Successful implementation of an online learning environment: Reducing the failure rate in a fluid mechanics course

Juliana Lynn Fuqua, Faye Linda Wachs, Paul Morrow Nissenson, Yitong Zhao, Angela Shih, Sofia Pedroza, Sekani Robinson


At many universities, specific bottleneck courses stymie student progress toward graduation. For many engineering majors, Fluid Mechanics (ME 311) is such a course.  As a required course for mechanical and civil engineering majors, a repeat rate of 34% created a road block for students and programmatic challenges. To reduce the repeat rate in the course, an interdisciplinary team designed, implemented, and assessed curricular changes in two stages during one academic year (2015-2016). In the present paper, we elaborate on our previous work (Nissenson et al., 2017) by first summarizing our quantitative results and then presenting additional qualitative results that helped us design and evaluate the second stage.  In stage I, McGraw-Hill’s Connect Online platform, (which included a textbook, assignments, and quizzes), was introduced to an experimental class section, while the control class section was taught in the traditional format in Fall 2015 and repeated by another instructor in Winter 2016. The experimental and control sections were designed to be alike otherwise.  In stage II (Spring 2016), the Connect platform was adopted for both the experimental and control sections. In addition, the instructor experimented with creating a more engaging class structure (e.g., more problem-solving time in class and derivations` moved to videos viewed outside of class) in only the experimental section.  The department further provided supplemental videos (online video tutorials), available to all majors, as part of a larger effort to use technology to enhance student success. The evaluation plan was developed by an interdisciplinary collaboration of mechanical engineers, psychologists, and sociologists at the university. Student academic performance was measured using concept inventories, exam scores, and overall course grades.  Student perceptions of the course emerged through focus groups and were assessed with surveys. The concept inventories and surveys were distributed in the first and last week of the course, and the focus groups were held near the end of the quarter, which generated data about changes in student opinions and understanding of course concepts. Results indicated that the repeat rate, defined as a course grade of D, F, or Withdrawal (D/F/W rate), was lower in the experimental sections than in the control sections all year (23% vs. 39% in fall, 27% vs. 39% in winter, and 20% vs. 44% in spring). There was additional evidence of some success; the experimental section performed better than the control section on some measures such as the final exam during some quarters but the differences were not always significant. During all three quarters, more positive comments and ratings on psycho-social rating scales were provided by students in the experimental sections than the control sections. In focus groups, students provided many positive comments about how the online videos provided an opportunity to pace the course more slowly when needed. The findings from this study indicate that the use of technology combined with a more engaging classroom environment have the potential to improve student performance and student attitudes in an engineering course.

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