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Sound Bites from Dr. Carol Twigg On Improving Learning and Reducing Cost


Does your institution have to increase enrollment and reduce cost without eroding quality? If so, you are not alone. As a higher education enrollment management consultant, this is a common challenge I hear time and again from campus leaders across North America and beyond. Therefore, in reading the November/December 2015 Change article by Dr. Carol Twigg, “Improving Learning and Reducing Costs: Fifteen Years of Course Redesign”, I was keenly interested to learn of the demonstrable success of a course redesign methodology developed through the work of the National Center for Academic Transformation. According to Twigg, NCAT’s President and CEO, the course redesign methodology has had proven success across hundreds of institutions in increasing learning outcomes, improving completion rates, and reducing instructional costs. Yet, there has been only limited adoption throughout higher education. In addressing the question of why this is the case, Twigg commented in the article that “[S]caling course redesign must occur at the campus level. Doing so requires active and thoughtful leadership” (Twigg, 2015).

Implicit in her comment (at least for me) was that effective leadership is both a critical success factor and a common deficit in academic transformation. Intrigued to learn more about the leadership dilemma, I contacted Dr. Twigg for an informal telephone conversation to explore her perspectives in more depth. Herein are select excerpts from our conversation to three general areas of inquiry that shaped our discussion. Dr. Twigg’s comments were grounded in her extensive experience in working in partnership with hundreds of colleges and universities in advancing course redesign efforts using technology to improve student learning while reducing cost. In this regard, her work on course redesign has involved the process of redesigning whole courses—rather than individual classes or sections—as part of a campus-wide commitment to advancing transformative change in teaching and learning.

1. Many institutions are challenged with building capacity to transform tradition-bound approaches in instructional practices, curricular design, and student learning supports. What must campus leaders do to build the fundamental capacity conditions for advancing transformative change?

That is a complicated question. One thing NCAT has done in the past couple of years is create a series of how-to guides that we informally call “cookbooks”. We are doing this to create resources in course redesign. The most recent guide is called “How to Create a Campus-wide Course Redesign Program Using NCAT’s Methodology” (NCAT, 2015). The guidebook answers this question in detail.

Essentially, if an institution wants to use course redesign as a vehicle for serious campus change, then an organized program must be created that involves a campus-wide call for action, definite goals, timelines, accountability systems, as well as adequate resources to support success in implementation. This is what the guidebook is all about - how to create such a program.

Many academic leaders do not take a position and lead this kind of change initiative on campus. By leading, I mean taking a stand on what is fundamentally important for the institution, explaining to faculty why it is important, helping them organize, and supporting them in carrying out that kind of vision. It is like the distinction between leadership and management. It is not just about managing day-to-day activities and putting out fires. Rather, it is about creating a shared vision for academic innovation with a focus on both student learning and reduction in instructional costs. To me, the latter is likely the most important issue facing higher education today, and the one most campuses are least willing to deal with. For this reason, leadership has to come from the top of the organization - the President and/or Chief Academic Officer.

Even though many academic leaders may be willing to take on the issues of quality and cost, they may not know how to do it. This is one of the reasons why we have put our emphasis over the last 15 years on creating a series of models showing how it can be done and what it means in practice. So, while leadership is important, knowledge and how-to knowledge is equally important.

Institutions face many similar problems, but also have problems that are unique to their situational context. To illustrate, if an institution is facing budget cuts, the role of the academic leader is to say, “How are we going to deal with the budget cuts?” In this regard, I am not referring to just taking the path of least resistance through across-the-board budget reductions. Rather, the role of the leader is to seek solutions for changing the way instruction is offered to absorb those budget cuts, and for how quality can be maintained and even improved.

Other institutions may face greater demand for their services than the resources available to meet them. This is particularly true for community colleges, where student demand often outstrips supply. Then the question becomes, how can we offer more places and courses to students on the same resource base? By doing so, the cost of instruction is reduced. Therefore, it is really up to the leadership to frame these questions within the context of the specific challenges the institution is facing, and then help faculty and staff to understand that there are ways to solve these problems. It is not about change for the sake of change. Change in itself is neither good nor bad. It must be specific to an issue at hand to be effective.

2. Even innovative institutions frequently fall back on a “one-size-fits-all” approach to instructional practices, rather than addressing the individual needs of the diverse populations of learners they serve. What effective strategies should institutions employ to (a) develop a deep understanding of the educational needs of the students they serve, and (b) foster a culture of innovation and change based on what is learned?

This too is a big question. NCAT’s successful redesign projects demonstrate conclusively that the combination of learner-centered principles and the appropriate use of information technology are primary factors in increasing student success and reducing instructional cost. Clearly, assessment plays a vital role in all this; assessment of students when they enter the institution, when they begin a particular course in terms of knowledge levels they bring into the course, and as they progress through the course. Assessment should be kept as simple as possible and be embedded to the extent possible within the natural processes of the institution. Most institutions do some kind of quantitative literacy and numeracy assessment upon entry, but often do not track students to find out if the assessment instrument(s) effectively place students in the right courses and if students move through courses as they think they should.

Similarly, if different forms of instructional delivery are being experimented with, then the institution should be measuring what works and under what circumstances. Do lectures, in fact, help students learn, or are they an impediment to learning? By comparing what happens to students under different circumstances, theoretically, academic leaders should be able to progress the institution based on what is learned. We typically do not do this in higher education.

To leverage the use of research and data, one technique that has proven to be effective is to tie a local initiative to a national effort - which again comes back to the need for leadership. For example, with the “Achieving the Dream” initiative—a reform movement in the U.S. to improve student success at community colleges—institutions come together and commit to using data to make improvements within the institution based on what is learned. Similarly, with course redesign, institutions can join state or national programs. In this way, individual institutions do not take on something new just on their own, but tie the initiative to something larger as part of a new kind of cultural movement that is going on throughout higher education.

3. From a best practices perspective, what factors are critical to the effective engagement of both faculty and students in a course redesign initiative?

One of the challenges many institutions face in a change initiative is the ability for faculty to let go of the old ways of doing things. Institutions would be well advised to start with faculty who are keen to change and try new methods. Once the new models are identified and explored in concrete terms, faculty resistance tends to break down. Many faculty fear change because change represents the unknown. But if you can demonstrate success in concrete terms, then it starts to break down resistance.

The Math Emporium model for the redesign of developmental math programs is a great example. Once an established model has succeeded with thousands of students over a period of a decade or more, it becomes a powerful tool for administrators to use in generating interest among faculty in trying something new. This is the strength behind the Math Emporium. Now that there are many examples of the model at all kinds of institutions, administrators can send faculty teams to visit one of the institutions, or invite one or more speakers to come and meet with academic departments. There are lots of ways to leverage these concrete models to raise awareness and interest with faculty. This is extremely important. Because the models measure student learning very carefully, it helps convince sceptical faculty that the new models do, in fact, work.

From a student perspective, many students have a history of failure in mathematics. When taught in the traditional way, some 60% tend to fail repeatedly. When students achieve improved academic performance, their own sense of success and accomplishment becomes a powerful motivator.


Twigg, C.A. (2015, November-December). Improving learning and reducing costs: Fifteen years of course description. Change. Retrieved from


Achieving the Dream. (2016). Retrieved from

National Center for Academic Transformation. (2005). How to do it. Retrieved from

National Center for Academic Transformation. (2005). The emporium model. Retrieved from

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