Case Study: Psychology - University of Southern Mississippi

Digital Product in Use:

Connect® Psychology/LearnSmart

Course Name:

PSY 110 General Psychology

Course Type:


Credit Hours:


Textbook in Use:

The Science of Psychology by Laura King, customized for the University of Southern Mississippi, PSY 110 General Psychology

Instructor Name:

Bonnie Nicholson


200 students per section

2,000/year (university total)

Case Study Term:

2006, 2007, and 2009 (without Connect) and 2012, 2013, and 2014 (with Connect)

Students provide generally positive feedback about Connect and find the interactive activities enjoyable.

-Professor Bonnie Nicholson

Connect Meets University Requirements and Demonstrates Improved Student Learning Outcomes

Professor Nicholson was looking for a “one-stop shopping” tool where students could have access to labs, quizzes, and other course materials in one place. Connect/LearnSmart provided that opportunity and improved students’ grades and pass rates. Connect helped reverse the trend of students earning Ds and Fs and who were not completing the course. Since implementing Connect/LearnSmart, 9% more students earned As and Bs and 17% more students passed.

Nicholson believes Connect/LearnSmart made the difference: “Significantly fewer students fail each semester and there is a more consistent pattern of students earning As and Bs. Consequently, pass rates have continued to improve with the inclusion of Connect and LearnSmart.”

She concludes: “Connect offers the whole package – experiential activities, adaptive quizzing, and customizable Connect homework labs. We use Connect to meet university assessment requirements, to demonstrate improvements in student writing (even in a class of over 200!), and to document an increase in student learning outcomes in a very cost effective way.”

Institution Profile

The University of Southern Mississippi, known informally as Southern Miss, is a public research university located in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Southern Miss began as a small teachers’ college and is now a comprehensive doctoral and research driven institution with a diverse student body. Approximately 15,000 students pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees in more than 180 programs through six degree-granting colleges.


Course Description:

This class is designed to provide students with a general introduction to the field of psychology. Psychology is more than just the study of abnormal behavior. Students learn that psychology is also about the mind-body connection, drooling dogs, sleep and dreaming, desire and prejudice, to name a few topics. Students will learn to think critically about the psychological theories and hopefully develop a better understanding of themselves and others. A combination of lectures, video clips, demonstrations, and miscellaneous experiences are used to accomplish these goals. The instructor hopes that the students find this class challenging, interesting, and fun.

Course Grade:

The course grade is determined by: Connect Writing assignments (17%); LearnSmart (33%); Research (8%); and Exams (42%).

Implementation of McGraw-Hill Connect

Previously Professor Nicholson had been using another textbook with separate assignments, but she and her department wanted to find a product that offered “one-stop shopping” where students could have access to quizzing, labs, and other learning tools in one place. “We were convinced Connect was the right product because of the adaptive quizzing offered through LearnSmart.”

All of the course assignments (usually two a week) are from Connect and LearnSmart. Each week, students complete an interactive assignment offered through Connect that allows students to apply course materials to situations they encounter in everyday life. Students participate in the assignment and develop a written essay of about 300 words detailing and summarizing their experience with the activity and/or responding to specific questions that challenge the student to elaborate on material learned.

Because teaching in a large lecture hall makes interactive activities difficult to facilitate, Nicholson uses lecture time to ensure that foundational knowledge is covered and she assigns applied activities as homework. Nicholson considers the Connect options as the laboratory component of the course, “Connect has allowed me to focus on teaching by offering several options for out-of-class, guided learning.”

Additionally, students complete weekly LearnSmart assignments which average 40 minutes of work per student and are assigned to ensure content mastery for each chapter. These assignments are completed in advance of the exam for each module of the course. Nicholson believes LearnSmart assignments have helped improve her students’ pass rates: “LearnSmart is a required component of the class and therefore it would be expected that LearnSmart completion would be strongly associated with final grades because LearnSmart makes up 33% of the final grade.”

Nicholson uses the following Connect reports – Connect Insight Dashboard, Assignment Results, Student Performance, Assignment Statistics, and Item Analysis -- to share average performance information with the class and she uses the At-Risk Reports to identify students who may be struggling. She uses the LearnSmart reports – Student Details and Missed Questions – to help students develop more targeted study strategies.

Nicholson is pleased with Connect/LearnSmart and plans to continue using the tools in her classroom. “Initially, I was afraid to engage in too many Connect elements at once. Each semester I have added a greater number of Connect components and have found those which work best for our needs. I have also learned a good deal about ways to better use the reporting features and how to integrate with Blackboard.”

Additionally, Connect saves paper and management time, Nicholson notes: “Using Connect has allowed me to reduce the amount of paper I need to track by providing for a fully online assignment and feedback system.”

She has moved all of her assignments to Connect, so that she can copy her course materials from one semester to another quickly and easily and employ immediate and automatic grading. Furthermore, “Connect finally allows my TA and me to manage grading over 200 assignments each week by creating the grading cue and syncing with Blackboard, saving us an enormous amount of time.”

Nicholson appreciates that “Connect provides students with an integrated learning experience.” Because she has a large section of General Psychology students, Nicholson believes that “instructors have to be creative to facilitate the application of learning (e.g., labs). Connect offers this possibility.”

Results Achieved

Connect Psychology/LearnSmart has impacted Nicholson’s course positively by helping students achieve higher grades and a higher pass rate.

Nicholson reports, “Final grade distributions reflect a drop in students who failed the course (received a grade of an F) from about 30% before Connect to about 18% after Connect. Additionally, there is an increase in the number of students earning a grade of an A from 17% before Connect to 24% after using Connect” (Figure 1). Nicholson concludes: “Overall, the number of As, Bs, and Cs awarded has increased since using Connect from an average of approximately 20% to 23%.”

Additionally, fewer students are failing. Without Connect/LearnSmart, more students were receiving failing grades and the final grade scores were trending lower. In the three sections prior to implementing Connect/LearnSmart, students failed at a rate of 21%, 32%, and 37% (Figure 2). However, after implementing Connect/LearnSmart the percentage of failing students reversed. Students failed at a rate of 28% in 2012, 17% in 2013, and, in 2014, 9% only (Figure 2).

Consequently, Nicholson’s student pass rates have continued to climb. The collective student pass rate was an average of 74% prior to implementing Connect/LearnSmart. With each passing year, as Nicholson implements more Connect/LearnSmart tools into the course, the pass rate has trended higher from 72% to 82% to 91% (Figure 3).

Fortunately, these positive student outcomes are complemented by less work for instructors and TAs (Figure 4). Instructor and TA time was reduced from 40 hours per week to 20 hours per week for the course management tasks such as reviewing homework and grading.

Nicholson is pleased that in addition to improved student outcomes, there have been cost savings that have come from an increased class size. Instead of offering several smaller sections, Nicholson’s department offers three large sections each semester. After implementing Connect/LearnSmart, there is a reduced need for TA support. Nicholson says, “Whereas in previous semesters at least two TAs were assigned to each large lecture, the current model allocates only one TA to each section (at 20 hours/week). This is more than sufficient to meet the grading needs in even large (n=200+) classes.” Nicholson appreciates that, “We were able to increase class size while still ensuring that students can engage with the material rather than solely relying on multiple choice tests.”

Nicholson plans to continue to use Connect/LearnSmart. “The current plan, which includes weekly assignments, allows us to (1) meet University writing requirements, (2) offer students applied examples of psychological principles, and (3) engage students in adaptive quizzing. Connect/LearnSmart provides a successful approach to a class of this size.”

“While course requirements have remained the same, the efficiency of administering the course is significantly improved with Connect – easier grading, less paper waste, no filing required, and fewer TA hours.”

“Students enjoy Connect assignments.”


Overall, Nicholson wants students to understand the ways in which psychological principles apply to their lives. “This is difficult to do with such a large class, so offering these lab-like experiences online gives students a chance to actively engage with the material. Success is measured by course grades which have increased on average since implementing Connect.”

Student grades and pass rates have reversed direction and started to consistently climb higher. More students are earning As and Bs and fewer students are failing as Nicholson continues to find ways to engage students in comprehensive homework activities that do not place an overwhelming grading burden on the instructors and TAs.

Nicholson says, “Connect offers the whole package – experiential activities, adaptive quizzing, and customizable Connect homework labs. We use Connect to meet university assessment requirements, to demonstrate improvements in student writing (even in a class of over 200!), and to document an increase in student learning outcomes in a very cost effective way.”