Micro-Revision: the surprising power of iterative course development

Concurrent Session 4

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Brief Abstract

To make bigger gains in course outcomes, sometimes you have to do less. Micro-revisions consist of small changes made more often. Trade in sweeping course redevelopments for a steady stream of measured improvements, and you’ll see course revisions take less development time while outcomes improve faster.


David Lindrum is the founder of Soomo Learning, home to a merry band of innovative curriculum developers who collaborate with college educators to improve course outcomes. David has worked with instructional designers and faculty at hundreds of schools to develop and evaluate countless pedagogical strategies. Today he designs courses, mentors course designers, and asks everyone who will listen, “how will this help students and how will you know?” David is always open for recommendations on a good place to find breakfast.

Extended Abstract

Some of the most challenging barriers to innovation include insufficient money, time, and people to implement our plans, and a justifiable aversion to risk of failure. Making smaller changes to courses, which we call micro-revisions, requires less time and money, fewer people, and reduces the risk of failure. Yet this approach is often better targeted and results in bigger improvements on a shorter time frame.

Why? Typically, redevelopment of an underperforming course will center on a big change: let’s try a new textbook, a different final assessment, teach the entire course with stories, etc. Big changes require a lot of time, money, and people. And they carry a big risk: maybe the next textbook, or a new project, or an all-documentary course will increase pass rates by 10%...or maybe this big change will reduce pass rates by 20%. Maybe it will solve our current problems, but create new problems that are even bigger. Who knows?

By contrast, consider a micro-revision for a Psychology course. Micro-revisions are, by definition, focused. Rather than pursue a lofty and abstract goal such as “increase pass rates”, “engage students”, or “enable students to write good papers”, micro-revisions address specific problems with measures already in place.

For our example, let’s assume we are able to review results of a multiple choice final exam in terms of the 20 most important concepts in the course. Which of these concepts is least understood by students as evidenced on their final exam answers? If we find one concept performing much lower than the others, then we’re ready to revise our instruction around this lowest performing concept.

Now, let’s bring all of our instructional designer and design thinking techniques to bear on this one learning objective. If the problem is that students don’t understand “correlation is not causation” then we could seek to address it in a variety of ways. Perhaps we try a different form of exposition, or a quick mini-lecture from a faculty member, or an exercise to help uncover confusion in students during that chapter. Maybe an application scenario in which students must understand this concept to succeed, or any of an infinite number of other revisions. Revising this one page or module is much faster and cheaper than overhauling the entire course. It’s faster to brainstorm, implement, produce, QA, and tell faculty about as the revision rolls out to students. It also holds all other factors in the course constant so that when we review performance in the following term we should no change anywhere else, and hopefully a strong improvement in student performance on this objective. Great! Now let’s pick something else to target.

Micro-revisions excel at solving well-defined problems but those problems don’t need to be small. They might be something like noticing “students who open their text in week one are eight times more likely to pass the course, so let’s get more students into the text in week one.” This would result in only a few changes around messaging during course start. But if those changes moved a substantial number of students from failing to opening in week one and on to passing the course, it would be an excellent revision. 

Another problem might be “students who fail fall into two groups: those who just stop working at some point, and those who work all the way to the end but don’t turn in their term paper.” This could be addressed with a micro-revision targeting getting those students to start work sooner, turn in parts of the project or rough drafts more often, or some other scaffolding or chunking of an assignment that is currently overwhelming too many students.

The heart of micro-revision is making small, targeted, effective changes every term instead of large, untargeted, risky changes every few years. We start with data clearly identifying a major stumbling block. Then we focus on specific, small-scale solutions to address the problem. We brainstorm potential strategies, implement the most promising, and roll out the revised course for students. Then we look for validation that this was a positive change. If it’s not, we try again. If it does solve the problem, we look for a new problem to solve.  Eliminating the biggest problems from a course term-over-term leads to previously unheard of gain after just a few cycles.

Micro-revisions have a lot in common with lean principles currently replacing outdated approaches to business management. And they work in the same way that Agile development has to replace the slower, command-and-control models for creating software. Yet another body of work closely related are the legendary A/B tests used by companies such as Amazon, Google, and Facebook to release small changes and measure the impact of each. What all of these approaches share is being data-driven, lightweight, and focused on quick, demonstrable, gains as measured in the real world.

Beginning to implement a micro-revision approach starts with identifying the courses you most want to impact and then reviewing the measures you have in place to assess how well students are meeting the objectives. The first revision might be to get better visibility on how well students are doing on key objectives. A second revision might be centered on getting more students to do the work. When activity data is first reviewed, designers often find a strong correlation between doing the work and passing the class, so the next revision might be focused on getting more students to use the course as directed. Once measures are in place and students are engaging the content, you’ll likely have seen substantial gains in outcomes. And you’ll have all the information needed to find that next problem to overcome.

Micro-revisions can be developed and implemented much faster than big changes. Consider a traditional school offering an intro course four times a year and typically revising courses once every three years. Instead of waiting three years and then making a big change, micro-revisions allow the course designers to systematically addressing the biggest problems in the course each semester for 12 consecutive terms.

This iterative process is often more fruitful because it is focused on defined and measured problems, produces measurable improvements, and reduces the risk that a massive change will bring more harm than good.

One of the privileges of being on the Soomo team is that we get to work with many different types of courses at a wide variety of schools. Many of our success stories share this common thread of micro-revision term after term. But this technique can be used by anyone, using any technology…or none at all. Simply make smaller changes, targeting your biggest problems, until they’re not problems any more. Big revisions on a slow time table seem to be the norm in higher education. This education session will focus on helping every attendee see that micro-revision is often cheaper, easier, faster, less risky, and more effective.