Wednesday, January 23, 2013

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.

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