Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Why I flipped my class (and lost a year of my research life)

I've been teaching "lecture" classes for a decade, at a university that specializes in them.  These courses range in size from c. 75-500 students.  Most (but not all) departments try to restrict them to their lower division courses.  We faculty know that it is not a very effective way of teaching but most of us, over time, come to see them as an inevitable part of a job at a large, cash-strapped, public institution.  I felt ok about the job I could with 75-100 students in a Pagans and Christians class.  I knew that a lot of students were cramming for exams and not really learning, but attendance was fine and there was always about 25% of the class who were pretty engaged.  I never just lectured; but instead, discussed assigned readings and tried to push the class to think deeply about the complexities of the content.  The biggest challenges were my own pedagogical limitations (I had no training in teaching this sort of class or in assessment and was very much learning on the job); and not having enough classroom support to test them in ways that required them to move beyond the regurgitation of facts.

In Fall 2010 I began to teach one of my department's cornerstone offerings: Introduction to Ancient Rome.  It was generally capped at c. 225 students and, at least when I taught it, every seat was taken.  Most of those seats were taken by non-liberal arts students who needed the class to meet a graduation requirement.  About half of them were upper division students in the natural sciences, business, and engineering; often, they viewed it as their "easy" class and expected to put in little effort while still receiving an A.  I soon found that I liked the experience of teaching a larger class and even enjoyed lecturing.  But I hated the feeling that I was in cahoots with my students--I'd make the class entertaining and not too demanding and they'd humor me by cramming a bunch of facts (from a study guide I handed out) and then purging them on the midterms.  I knew they weren't really learning, but didn't know what else to do.  I also realized that I was going to become bored very quickly with giving the same lectures every fall.

When the course ended up getting scheduled in a room with lecture capture technology (Echo360), I started to think about ways that I could work with that technology to improve the course and increase student learning.  After many conversations, this led me to the project of a deep redesign of the course.  My impetus was to increase student engagement, depth of learning, retention, and self-sufficiency while also getting the students to understand that learning about ancient Rome could be fun--even for an engineer or a business student.  I figured it would take three semesters to get it right; it seems to have taken two.  In the fall, when I told the students that they were in a "flipped" class and tried to make them partners in creating the learning environment, I encountered stiff resistance from a small but vocal enough minority.  After working through the survey feedback from that course, I made a number of changes, none more significant than bringing back a small amount of lecture and not telling the students that they were taking a "flipped" class. 

This "stealth flip" seems to be working and, at the halfway point of the semester, I am seeing some big payoff.  First, many of the students are engaged with the course content and thinking hard about it.  I see this on the discussion board in their posts; and I see it in posts they make in which they connect something from class to something they know.  This morning, I woke up to find that a student had observed that the O Fortuna poem in the Carmina Burana was to the goddess Fortune--the same goddess that we had discussed in class the previous day in relation to Sulla.  Seeing this process of connection-building, this active thinking, on display reminded me of why I have been putting in such long hours.

One of the primary reasons that I opted to flip the class was because, semester after semester, students performed terribly on exams covering the period from the Punic Wars to the reign of Augustus. Exam scores dropped by at least 10% every semester.  This wouldn't be so worrisome if this weren't some of the most important material in the course.  But it's tough going: lots of names, terms, events to keep straight.  It is very complex and not suited to a "cram for the exam" approach to learning.  It is also the kind of material that benefit from constant practice, application, discussion.  In an ideal world, when the course reached this point, we would break into small, specialist-led discussion groups for about 6 weeks.  But it's not an ideal world and I have a limited number of TAs and no discussion sections to work with.  The flipped classroom seemed like a good model for helping students better master this part of the course.

In the straight flip in Fall 2012, test scores plummeted and, as was the case in the lecture-based class, were on average 10% lower than the scores for the first midterm.  The flipped class had no effect at all.  Because I had not also incorporated regular assessments to motivate students to stay on top of the material, I had no way to "force" them away from the "cram for the exam" approach.  I repeatedly warned them that it would not be effective, but they didn't want to hear me.  For three weeks, I felt like I was watching a car accident unfold in slow motion. 

This semester, in my stealth-flipped class, the students take weekly quizzes.  They took one yesterday, the first that really highlighted the challenge of keeping straight a lot of easily-confused content.  It didn't help matters that they were coming off of Spring Break.  It was, however, a perfect "teaching moment."  They took the quiz during the first ten minutes of class.  I then took about 10 minutes to talk about how I felt the class was going and to praise all the good things they had been doing.  I also did my usual bit about how the content was going to be quite challenging for the next several weeks and that the key would be to stay on top of the readings, come to class, engage, practice.  I could see them nodding their heads.  I suspect that my message was heard.  Why?  Because they had just experienced exactly what I was describing.  In effect, I wasn't telling them anything they hadn't just figured out--I was only confirming it and giving them some advice on how to deal with the challenge. 

I expect scores on this quiz to be lower than normal; but I also expect that this quiz, and the one next week, will function as warning shots across the bow.  They will help the students to calibrate their effort, to identify areas that need more attention, and give them a very good sense of what is going to be challenging about the second midterm in two weeks. They will understand the benefits of spending class time practicing the recall of content (something the fall class, as a whole, never really got).   I expect that many of them will make the necessary adjustments and that, for the first time since I started teaching this class, the midterm scores on this next exam will be close to the scores on the first exam. 

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