Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Student Resistance and Comfort Zones in the Flipped Classroom

Once the shine of the new academic year wore off for my students--and the reality that they would have to work hard for their grades in my course set in--I've been dealing with some pockets of students resistance to the flipped class.  It's not clear how widespread it is.  Certainly, there are some vocal resisters who have contributed to a class FB page set up by the students and for the students (I'm not part of the group and so only hear reports secondhand).  The model has its vocal defenders, but I imagine that many who like it don't feel particularly inclined to announce that on FB or to try to persuade their classmates to change their minds.  Likewise, I imagine that there is a group of students who aren't particularly fond of the flipped class but also don't absolutely hate it.

I've been trying to get a grip on the underlying reasons for this resistance and seem to have landed on two general sources: first, there are students who simply don't want to do the work.  They prefer the lecture model because they can come to class, be spoon-fed, and then not be expected to know very much or be able to do any higher-order thinking with the information they've been spoon-fed.  In the flipped class, expectations are higher and there is more of an onus on them to organize and participate in the learning process.  I have science and business majors who think they shouldn't have to spend so much time on a stupid humanities course that is just a core requirement.  I have students who are perfectly capable of doing well in the course but resent having to spend so much time learning the material so that their GPA isn't adversely affected.  For this group, I don't have a whole lot of sympathy.  Mostly, I will do a better job of letting my future classes know what they are in for so that students who are shopping around for an effortless A can go to another store.

Another significant source of student resistance seems to come from their sense that I have pushed them out of their comfort zone.  I hadn't realized how much this was true until recently, and I hadn't realized how much it was also true for me as an instructor.  Indeed, what the flipped classroom does is force all of the participants--instructors and students--to learn new roles in the teaching process.  I know that I've felt like I was operating out of my comfort zone during our in class sessions.  I have felt good about the job I was doing, but also very aware of how much less scripted class is when I am running a more discussion-based class.  We don't always get through what I planned--in fact, we rarely do.  Every single class, something unexpected seems to happen and I have to think on my feet.  It's such a different experience from walking in and doing my lecture performance and walking out.

I realize now that my students must be having a similar experience.  In lecture courses, they know what to do, what is expected of them.  They think they know how to learn in that environment.  They've come into my classroom and suddenly been told that they need to learn in a completely new way.  The pieces are the same, just in a different order; and there's what I considered the added bonus of getting to practice that learning in class.  From their perspective, however, it isn't at all clear how those pieces fit together.  Yes, I explained all this several times at the start of class and several more times afterward.  I will explain it again this week.  But they are so accustomed to the "lecture in the classroom" model that it's not at all clear to them that the recorded lecture is the same as that, just in a different space.  And it's not clear to them that what they are doing in class is practicing concepts that will appear on the exam.  I know this isn't clear because I see how few of them access the recordings of our classes.  I am going to "source" the exam questions to show them very clearly that they are coming largely from i>clicker and review questions.  I have learned, however, that I have to take seriously the fact that the flipped class isn't just an easy transposition of in class/out of class work.  It can be completely disorienting to them, especially to those who have taken several large lecture courses and have figured out how to do well in that environment.

In my spring class, I will spend some time at the start of the term talking directly about this issue of comfort zones and disorientation.  I will acknowledge that it is a real thing and I will provide them with a lot more guidance in figuring out how to "do" the course.  Sometimes I think we GenXers assume that our students are far more able to navigate different forms of technology, far more flexible about space, than they actually are.  To the contrary, this course has taught me that they are very tied to the idea that learning happens in a classroom and it happens best with the instructor telling them what to learn.  Yet these students will be entering a workplace that will be ever more flexible, both in terms of when the 8 hour day happens and where.  Some and perhaps many of them will be telecommuting on a regular basis.  They will be entering a workforce that values adaptability, flexibility, and critical thinking skills.  Part of my job besides teaching them about ancient Rome, is to get them to strengthen these muscles.  Indeed, pushing them out of their comfort zones and getting them to learn how to adapt to and resolve that discomfort is part of what I need to be doing, and part of what they need to be learning how to do.

I can empathize with their resistance, though.  I chose to make myself uncomfortable.  Most of them had no idea what I meant when I explained the flipped class model to them.  Further, most of them probably have no idea why, exactly, they feel uneasy and unsure of what to do to succeed.  The answer, of course, is simple: just do the outside of class work thoughtfully and come to class and engage.  But first, this requires them to know HOW to do that outside of class work and to grasp in a deep way how it is helping them learn.  In a class that isn't problem-based, it's very difficult to get them to see their learning (or lack thereof) until they take an exam.  For this reason, I think it nearly impossible to flip a large enrollment humanities class (like Ancient Rome) without also having frequent, low-stakes assessments.  They have to be able to see how well their learning strategies are (or are not) working.  In a math class, this is likely to be easier for them to ascertain based on their ability to do a problem.  In non-problem based course, however, it is too easy for them to confuse recognition with knowledge.

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