As I’ve written about in a couple of recent posts, this semester has been really busy. I’ve been completely overwhelmed by the combination of field season and flipping the Intro Bio classroom and haven’t really had time for anything else. But field season is now over — hooray for the start of deer gun hunting season, which mercifully starts right around the time our lakes start looking like this:
So, now that I have a little more time, I wanted to give my initial thoughts on flipping the Intro Bio classroom.
First, what do I mean by “flipping”? This is a term that has lots of different definitions, depending on who is using it. What I mean by flipping is:
1) We have shifted a lot of the more basic content to outside the classroom. The students have assigned readings from the textbook in some cases, but in others I wrote them a summary of the textbook to ensure that it was a manageable amount of material for them to digest. And, in cases where there wasn’t a relevant textbook section (e.g., on emerging infectious diseases), I wrote the reading material myself. For about half the lectures, they also have to watch a video before class (either a CrashCourse Ecology video or a TED talk).
2) We quiz students prior to every class, asking them some basic questions related to the pre-lecture readings they were supposed to do, as well as more synthetic questions that relate to material covered in previous classes (especially the most recent one).
3) I ask lots of clicker questions in class to gauge where the students are at and have them think through more challenging questions.
4) We do lots of in class activities, especially ones focused on the process of science and understanding figures. For example, I laid out the classic experiment Connell did on barnacle competition and then had them work with each other to draw a figure that would support a role of competition in excluding Chthamalus from the lower intertidal, and draw a second figure that would support abiotic factors excluding Chthamalus from the lower intertidal). They also had to consider whether the experiment could tell them the effect of competition in Semibalanus and, if not, how it would need to be modified in order to be able to make a conclusion about that.
I still do some traditional lecturing, but it’s interspersed with active learning, and doesn’t include going through very basic, straightforward materials.
Why flip the classroom?
At this point, there’s lots of evidence that students learn better with active classrooms, and that frequent testing improves student performance, especially for students with weaker backgrounds. I very much hope that flipping the classroom this semester with improve student performance, improve their retention of material over the long-term, and will reduce the loss of women and underrepresented minorities from STEM fields. I also have been spending a lot of time focusing on having the students understand the process of science – what sorts of evidence allow us to conclude something? – as well as how to read figures. I was really dismayed last year when, talking to a student who was clearly smart and engaged, I asked her about a figure from the reading and she said “Oh, I’m not a figure person.” It was near the end of the semester, and she was taking a biology class, but her brain was just turning off when she saw a figure. And, based on my interactions with students this semester, a lot of them similarly struggle to read figures. So, we’ve spent a lot of time working on that, which I think will help them in their upper level courses and day-to-day lives.
More immediately, the nicest aspect of the new course structure we’re using is that students come to class prepared. I no longer have to spend the first part of my lectures covering basic, boring material. No more standing up there defining “population”, which the students and I both found tedious and dull. Now, I assume they’ve learned the material I assigned them to read ahead of time (which includes a vocabulary list), and proceed from there. And, based on how they’ve been doing on the quizzes and clicker questions, they are learning that material. (Related: based on what they *didn’t* know the day after Thanksgiving break, when they hadn’t had a quiz due, also supports that the quizzes really are helping them come to class more prepared.)
The most fun aspect of having a flipped classroom is watching students teach each other. Hearing students work through concepts and get to the right answer on their own is really, really neat. This is always the highlight of class for me. The actual class time itself is also much less tiring (which is good, because I teach back-to-back, with each class period being 80 minutes long.)
What are the downsides to flipping?
Given all the upsides, it seems like I should be shouting from the rooftops that everyone should flip their classrooms. But I’m not. Why? For me, the workload really hasn’t been manageable this semester. I was expecting this semester to be stressful, but it’s been way more stressful than I anticipated. The good news for the students is that I think they’ve mainly experienced the upsides, but I’m somewhat hesitant to recommend to my colleagues that they should flip their classrooms, just because I know what it would mean in terms of stress.
Why the stress? When I was writing an outline for this post, the first thing I put was “the quizzes, OMG the quizzes”. There are two class periods per week, so two quizzes per week. We need a pool of questions, since each student can take the quiz up to three times, and because we have a big class (over 600 students). There were some existing questions that I could pull from, but, because we also changed the order in which we covered material and dropped a fair amount of material from the course at the same time, most of the existing questions weren’t useful to me. So, I have spent an enormous amount of time writing quiz questions. We need about 100 questions a week. To get there, I’ve been writing quiz questions while eating meals, while supervising my daughter in the bathtub, while walking home (those ones I have to remember and type out over dinner), while proctoring an exam (don’t worry, there were only three people in the room, and they were spread out), etc. Add on the clicker questions that I write for class (usually 5-8 per class period), the exams, and needing to write practice exams (because of the aforementioned shift in order and content), and all I do is write questions.
A major downside to all that question writing is that, inevitably, some questions will not be perfectly worded. Sometimes, there will be an outright error on a quiz (e.g., something will be miskeyed). This aspect of the course has been much harder for me than I anticipated. I got to where I am by having high standards for myself and being a bit of a perfectionist. Having to correct quiz mistakes on a somewhat regular basis is driving me crazy. I was talking about this with someone who is also frequently quizzing her class, and also finding mistakes on quizzes. (It seems inevitable.) The exact phrase she used was “I want to stab myself in the eyeball every time I realize there’s a mistake on a quiz.” While I might not have phrased it that way myself, I completely understood the sentiment.
Another major downside is that more deadlines (two a week just for the quizzes) mean more emails and more fires to deal with. Sometimes a student can’t access the quizzing platform. Or maybe they’re ill or their computer was stolen or any of 8042 other possibilities. All those result in an email to me. And, remember, there are two quiz deadlines a week and over 600 students — that’s a lot of potential for problems that result in emails. Sometimes they find a legitimate mistake on the quiz. (In those cases, it’s really helpful when they tell me early, because it’s much easier to fix when only a few students have taken the quiz.) Sometimes, there isn’t a mistake, but they think there is. All of that adds up to a LOT of emails in my inbox, and a lot of things I need to deal with. I’ve come to hate checking my email. Some of this is related to my personality (I know that I need to not view it as an indictment of my skill as a teacher if there is a mistake on a quiz), but much of this would be problematic for most instructors (the overwhelming number of emails). I’ve recently set limits on email (none after 8:30 PM or before 6 AM, and have removed the work mail from my phone in an attempt to wrest control back from the email monster.)
Finally, a problem I hadn’t anticipated (but that, in retrospect, I probably should have) is that students haven’t all realized that some of the questions are easy questions just to ensure they’ve done the reading. Once a quiz deadline has passed, we open up the quiz so that they can take it as many times as they want, and many students take the quiz over and over and over again. This led some of them to feel the first exam was unexpectedly hard – and, if they were thinking the exam would be half made of very simple recall questions, I can see why they would feel that way. So, for the next exam, we’re making a separate, giant quiz that combines all the harder “concept” questions from the different quizzes, which will give them a more realistic sense of what the exam will be like.
How can I assess whether this is working in my particular class?
To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. I would love to follow up with these students in a few years to see what they think at that point. I’ve received a fair amount of positive feedback from students during the semester, which has been nice to hear, but I know others are unhappy. (There are over 600 students. Some will always be unhappy, unfortunately.) But I wonder what the general response will be come evaluation time, and, more importantly, I want data on outcomes in future classes. One of my colleagues compared end-of-semester evaluations by students to asking someone what they think of their dentist while they’re in the middle of having a cavity filled. At that point, you don’t necessarily feel so great about the dentist. But, a couple of weeks later when you can eat without pain again, you’re pretty glad you went to the dentist. I suspect that, right now, some (many?) of my students don’t understand why I’m emphasizing process of science and figure-reading so much; my hope is that, over the next couple of years, they’ll come to realize those are really valuable skills to have, and will be glad they developed them early in their college careers.
Have you flipped a classroom? How did your experience compare? Did it get easier in future semesters? If you haven’t flipped yet, are you considering it?
Or, if you’re a student, have you taken a large lecture class that was flipped? Did you like it at the time? Did your view on it change over time?