Effects of repeating content in future courses

I continue to be impressed with Coursera, a provider of free online courses from an ever expanding number of big-name universities. I am lightly participating in several courses (and I am signed up for dozens more over the next several months). By “lightly participating,” I mean that I am watching the lectures and occasionally participating in discussions with other students around the world on the forums (but not doing–or turning in–most of the official coursework).

As I pointed out before, while it is debatable as to in what ways a Coursera course might be pedagogically worse or better than an in-person course on the same subject, it is NOT debatable that a Coursera course is pedagogically superior to not studying a particular topic at all.

As more and more courses are offered on Coursera (and other similar sites) and as more people participate in these courses, there will be more and more rising freshman at colleges across the world who will enter with a history of having taken one or more such courses as a high school student and in some cases even as a middle-schooler.

How should colleges deal with these students? As of right now, most of the classes offered on Coursera are for intro courses in a particular subject. My guess is that most colleges, at least in the near future, will still require students to actually take the in-person version of these courses in order to count the credit and in order to register for the next higher level courses in that subject area.

Here’s my question: is this a good thing pedagogically?

For students, like me, who don’t tend to do much of the actual work for an online course, it is hard to deny that the additional practice gained by doing homework and studying for tests is extremely valuable on top of just keeping up with lectures and discussing with other students online. Students in that situation, and even students who actually do all of the practicing associated with an online class would most likely develop a deeper understanding by seeing the material again.

As I entered college, I had never done any online courses, but I had taken a large number of AP courses which were supposedly comparable to intro courses in college. In a few cases, based on departmental requirements, I actually ended up taking intro classes that overlapped heavily with what I had studied in prior AP courses. Seeing similar material a year or two later, and sometimes with a slightly different emphasis or context, definitely helped me to develop a deeper and wider understanding of the material.

However, while seeing similar material presented again in an intro class did indeed help me strengthen my understanding, this did not help me strengthen my understanding nearly as much as did taking higher level courses which expanded upon the earlier material, applied the earlier material in new ways, or provided a wider context in which the earlier material formed a small piece of a larger conceptual understanding. Taking the intro classes certainly strengthened my understanding, but at the cost of having the time for one fewer higher level class (that might have increased my understanding of the subject, and even the specifics of the intro course, more thoroughly than just doing the intro course).

When I was teaching math in Georgia last year, the curriculum (which has since been transitioned to the Common Core) seemed to take into account that cycling through material again–in a deeper or wider way, the second time–seems to help students understand the material a little more clearly. However, the problem with that math curriculum was that in order to do this cycling through topics, some concepts and techniques ended up seemingly randomly in strange grades levels, with no context for their relevance or importance. For example, in 7th grade, students were expected to learn how to use a compass and straightedge to do some basic constructions (copy an angle, bisect an angle, etc.).  Students are asked multiple choice questions like “when copying an angle, after you draw an arc through the angle, what is the next step?” The students have no idea how this relates to the future concept of proofs they’ll start seeing in geometry class in high school. Many of the TEACHERS have no idea how this relates to the future concept of proofs which the students will start seeing in high school. The intent seemed to have been to touch on topics early and then cycle back in later grades, but teaching random topics out of context creates much more harm than any benefits that might exist by studying a topic twice.

Cycling back through material may sometimes be beneficial, but certainly not always. This makes me even more curious to see how colleges will respond to the increasing number of cases in which students will be put in a position to possibly retake (in in-person form) a course they have already (partially?) completed online.

This becomes even more important as students in the next few years start entering college not just with experience in intro courses, but also some (or even nearly all) of the topics explored in higher level courses at that college. What will colleges do when a student comes in claiming to have taken classes equivalent to all of the required courses in a major? More importantly, I wonder how colleges can reassess their assumptions about how education is supposed to happen (a major, some number of general education classes, and maybe a minor or three) in the new situation in which people have the opportunity to explore some of these things–with varied and uncertain levels of sophistication and depth–outside of a “normal” path through college…

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