Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Uggy from Utica on Lectures and Flipped Classrooms.

I read Surly's post about lecturing, and I have a theory about why the flipped classroom is suddenly in vogue (besides providing fodder for Ed.D. theses). I realized that in my college physics classes I got the benefits of both the lecture and the flipped classroom. Physics I met FIVE hours per week: four lecture hours (standard for my college, which was on the quarter system) plus one mandatory discussion section led by the professor, where we had to be prepared because at any time we could be called to the blackboard to demonstrate a problem. Lab was an additional 2.75 hours. In Physics II and III the mandatory discussion section disappeared, but the work was challenging and I joined a study group to stay on top of it. On our own, my study group did exactly what science students do in a flipped classroom: work together to solve problems. The lectures and textbooks were also essential and I doubt we'd have made much progress without them.

Fast forward to today, where the flipped classroom is all the rage at my university. The edu-research seems to show that flipped classrooms produce the best "learning outcomes" (can't believe I just used that phrase). Is that just because students don't do homework for their traditional lecture classes? I'm sure students are more likely to read their books and/or watch preparatory videos if they know they will have to do actual graded work in class. Certainly the threat of low section grades, to say nothing of public humiliation, forced me and most of my Physics I classmates to be extra-diligent. Maybe the only way to get the students to work problems is to make them do it in the classroom panopticon.

What bugs me, though, is that all of the benefits of the flipped classroom are available in traditional lecture courses. There are plenty of rooms at the library that study groups can reserve if their dorms are inadequate. Our department has a help center staffed by grad students that's open 30 hours per week. The students can read the textbook, listen attentively to a thoughtful lecture, and then work on their own or with a group to put their new knowledge into practice, getting guidance from the help center as necessary. Needs initiative and responsibility on the students' part, but no administrative hand-wringing.

(On a side note, I'm not convinced that science faculty are pushing the flipping fad, as Molly Worthen suggests. I think most of my colleagues would prefer that students know something before they get in the lab with hazardous chemicals or dangerous equipment. We give them a lot of the required background knowledge in our lectures, supplemented by the textbook and the lab manual.)


  1. That's not quite true. The idea behind a flipped room is that you have your proffie there in the "study group", guiding you through the mistakes you're making. The theory is that this is the proffie at her best-used: guiding misconceptions and thinking. It moves "information transmission" to work at home.

    That's also why I'm pretty skeptical. I don't think that the proffie is necessarily the best person to help with activities all the time, and I don't think "information transmission" is that easy to accomplish.

  2. I'm still waiting for one of these Ed.D./Flipper/Disruptor types to admit that what we've been doing for decades in the humanities -- having students read stuff, and then discuss it in class -- is exactly the same thing as the 'innovation' they're talking about.

    1. Also note that we teach in small sections, which administrators absolutely hate (so inefficient!), but which solve a major problem with the scenario the flippers imagine: if you divide a class of 200 into 10 study groups of 20, how much time does the professor have with each group, and how does (s)he decide which one to work with first?

    2. We've done that: divide a class of 200 into 10 study groups of 20. Each group got 2 faculty for a whole 2-hour workshop. One deanlet called that "efficient" in a context of "what can we do as long as it's not a lecture?" I was like, have you never done a simple calculation on a bar napkin?

      Lecture: 1 faculty hour per 200 student hours.
      Workshop: 1 faculty hour per 10 student hours.

      I didn't show my work, but the problem is, my drink is sweating onto the napkin, and the ink is running.

      So the question is, are the outcomes 20x better to warrant this? The other question is, will the provost hire 20x more faculty to make this the norm?
      No, really.

    3. no, no, no, it's totally different! because, you know, reasons.

  3. @Jonathan - I think you're completely right. At it's best, the humanities has been engaging students in active learning for decades. I was actually quite surprised by the link in Surly's post, with a historian arguing for lecturing.

    I'm quite skeptical about the "flipped" or "inverted" hype. Most of it seems to focus on the shiny gadgets (online lectures! tablets! phones! phablets! do it in your pjs!) rather than the true value of the process, which is the classroom discussion that encourage deep thinking. This can happen in groups or be more instructor guided, use clickers, peer review...The literature focuses on the active engagement of the students in the class, rather than how that is achieved (whether there are online videos or just a textbook, improvements in learning seem to come from the in-class engagement). Freeman etal is the obvious reference:

    As I've been transitioning my STEM classes to a more active, student-centered classroom (and learning a whole new set of jargon to keep the deanlets at bay!) it's been my colleagues in the humanities that I've turned to for guidance. It's not the same game, obviously, but many in the humanities have years of experience guiding discussions and structuring their classes around discussions. It's been invaluable.

    Having said all that, I think Uggy has a profound point. But what else can we do? I've been reading this page for years and the misery is deepening. Most students learning and understanding is so shallow. Perhaps it's always been so. I'm hoping that these few, relatively small changes that I can make will help, because at the end of the day, I want my students to see how bloody cool my discipline is...

  4. I do think that student unwillingness/inability to do traditional homework plays a large role (so why do we think they're going to do at least some of the traditional homework -- the reading -- *plus* watch a lecture, however chunked?). The next question is why they're having so much difficulty with doing the traditional 2-3 hours of out-of-class prep (reading, problem-solving, study group participation, whatever) for every hour in class. I'm sure overscheduled lives in the K-12 years, overemphasis on standardized testing and preparation for same, helicopter parents, and all the usual suspects play a role. But looking at my own student population (underprivileged in comparison to the stereotype of the typical college student, but pretty representative of the actual current population of college students), I really think that the high cost of tuition (and fees, and books, and everything else) and the comparatively small amount of non-loan aid, plays a large role. I'd really like to see what would happen if we doubled or tripled the Pell grant, but/and made it contingent on students limiting their paid working hours during the term.

    Or, failing that, I'd be interested to know more about how things work in countries where college tuition is very low or free, and students receive a stipend. Do they have the same problems with "engagement" (which I increasingly suspect equals time spent with butt in seat doing something that resembles studying, or at least the products thereof, since there's a lot of opportunity for both virtuous and vicious cycles here)?

    1. Sometimes, when I read things like this, it is initially hard to disprove that I and the writer do not occupy the same physical space as well.

  5. "Is that just because students don't do homework for their traditional lecture classes?"

  6. Sorry, dead horse comment thread, but I'd like to hark back to the days when I was a grad stud, and our (STEM) department had a large research group in it which specialized in "Hamster Fur Weaving EDUCATION". Note that we were not the education department, we were the Hamster Fur Weaving department. But these people specialized in "research" on how students learn Hamster Fur Weaving. It was a total boondoggle. With no participation from anyone in the education line of work. Because these people were all "SCIENCE! WE SMART! NO NEED INPUT FROM CRAPPY EDUCATORS WITH LONG HISTORY TO STUDY PEDAGOGY!" Their main conclusion was that the Student Outcomes (which they specified) were better if you put the students in a small-group, flipped classroom and yammered at them Socratic-style, while also having the regular 3 hrs worth of lecture per week (lecture hall containing about 150-200 students), and the lab section of 2-3 hours per week (lab containing 10-15 students), and the EXTRA 3 hours per week of small sections (containing 10-15 students). And they demanded, and got, all of the grad stude labor to teach these sections. I tried to point out that this was just silly: their main conclusion was that the student outcomes (which they specified, often post hoc) seemed better if they vastly increased the number of contact hours between students and smarties, which is completely trivial; and it was insupportable with the current levels of labor: faculty plus grad student enrollment in the department. I was invited to STFU. Lesson learned for me: don't rock someone's livelihood boat with obvious questions if there is a big power imbalance between us.


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