Friday, September 28, 2012

Preliminary Feedback

I find that one of the biggest challenges in teaching a large class full of students I can;t really know (there are 400 of them!) and don't interact with by name in every class period is the absence of feedback.  In general, I am quite good at reading a room and making adjustments.  Yet, for the most part, I can't do that in a large class. I am still pretty good at taking the temperature of a room's vibes and I like to think I know when something is going really well or really poorly.  Where I struggle is in the middle--when they aren't furious but also just putting in their time.   I was especially stressed about the feedback problem with the flipped class.  Other faculty and administrators as well as the research warned that students don't like flipped classes: they resist; they grumble about the perceived increase in workload; and they give the instructor and the course poor evaluations.  I tried to anticipate some of these objections at the start of the semester by preparing a short video I titled "Teaching and Learning."  In it, I did a brief overview of the the origins of the lecture model and gave an introduction to the flipped model, the reasons for it, and its objectives.  I also reviewed lists of pros and cons.  In other words, I tried to anticipate and address their objections before they could ever take shape in their heads.

We are now 1/3 of the way into the semester and, so far as I can tell, there is no palpable resistance and certainly no more grumbling about the workload than in previous semesters (which is to say, it is minimal despite the fact that it has indeed increased a bit, perhaps by 15-20%).  Honestly, I'm a little surprised.  I worked hard to get the students to buy into the design of the course; I made clear to them why they would be doing everything that we are doing, and why each part was inside or outside of the classroom space.  Still, I expected more resistance (fortunately, faculty are ever willing to provide the resistance to pedagogical innovation).  Instead, what I've found from the students is an eagerness to learn about ancient Rome (I had 111/387 students watch the videos for the next week in the 48 hours after the midterm exam; 250 of them showed up for a voluntary review of video content today.  I am pretty sure *I* wouldn't have showed up if I were a student!).

With the first midterm exam earlier this week, it was a stressful week: the exam had to be written, proofed, all the logistics for its administration and grading worked out.  My brain hurts.  Yet I also feel energized by this amazing group of students and their response to the flipped classroom.  On Wednesday night, mere hours after the midterm exam (and long before grades will be posted), I received an email from one of my students.  In it s/he wrote,  "Just wanted to let you know that i thought i would never be able to remember this kind of information (ancient rome stuff) in this amount of time. It is thanks to the echo lectures, all of the iclicker Q's, piazza, and of course your lectures as well as the TA reviews on fridays. Keep up the GREAT work, i'm really enjoying the class and the discussions that we have! :)"  I am sure I speak for all teachers when I say that there is nothing more rewarding than knowing we were able to make a difference for a student.  I was especially pleased to see the pleasure of mastery that I was able to help this student experience.

This afternoon, while waiting outside of my classroom for the previous class to finish, I had a conversation with a different student.  I asked him how the class was going for him and he launched into an energized rave about how much he enjoyed the fact that he got to apply what he was learning and that it wasn't just about memorizing a bunch of facts.  At that moment it hit me full force that a huge reason for the noticeable increase in student motivation to learn the "facts" part of the course (i.e. the content delivery that I pre-recorded) is because the course gives them the opportunity to do something with that knowledge in the form of evaluating the justifications for different literary and historical characters' ethical choices.  They have clearly recognized that they can't evaluate these case studies if they don't know the facts.  At the same time, they know that there's a point to learning those facts.  In earlier versions of the class, I failed to provide intrinsic motivations for learning the course material.  Sure, there were regular exams that served as extrinsic sources of motivation; but my students never really got to experience the kind of excitement and satisfaction that comes from higher-order, critical thinking.

This student highlighted for me just how essential that is (and yet how difficult in a class that requires the instructor to ground the students enough in the facts for that high order thinking to be in any way meaningful).  I have been delighted to see how willing my students have been to accept that content delivery had been moved out of the classroom space.  Before this conversation, though, I didn't quite know what that was.  I get it now: they'd rather talk to each about the intricacies of our Roman history case studies than listen to me regurgitate the textbook readings.  Sure, most of them need that regurgitation for at least parts of the content; but they sense that what they are paying for and what they are getting out of bed and coming to the space of our classroom for is the chance to talk and interact with the material.  In my conversation with this student, I seized the opportunity to observe that we were able to do the application of facts because of the pre-recorded lectures and made a point of sharing how much fun it was for me to teach the class this way.

I still feel like I won't really know what "the room" thinks until the end, when all the votes are tallied.  Still, it's been great to hear such good things from a few of them.  In my experience, students will be quick to tell us what they don't like but they aren't always so quick to tell us what they do like.  I'm pleased that these two took the time to reinforce for me my sense that, as a class, my students were on board and enjoying the ride thus far.

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