ICollege of Arts and Sciences faculty are working collaboratively with colleagues across the state to improve introductory courses.
This summer, Texas A&M University faculty in the Departments of English, History and Physics and Astronomy began working with faculty at Rice University and The University of Texas at Austin to develop, deploy and scale high-quality introductory college course materials that incorporate innovative instructional design, current insights from the science of learning and development, open educational resources and a commitment to ongoing research and improvement.
The collaborative effort is part of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s (THECB) Digital Design for Student Success (D2S2) Project. Together, faculty across disciplines in the College of Arts and Sciences are leading the way in improving student success in classrooms across the state and beyond.
The Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) is coordinating D2S2 group efforts on behalf of Texas A&M. Debra Fowler, CTE’s executive director, and Samantha Shields, a CTE instructional consultant, shared that the THECB launched the D2S2 Project in response to the pandemic causing education across the world to shift to digital learning platforms — a monumental change illuminating the need to invest in accelerating the pace of innovation in digital learning, especially in terms of improving student success by incorporating advanced curriculum design.
To help educators bridge this gap, College of Arts and Sciences faculty are working with each other and in collaboration with their Rice and UT colleagues to develop and share open-educational resources for a variety of the arts and sciences introductory level higher education courses.
“As a public land-grant institution, it is our responsibility to offer instruction to members of the state,” Fowler said. “This initiative allows us to broaden our contribution to shared courses and materials even more to meet the higher educational needs of the state.”
Shields explained the charge as part of the D2S2 collaboration is to create course-specific open-access instructional content and associated training materials. Texas A&M chose introductory English, history and physics courses because they serve significant numbers of students statewide and beyond. All resulting materials will be housed within the THECB’s OERTX, an open-education resources library for use by any interested instructor.
“The materials are being developed by disciplinary experts with proven records for pedagogical innovation and focus on student success,” Shields said. “The OERTX repository allows for these quality instructional resources and training materials to be easily accessed and adopted by instructors who may not have the instructional background and/or disciplinary expertise, or are just looking for some innovative ways to teach their course.”
Terri Pantuso, instructional assistant professor of English, is leading the charge in Texas A&M’s development of English materials for the D2S2 Project.
“This is something that has always been near and dear to my heart,” Pantuso explained. “As a former dual-credit teacher, I know how difficult it can be for instructors to find quality, rigorous materials that are free and openly licensed. So on a personal level, I feel this is how I am giving back to the profession. As an Aggie [1990 Texas A&M political science graduate] and faculty member, I believe this is important because it aligns with our mission and core values focused on service to the community.”
Jessica Ray Herzogenrath, instructional assistant professor of history who is leading D2S2 Project efforts in history with assistance from professor of history and Melbern G. Glasscock Center for Humanities Research Interim Director Troy Bickham, pointed out that Texas A&M is the only institution in the collaboration developing history materials.
“Instructors have a lot on their plates, and there often is not time for the development of high-quality course resources,” Herzogenrath added. “I envision my team’s contributions to D2S2 as offering a space where they may find high-quality course materials built with active learning in mind to promote greater engagement — and, ideally, interest — from students.”
Tatiana Erukhimova, instructional professor of physics, is overseeing Texas A&M’s efforts to develop the D2S2 Project’s introductory physics course, an offering she describes as critical to establishing the foundation for STEM majors. Research shows that student success in this course often is the determining factor in acceptance into their major of choice, in addition to their decision to continue with a STEM career and on-time graduation.
“The challenges that students face when they take calculus-based introductory physics classes often include their inadequate level of math preparation and study habits, lack of sense of belonging to the chosen major, and a fixed mindset or belief that their intelligence is fixed and they will fail a challenging course,” said Erukhimova, a 2017 Texas A&M Presidential Professor for Teaching Excellence and 2021-2024 Eppright Professor in Undergraduate Teaching Excellence. “Moreover, the students who face these challenges are often those who must work to support themselves while attending college and may be unable to take advantage of in-person help provided by instructors due to limited time and schedule conflicts.”
Erukhimova notes that students are not the only ones who face challenges in the introductory courses included within the D2S2 initiative.
“On the instructor’s side, an obvious challenge is keeping high standards in these foundational courses for all groups of students,” she explained. “Our work within the D2S2 initiative provides a path to improving outcomes in these courses through creation of open-access resources to enhance student self-learning outside the classroom.”
The D2S2 Project is supported by the Governor’s Emergency Educational Relief Fund through formula funding allocated to the THECB to improve the quality of digital learning across the state. The initiative aims to improve teaching and learning for all by improving instructional materials available to instructors teaching the foundational courses for high demand majors in the job market.
“One of the greatest improvements this project affords us is the ability to make courses more accessible,” Herzogenrath said. “I now have the funds to have the recorded lectures closed-captioned in accordance with best practices for accessibility, for example. Additionally, due to the support from the THECB infrastructure, we are able to expand the access of these materials for instructors and students throughout the state.”
The D2S2 Project’s cross-departmental faculty collaboration in the College of Arts and Sciences is an early example of the educational influence faculty in the new college are uniquely empowered to make in the world.
“Working collaboratively on this project excites me for the future possibilities in our new college,” Pantuso said. “I think this shows that the College of Arts and Sciences is a leader in developing open content and teaching materials to create an equitable learning experience for anyone, regardless of where they might be enrolled.”