Wednesday, January 23, 2013

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment