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Put Your Killer-Course on ICE

Put Your Killer-Course on I.C.E.

Killer-courses, or high-risk-courses, “are those traditionally difficult, entry-level courses wherein student D and F rates and withdrawals exceed 30 percent of course registrants” (Blanc, 1983).  Many killer-courses are large classes where, according to Lee Shulman, “Students are disengaged, invisible, unaccountable, and emotionally disconnected most of the time” (Shulman, 2005).  Instructors teaching these courses must counteract such disengagement, anonymity, unaccountability and apathy.  The best way to counteract these problematic characteristic of killer-courses is to put them on I.C.E.

Increase student engagement

The best way to increase student engagement is to involve them actively with the course content.  Richard Felder, et al, discovered that engineering students in high risk courses who were taught using active and cooperative learning out performed those taught by traditional lectures (Felder, 1998).

Create student accountability

Shulman shows how one teacher created accountability in a large class:

"Tom teaches astrophysics (every undergraduate's first love) to over one hundred highly engaged students, almost none of whom are majoring in the area.  As I analyzed what Tom was doing -- how he organized instruction, used wireless response devices distributed to the students (clickers), moved from large- to small-group interaction and back within a traditional lecture hall -- I realized he was modeling features of signature pedagogies.  Students had lost invisibility because they had to engage in an accountable click, and their names were on that clicker.  When students vote for an option on the screen, everyone knows how they voted; they're not entitled to anonymity.  Then students talk to one another and get to revote. Tom was, to me, a vision of the possible.  He's not some charismatic figure.  He's an ordinary teacher in a discipline that's really tough to teach to people who aren't majoring in it.  But he feels it is his responsibility that those students learn astrophysics.  And he's not just meeting them halfway; he's going all the way and bringing them along.  That kind of teaching should be within the grasp of any faculty member. It is not magic, it's pedagogy" (Shulman, 2005).

Energize emotional involvement

Energizing students’ emotional involvement entails helping students see the relevancy of the material in the course.  A simple strategy for creating emotional engagement that can work in many courses is “requiring papers in which students relate course concepts to their lives” (Handelsman, 2005).   Pamela Cangelosi energized her Pathophysiology course by creating interest in the subject by having students take illness narratives from friends and family members.

"One teaching strategy employed in this course that produced student learning outcomes that far exceeded my expectations was what I called an illness narrative. The illness narrative differs from a case study in that a case study focuses on the medical facts and responses to treatment. The illness narrative, however, seeks to capture the individual’s perspective of living with the illness with all of its emotional, psychological, spiritual, and physical components . . . It was my intent that by understanding not only the disease process, but also the illness experience of the client, the students could begin to understand how a disease impacts a life. In this way, students could incorporate a personal way of knowing, which could enhance their practical application of their new nursing and medical-surgical knowledge" (Cangelosi, 2006).

Sometimes students’ emotional involvement can be peaked by showing the practical applications of your discipline.  Laura Arwood teaches cell biology to non-science majors by pairing forensic science experiments with cell biology subjects.  Arwood’s course improved the students’ attitudes toward the sciences (Arwood, 2004).  Teachers who help students make personal connections with the material energize students’ emotional involvement.



Blanc, Robert A. et al. “Breaking the Attrition Cycle: The Effects of Supplemental Instruction on Undergraduate Performance and Attrition.” Journal of Higher Education 54, no. 1 (1983): 80-90.

Shulman, Lee “Pedagogies of Uncertainty.” Liberal Education 91, no. 2 (2005): 18-25.

Handelsman, Mitchell, et al, “A Measure of College Student Course Engagement.” Journal of Educational Research 98 (2005): 184-191.

Cangelosi, Pamela. “Breathing life into the ‘killer course’: The value of narratives in learning pathophysiology,” Nurse education in practice 6, no. 5 (2006): 295 -9.

Arwood, Laura .  “Teaching Cell Biology to Nonscience Majors through Forensics, or How to Design a Killer Course,” Cell Biology Education 3 (2004): 131-138.