 for the roughly 100 sophomores in the 2021 cohort.     

“The course incorporates multiple elements of evidence-based pedagogical best practices, resulting in a unique student-centered learning environment,” said Kellie Grasman, assistant director for technology-informed pedagogy with the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching in Engineering and a co-author of the study.

Developing the new course structure involved three steps: 

  1. Chunk the content: Small, easily digestible topics help students retain information. 
  2. Deliver the content in multiple ways: Textbook references, virtual lectures, condensed presentation slides, and two-minute summary videos support the various ways that different students absorb information best. 
  3. Replace the traditional grading system: Students are evaluated with dozens of repeatable 10- and 20-point quizzes. The higher-stakes quizzes, replacing exams, were scored cumulatively and time-limited to 60 minutes.

A technological hurdle was making 92 individualized and instantly graded quizzes for each student. Identical quizzes would enable students to easily share answers in the asynchronous, virtual environment. The quizzes needed to be similar in content, complexity, and solution strategy but different in specific numerical values, sentence construction and sometimes topic.

To help with this, they worked with Michigan Engineering Information Technology (CAEN) staff to develop MiQuizMaker, which can generate multiple quiz versions unique to each student—30,000 for the entire course. The tool is available to any U-M instructor. 

Surveys revealed how students felt the course design enabled their success, as they reported lower stress levels and an appreciation for the ability to make safe mistakes. Rewarded for trying again, the students also noted a sense of ownership in the learning process, and their evaluations showed higher levels of mastery of the course content.

The approach also improved equity in the classroom. One student said the switch between synchronous and asynchronous classes enabled them to complete coursework around the demands on a job. 

Likewise, the immediate feedback helped students who are socially marginalized to feel confident in their knowledge. One student wrote: “As a woman in STEM, one of my biggest weaknesses is lacking a voice. I’ve been talked over many times, and rarely have confidence in my answers/solutions. However, with this format, since I know I’m doing a problem right (or wrong), I have so much more confidence to help others/give advice. I wish more of my courses were like this.”

Burns has continued to use the new format.

“In spite of the gatekeeping cultures that can still plague the engineering discipline, we designed this course from the start with the belief that all of our students could succeed. They’ve shown us they can,” he said.