BIOL 315 (Quantitative Biology I) is the introductory biostatistics course here at Calgary. It’s a big course that was working adequately as a conventional lecture+labs course. But yet we decided to flip the course—and so far it seems to be working. Want to know why we did it? Read on! I’ll cover how we did it in a future post.
To interpret any advice and figure out if it applies to you, you need as much contextual information as you can get. So here’s some context to help you understand why I thought flipping our intro biostats course was a good idea. Your mileage may vary!
The University of Calgary is a large (~25,000 undergrads) public research university. BIOL 315 is 132 students (max), mostly in their second year. Roughly half the students are required to take it as part of their major program (Ecology, Zoology, or Environmental Science) or because it’s a prereq for upper-level ecology courses they want to take. Most of the rest are premed students who take it to fulfill med school admissions requirements.* It’s offered both semesters (so 132 students/semester). Because of student demand and other constraints, there’s no possibility of making the course smaller by offering multiple sections/semester or lowering the enrollment cap. Not anytime soon, anyway.
So we’re stuck offering a big course to a diverse range of students, most of whom do not have a pre-existing interest in the topic. What to do about that, pedagogically?
Well, until this year I didn’t do anything special. In the semesters in which I was assigned to teach the course, I taught it as a conventional lecture (as did other faculty). Oh, I tweaked it around the edges every so often. Adjusted the topic coverage. Adopted a textbook (Whitlock & Schluter). Asked some clicker questions during lecture, to get the students thinking and give me and them a bit of instant feedback on what they had or hadn’t understood. Made a small part of the course mark dependent on answering a sufficient number of clicker questions, so as to encourage attendance. Gave a few of the lecture sessions over to doing exam-style practice problems. Added peer mentors, students who’ve taken the course previously and who want to help their classmates do well.
And it worked, more or less. Most students did fine. They attained an adequate understanding of the material, as evidenced by their performance on exams, assignments, and in subsequent courses. A minority did awesome. Only a very few failed. (Aside: you sometimes hear people arguing against lecturing because of a few studies suggesting it puts many students and/or certain groups of students at high risk of failure. That argument doesn’t apply here.) And while students weren’t thrilled with the course—student evaluation scores tended to run lower than the departmental and faculty averages for courses at the same level—I wasn’t too worried about that, for a few reasons. First, the student evaluation scores weren’t bad in an absolute sense. Second, I knew from surveys that students mostly don’t come into the course looking forward to it, and you’d expect student reaction to any course to partially reflect their pre-existing feelings about it. Third, the purpose of any course is to teach students something, not to make them happy. It’s nice if students like a course, and there are circumstances in which liking a course might help students learn. For instance, students might put more effort into studying for courses they enjoy (then again, maybe not–effort depends on lots of factors). But student learning is the ultimate goal. (Plus, students’ course evaluation scores mostly don’t correlate with learning, or even correlate negatively).
But all that tweaking wasn’t having any apparent effect on student learning. This is consistent with my experience of teaching: it’s not that hard to bring the class as a whole up to some adequate level, but very hard to bring the class as a whole up higher than that. Put another way, I seemed to be stuck on a “local fitness peak”, pedagogically. Finding a higher peak on the pedagogical “fitness landscape”, if one existed, was going to require a (directed) “macromutation”. The course was going to have to be totally revamped.
This had two obvious downsides. First, it was going to be a lot of work (but see). Second, there was some risk that it would make the course worse. But several considerations mitigated those downsides for me. First, I have an amazing colleague, Kyla Flanagan, with whom I currently share the job of teaching BIOL 315 (we alternate semesters). She has experience and background knowledge concerning a range of modern pedagogical approaches liked flipped classrooms. She wanted to restructure the course, and convinced me that I should teach the restructured version too. She also took the lead on the new prep, which totally spoiled me and made the decision to adopt a new structure much easier for me. Second, we had colleagues in our department who were happy to share their experiences with flipped classrooms. Third, our head of department cares about teaching and is very supportive of faculty who try to improve their teaching. Fourth, I felt myself getting stale as a teacher. I wanted to force myself to break out of my pedagogical rut (something Brian’s also talked about). Fifth, I didn’t feel any particular attachment to lecturing as an approach. I have every reason to think I’m a pretty good lecturer, but clearly I’m not so good as to be able to get 132 University of Calgary students all doing great in intro biostats. Bottom line: if you know how to cook, you should be able to follow a new recipe that others have already tried with success, without screwing it up too badly. And it’s fun to try a new recipe sometimes.
So this past fall, we flipped the BIOL 315 lectures.** Students now have to come to class having done background reading, and over half the class time is given over to quizzes and other “active learning” activities that can only take place when students are all in the same room as the instructor and each other. It seems to be working. The class average was up about 10% last fall if memory serves, even though the exams were broadly similar to those in the past (i.e. we didn’t sacrifice much in terms of breadth of coverage). N=1, obviously, and one success is no guarantee of future success, especially since Kyla taught it in the fall and now it’s me doing it this term.*** But so far I think things are going pretty well.
Now that I’ve whetted your appetite, you can look forward to a future post in which I’ll explain in much more detail how the course works. “Flipped classroom” is a broad term covering a bunch of pedagogical approaches, so just telling you that we flipped the classroom isn’t very informative…
*A few have taken a stats course in another department and take 315 in the belief that it will be an easy A because it covers material they’ve already had. This belief usually proves to be mistaken, for various reasons. And a few have taken a stats course in another department, but are taking 315 because they want to learn R. As far as I know we’re the only intro stats course on campus that uses R. The intro stats course in the Mathematics and Statistics Department uses Minitab (I know, it surprised me too when I learned this). And I think the stats courses in Economics use Stata, which only economists use as far as I know.
**The labs remained unchanged. The primary role of the labs is to teach the students how to do graphing and statistics using R. Even if we’d wanted to revamp the labs as well as the lectures, changing both the lectures and labs at once would’ve been both too much work and too risky.
***There is some data suggesting that some or even all of the apparent positive effect of active learning approaches is because those approaches have mostly been adopted by highly-trained teachers. Which I am not. No one teaching approach is always and everywhere superior to others, for all instructors. In teaching, as in life, you need to do what works for you. Seriously.