Thursday, January 24, 2013

Student-Centered or Student-Driven Teaching?

A central tenet of the flipped class model is the idea that the instructor goes from being a "sage on the stage" to a "guide on the side."  That is, that the focus of attention in the classroom shifts from the instructor to the students.  In principle, this is exactly how teaching should work.  After all, as instructors we can only provide a meaningful and well-conceived learning experience; and supply some coaching and motivation.  But we can't learn for our students.  The operating principle of a lecture--that knowledge can be transferred from lecturing instructor to passively listening (and perhaps note-taking) student--is absurd.  I am reminded of this frequently, when I ask an exam question about a topic that I explained in detail during a lecture and my words and ideas come back to me in jumbled, nonsensical form.  In a large enrollment class (<100 students), however, alternatives to the lecture are tricky to implement.

In the aftermath of my first attempt at flipping a large enrollment "lecture" class (and at the start of my re-designed, second attempt), I've come to the conclusion that one of the greatest difficulties in incorporating the techniques of blended learning in a large-enrollment class is the fact that we are completely overturning the student-teacher relationship in the classroom.  It was a challenge for me to adjust to this; and it was clearly a struggle for my students to figure out how to hold up their end of the bargain in a flipped classroom.  A student-centered instructional model means that students have a much greater responsibility for what happens during class time.  It became evident in my Fall 2012 class that the students were not always eager to take on this extra responsibility.  Indeed, resistance to the flipped class primarily took the form of resistance to taking responsibility for what happened in class.  The majority of the class wanted me to run the show while they watched rather than actively constructing their own experience.  In fact, they actively resisted my efforts to get them to take control of their learning experience in the class.  This meant that class meetings often felt useless even to me (and almost certainly to many of them).  As well, I felt terribly frustrated that I had handed over control to a group of students who, as a group, were not willing to take on that responsibility.

One of the things I spent a lot of time meditating on over the winter break was the distinction between student-centered and student-driven teaching.  I realized that, in my fall class, I had designed a class that depended on the students themselves to assume control of and responsibility for their learning.  When they didn't do that, the class didn't work as well as it could have and should have.  In addition, there was no easy way for me to step in and take back some of the control (and responsibility).  Once I was "on the side" it was tough to get back on that stage, even just a little.  In my spring 2013 class, I have approached the question of a student-centered course design from a different perspective.  Realizing the problems that can arise when students drive the in class sessions, I have stepped back on the stage.  At the same time, I have deliberately shed the role of sage and adopted the persona of the guide who is slowly but surely edging off of that stage.  My course design puts the students front and center.  Their needs and character drive it and, as the semester progresses, I will adapt as necessary to their willingness to take over the controls; but, if they opt to be more passive, I am ready to step back on the stage and work at getting them to take more responsibility for their learning experience.

Most of all, I learned that I cannot expect my students--students who have been trained to be passive recipients of knowledge--to suddenly rejoice at the opportunity to play a more active role in the classroom and in their learning experience.  In reality, they don't know what to do when given the controls.  It's a bit like expecting a ten year old who has ridden in a car for many years to know how to drive that car.  But, with a lot of orientation, practice, and guidance, I do think that they can learn what to do.  I also think that, by gradually handing over control to them over the course of several weeks rather than all at once at the start of the semester, more of them will embrace the opportunity to play an active role in their learning.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A Fantastic Resource on the Flipped Classroom

For anyone thinking about flipping their class, especially a larger enrollment class, UT Austin's Center for Teaching and Learning has put together a fantastic resource page.  They have also made a series of short videos on some of the key elements and common stumbling blocks encountered when trying to design and implement a flipped classroom: one on roles and expectations; outside of class structures; in class structure; and beginning with the end in mind

The Stealth Flip: First Impressions

The "stealth flip" of my 400 student Introduction to Ancient Rome class began in earnest this week.  Whereas in the fall the class met three days/week for 50 minutes (really, two days for 45 min. because I used Fridays for additional review and had to let them go 5 minutes early so that they could get to their next class on the other side of campus), this semester we are meeting T/Th for 75 minutes.  In addition, there are two, hour-long and optional Supplementary Instruction (SI) sections each week.  During the SI sections, one of my teaching assistants will be working with the students on their basic study skills (i.e. how to create a study space; how to take notes) and their test-taking skills.  These SI sections are NOT discussion sections nor are they content-based review sessions.  Rather, they are intended to help the students develop basic, transferable skills that will help them do well in my course but also in future courses.  I have come to see that these weekly SI sections are central to my learning objectives for this class, and I especially like that we will have the chance to dwell at length on many of the skills I am trying to instill in the students via the T/TH "lectures."

I am referring to this version of the class as a stealth flip because, well, that's what it is.  In the fall, I marched in on the first day of class and told the students that they were in a flipped class.  I explained in detail what a flipped class was, how it worked, and why it would be better for their learning (and grade) than a traditional lecture class.  I even had a short, pre-recorded, PPT-illustrated lecture on the flipped class.  They all nodded along and, for the first 6 weeks, prepared for class and engaged in the reviews and application exercises that I had prepared for them.  And then, about the time that midterm season hit, they stopped preparing for class.  Just like that.  They went from being prepared and engaged to unprepared and disengaged.  Sure, about 20-25% of them continued to engage in the flip; but most of them, under time constraints from their other classes and activities, realized that I couldn't force them to be prepared (in the sense that their daily preparation was not attached to any grade) and so just stopped.  They were unable to follow or benefit much from the in class activities. The accuracy rate on i>clicker polls went from 85% correct to 20-25% correct.  Peer instruction was nearly useless because so few of them had prepared.

We started to have serious behavior problems: texting, chatting, eating, wandering in and out of class at will.  It was extremely disruptive and finally led me to abandon my required attendance policy at the end of October, after the second midterm.  The majority of the students had "crammed for the exam" and had scored on it basically what my students in a non-flipped class had scored.  In other words, they weren't flipping and so weren't seeing the learning gains (and gains in achievement) that come with flipping.  I also realized that, by being "forced" to come to class unprepared and review material they hadn't prepared, they had to confront the fact that they were not keeping up with the class assignments.  They had to emerge from their denial and face the reality that they were robbing Peter to pay Paul (which, of course, led them to argue that they shouldn't have to do so much work for a class that was "only" a requirement and not part of their major).  Coming to class became a negative experience, associated with negative emotions, for the majority of the students.

What I also saw in spades by mid-October was significant student resistance to the flipped model of instruction (see this post for more on student resistance). Students ranted about it on the class Facebook group (I had access to their posts but did not read them until after grades were submitted for the semester).  Few of them said anything directly to me, but when they did come to office hours I often questioned them about their experience with the flipped model.  Most of the acknowledged that it made pedagogical sense; but most of them also voiced their dislike of it.  They frequently asked if they were going to have to take other flipped classes and seemed disconcerted that UT was investing significant capital in transforming courses along these lines.  "I learn better from lecture," many of them insisted.  "I can't discipline myself to prepare for class on a regular basis," I often heard.  I strongly believe that a lot of this outrage, frustration, irritation, and other negative emotions was a reaction to the discomfort that accompanies change.  The very students who would have benefited most from a flipped classroom--those with poor study habits and a tendency to try to cram for exams too late--were precisely the ones who were most resistant because they were the ones being asked to make the biggest changes.  Their old ways had worked well enough, they reasoned, so why change.  Even in the face of evidence that their old ways weren't working very well in my course, they dug in their heels and refused to change.  Because I had not changed my assessments, I had no way to motivate this change with grades (apart from "punishing" them with lower course grades--something I did not do, because my aim was to improve learning rather than punish those who refused to get with the program).

As I planned for the spring iteration of the class, I knew that I'd need to make at least four major changes: first, incorporate *some* lecture into each class.  Otherwise, the flipped model was simply too disorienting for students in a large enrollment, non-problem based class (that is, not a math/science class).  It was too much change; it messed too much with their expectations and experience.  Second, I would never refer to the class as a flipped class.  I wouldn't talk to the students about the flipped model and I wouldn't appeal to their rational side in trying to get them to buy in to the changes in content delivery and in class activities.  Indeed, I would present the class "as is" and act as if nothing was at all unusual or different about the class.  Third, I would make significant changes to the assessments, to emphasize cumulative learning over large stakes assessments.  As well, I would use graded assessments to motivate the students to be prepared for class and to be able to then participate in the review and application activities that I built into the in class presentations.  Finally, I would put a strong emphasis on classroom etiquette and respect for the learning community.  I would be clear from Day 1 that rude behavior would not be tolerated and, in fact, would have the students sign a contract stating that they had read the course syllabus and etiquette policy and would abide by its rules.  These four elements would be the foundation for my stealth flip.

So far, the class is working as I had hoped it would.  My class presentations are a mix of content delivery, review of assigned work, and peer discussion (usually building on something that I presented in class).  There are daily homework assignments, which include watching about 2 short (15 min.) pre-recorded lectures/week  As the semester progresses and the students build up a foundation in the course content, it is my plan to decrease gradually the amount of content that I present in class and to increase the application of that content.  What I especially like about the stealth flip--besides the fact that it doesn't give the students anything to grab onto as an excuse for not engaging in the class--is the flexibility that it affords me.  By incorporating some lecture into class, but also using pre-recorded lectures and assigned readings, I can regularly adjust the balance between inside and outside of class content presentation through the semester.  It means that I can lecture in class without feeling like I've "given in" to the students' desire to sit back and be talked at.  It also means that I can give them a chance to adjust more slowly to the flipped class model.  Indeed, thus far, my class isn't all that different from many they have taken at UT (many faculty use i>clickers and some use peer discussion).  The only major difference is the pre-recorded lectures, which I am introducing slowly and in small number and short length.

I hope that, by the end of the semester, the majority of class time can be spent doing application and other higher order thinking activities.  But I've learned that, to get to this point, I need to start at a point that feels comfortable to my students and then gradually introduce the different elements of a flipped class.  I can't expect them to buy into the flipped model on the basis of graphs and charts that demonstrate increases in learning.  In fact, most of them care far more about grades than they do learning (at least for this particular class, which they are taking to fulfill a requirement).  If I want them to buy in, I have to create a learning environment that motivates them via grades to make good choices (e.g. prepare for class); lets them experience the benefits of that learning environment (wow!  I got a good grade on the quiz!  Studying for the midterm isn't so hard when I've been doing the work as I go!  I got a high score on a difficult exam!  I am able to talk about complex situations in Roman history because I have truly learned the material!  Roman history is interesting and fun and relevant!); and then, through experiential knowledge of the flipped model, gets them to buy in.

Another semester, a new class

I have a number of posts about my first experience with flipping my large-enrollment Intro to Ancient Rome class this past fall.  At some point, once this new semester calms down a bit, I will finish them and get them up on the blog.  For now, though, I want to write about my new class and my new strategies for getting my students to flip.  Once again, the class is completely full at the end of the add/drop period (403 students!).   I am teaching in the same room, albeit on a T/TH schedule instead of a M/W/F schedule.  I regularly have to remind myself that it is a new semester and a new group of students.  My approach to the flip this semester is probably best described as "The Stealth Flip."  I have made a number of changes in the design of the course and, most importantly, incorporated a significant amount of structure.  I am also presenting it to the students in rather different terms: no mention of flipped classes or experimentation.  I did talk to them about Peer Instruction and the importance of active engagement during class, but otherwise presented the class as a traditional lecture course with a few twists (a discussion board; i>clickers; a portfolio assignment; supplementary pre-recorded lectures).

I learned an incredible amount from my Fall 2012 class, most of all, that in a core course the majority of students aren't necessarily motivated by learning and therefore aren't going to respond to a model that has as its stated payoff increased student learning.  Rather, most of the students in my course speak the language of grades, specifically, how to get the highest grade with the least amount of effort.  It's not that they are lazy slackers but that they prefer to devote most of their energy to classes in their major and other extracurricular activities that they deem more important to their future goals and job aspirations.  When they opted not to do the work assigned for each class, or even to attend class, they were not necessarily making irrational choices.  In their world, in fact, this was a completely rational choice.  But it was a choice that meant that they were resistant to the flipped class model.

Perhaps most of all, my experiences with implementing the flipped class model in a large enrollment "lecture" class taught me that I can't flip a class; students themselves make the choice to flip.   I can only design a course that strongly motivates and rewards the decision to flip, the decision to be a more active and engaged learner.  However much I, personally, am motivated by the pleasure of learning, I have to accept that many of my students are not, at least not in a course that they are taking to fulfill a core requirement.  This is not to say that they don't like to learn or simply want to check off a box on their way to high-paying jobs as engineers and doctors.  Rather, I have come to understand, my students have multiple demands on their time and energy.  If I want a substantial piece of that pie, I have to show them why they should want to invest some of their limited time and energy in my class.  Otherwise, they will scheme to find a way to do the absolute bare minimum for the maximum return (though, unfortunately, they often miscalculate and end up with a lower than desired grade).

I also learned that, however much excitement I might have over the potential of the flipped class model to revolutionize the large lecture class, my students don't necessarily share that excitement.  In fact, they generally like the lecture model: it is familiar, it doesn't demand too much of them, and it allows a fair amount of flexibility in when they learn material.  As well, because of limited classroom support and substantial demands on our time, faculty often have a limited number of assessments--a few midterms and, maybe, a final.  Very little writing, unless a faculty member is a masochist or abusive of his/her TAs.  Even exams are often non-cumulative and don't go beyond multiple choice and maybe some fill in the blank, especially as the number of students surpasses 250.  All of this means that, in large enrollment classes, students can generally expect that lecture will rehash assigned readings, allowing them to skip the readings; and exams will ask them to regurgitate largely factual knowledge from lecture.  There are elaborate networks for sharing study guides and course notes, so many students don't even bother attending lecture or doing any assigned work.  They study from the study guide of other students and, it seems, generally score As or Bs with such a minimal input of effort.  It's no wonder, then, that they resist any instructional model that requires regular and sustained and deep engagement with the course content.  This is especially true if that course isn't part of their chosen major.  In an ideal world they might well be convinced to invest a lot of energy in learning about Ancient Rome.  But they operate in a world that is far from ideal, in which they often hold jobs; commute to campus from distant places; and are taking demanding upper division classes in their major.

Once I got into the classroom with my students and watched their responses to my first attempt at a flipped large lecture class, I realized that I was going to need to go back to the drawing board.  Most of all, any revisions would need to take account of the behavior of my users.  This is the thing about a flipped class: it is student-centered.  It shifts a substantial amount of control over class time from the instructor to the students.  Given this fact, it is essential that any implementation take account of the particular features of one's audience.  In designing my spring semester class, this is precisely what I've tried to do, starting with the fact that my students need a substantial amount of orientation to the techniques of blended learning.  They need to be put in the pot of water and have the heat slowly turned up, not tossed into an already roiling pot.