Sunday, October 21, 2012

Staying the Course, Sort of

My Rome students will be taking their second midterm on Wednesday.  I suspect that they will do fine on the exam as a class.  The exam isn't easy, but it's testing them over a lot of material that I reviewed in class (in addition to presenting it in the recorded lectures and assigning textbook readings).  Still, it's clear that there is a vocal faction of students who are unhappy with the design of the class.  Specifically, with the fact that it is a "flipped class".  They were fine with it through the first 5 weeks of the semester, but as soon as midterm season started and their time management skills came under fire, they a. stopped watching the videos before class; and b. become much more resistant to the flipped model.  They have a Facebook page where they vent.  I am not part of the group but hear reports, and apparently there is a very active thread titled "I hate the flipped class".  Not "I hate CC 302" or "I hate Dr. Ebbeler" but "I hate the flipped class."

Not a single student has said a word to me (despite being given several opportunities to do so anonymously); but I have good teacher radar and have picked up on the discontent during class, particularly when I ask them to do peer instruction and some number of them take this as a cue to nod off or text their friends.  They don't seem to hate me (or at least that isn't what is dominating the FB discussions).  But some of them clearly can't stand the flipped class model.  One comment was particularly interesting: it was someone who said something about how I was doing so much "hand-holding" (by which I assume "teaching" was meant) that many of them would get As; but that this shouldn't stop them from using course evaluations as an opportunity to complain about the flipped class model.  Otherwise, it might take hold and other classes would adopt it.  In some ways, I feel sorry for this student who is clearly so unaware of what is happening at her own university as to not realize that it's a little late and no matter how much students protest being made to, gasp, learn, the model is here to stay (though, of course, not all instructors will move most content delivery to pre-recorded videos).  I do feel some empathy for these students.  The loudest voices seem to belong to upperclassmen who have been brought up on the huge class=nap time (I mean, lecture) model.  I am taking them completely out of their comfort zone and, in doing so, asking them to be actively involved in the production of knowledge.  That is how learning happens, but they don't like it.  Not one bit.

I confess: I am flummoxed by this.  I mean, I knew that it happened in theory.  I read the research, I gathered that student resistance was a significant issue and that it seemed disconnected to the quality of instruction.  I knew that, with a class of 400 and only 3 TAs, I was going to struggle more with student buy-in and was more at risk of negativity spreading like wildfire.   Certainly, there are design flaws in the course that will be addressed in the next iteration.  But I also worry that some of this is just resistance to change of any kind.  As I noted above, the loudest voices are juniors and seniors who are filling in core requirements for graduation and just want an easy class that doesn't require much effort.  Or they are science major who think that a humanities class should be easy (but of course that they should also get an A).  So they resent that they actually have to show up; and, even worse, that they are expected to have done some work.  One student noted that it was ridiculous for me to expect a class of 375 students to prepare for class (!).  Really?  I do realize now that it was ridiculous for me to expect that they could take responsibility for their education and stay up on their work without some form of external motivation.  But in my Latin classes, where I assign work and then we review it in class, nobody seems to think it's ridiculous of me to expect preparation. 

From what I can discern, the real issue is that the unhappy students don't want to be told how to learn.  And many of them seem to believe that they learn better by sitting in a lecture hall and being talked at for 50 minutes x 3 weekly, not doing the assigned reading, and then cramming a few times/semester for midterm exams.  I suspect that, in a way, this delusion is perpetuated by us professors who have done this because, in doing it, we write tests that are overly easy, simple regurgitation of what we say, and students think that is learning.  I also understand the resistance to, in essence, being asked to work harder and think harder than they are used to doing, especially for a non-major, introductory level class. 

So now I find myself in a pickle.  Many of these comments have spurred me to thinking about how I can tinker with the course design for the spring and I think I have a lot of good ideas.  I realize now that some part of me thought I was going to get this right the first time, that students were going to love it and love Ancient Rome and love me.  I was completely delusional, of course.  My students are reacting the way that research predicts they will.  I am confident that UT understands well that this resistance isn't a reflection of my teaching skills but rather, of asking students to suddenly change the way they are learning and interacting with course material.  I know I will do a better job of letting the students know what they've signed up for in future semesters.  I will also change the assessment structure to incentivize keeping up.  And I will be sure that everything we do in class is application, not review.  This semester, I find myself lapsing more and more towards review of content because I know that so few have prepared.

I am thinking about some major changes for the last third of the semester.  First, I will let anyone who wants to opt out of coming to class.  They can always watch the recordings of class, but don't need to come.  Second, I will make more of a point of using class time for discussion rather than reviewing factual information.  I will prepare three or so questions for discussion and leave it at that.  I think I've been doing far too much hand-holding because I know that so many of them haven't prepared.  So I've been assuming (rightly, of course), that class is their first introduction to the material and have been more reluctant to just give them application questions to discuss.  After this second midterm, though, that is what I am going to do.  I suspect it will be much more pleasant for everyone when the students who don't want to be there but want an A without doing any real work are given permission to stay home.


  1. One of the reasons I prefer online/blended courses to f2f is because I grew tired of having to compete with facebook and twitter and youtube during my classes. This generation of students is truly wired into technology, although I am surprise at how hard it is for them to adjust when we incorporate the very same technology that they are using at home, in our classes. Maybe it has more to do with their two worlds colliding. They primary use facebook, twitter etc for socializing, not studying.

  2. Tina, you hit on one of the things I find so confusing. They happily watch videos on their computer all the time and yet, when those videos are for school, suddenly some of them don't like it. I wonder if it is a kind of instinctive way of drawing boundaries between work and home (something that most of us gave up on long ago!)? I do think part of it is psychological--they see FB, video viewing, etc. as play rather than work. You've given me a good topic for another post as I think my way through all the facets of this class! Thanks :)