A couple of months ago, I told you why and how we flipped the big intro biostats course here at Calgary, and that it led to a big improvement in student performance the first time my ace colleague Kyla Flanagan taught it back in the fall. And I said that so far, it seemed to be working well for me this term.
I spoke too soon.
I wrote those posts right before the midterm. Which didn’t go well. On average, the class as a whole performed substantially worse than Kyla’s fall cohort, and worse than past cohorts I’d taught under the old, lecture-based format. Fortunately, they performed much better on the final exam, roughly on a par with students to whom I’ve lectured in the past, but still substantially worse than the cohort Kyla taught in the fall.
N=1, obviously. You don’t want to read much into an anecdote, which is what one term of any class is. On the other hand, the fall term was an anecdote too. And so were the past terms I taught as lectures. Teaching (and life) is a series of unreplicated, uncontrolled experiments, on the basis of which decisions must be made.
I have some ideas about how to improve things next time I teach the course. Some of the information I have to go on comes from the students themselves. On the excellent suggestion of Kyla and another colleague, I gave the students the chance to do a “midterm reflection” in exchange for a couple of bonus marks. After the midterm, they completed a 1-page form with questions on how they thought they did, how they studied, how they planned to study differently in future, and what I could do to help them succeed.
Obviously, I’m going to tweak the course content to focus more on the material the students struggled with most.
I’ll also follow Kyla’s lead and incorporate more clicker questions and maybe some short team activities into the remaining lectures. I didn’t do much of that this term–indeed, less than I used to–because I felt like the students were doing a lot of active learning in the other class sessions and I needed to cover a fair bit of ground in the remaining lectures. That may have been an error on my part. And I may go back to making a small part of the course mark dependent on answering clicker questions asked in lecture, as I’ve done in the past, because lecture attendance was poor later in the term.
And while I’m not sure the course schedule will allow it, I might try to squeeze in a couple of class sessions devoted solely to exam-style practice questions done individually. Under the old course format I had 3-4 of these sessions scattered throughout the term, and students found them very helpful. Under the new format, they do many quizzes and assignments involving exam-style questions, but mostly in teams. I think talking with their teammates helps them learn, but I’m not sure it does a great job of alerting them to what they as individuals need to work on. Now, I do make many practice questions available, but this term most students either didn’t do them, or more commonly crammed on them in the days leading up to the midterm. I wonder a little if a side effect of the flipped format we use is to make students less likely to do optional practice questions. The flipped format forces them to spend more out of class time on the course than they otherwise would, making them (quite rightly) reluctant to spend even more time. I’m happy with their overall level of effort, shaky lecture attendance later in the term aside. So rather than expecting them to do lots of practice questions on their own and so put in even more effort, it’s probably more reasonable and effective to devote some class time to practice questions.
Finally, I think I need to provide more really difficult practice questions. Make the practice questions as a whole a bit more demanding than the exams. If only to ensure that the practice questions don’t lull students into a false sense of complacency.
Will these tweaks work? We’ll see–and of course it’ll be hard to tell for sure. Every cohort of students is different. My goal remains to get the class as a whole to a level beyond what I was ever able to achieve via lecturing. I know I can get the class as a whole up to an adequate level of mastery by lecturing, because I’ve done it many times before; I’d like to bring them up above that. I’ll keep trying for a while, though not indefinitely. At some point, if I can’t get this new format to work any better for me and my students than lecturing did, I might go back to lecturing just because it requires less work on my part.
In the comments, please share your own experiences with tweaking your classes.
UPDATE: Just got my student course evaluations for this class. As I expected, the overall average is solidly below our departmental average for courses at this level, and below the average for other courses I teach, though not terrible in an absolute sense. And there’s a fair bit of variance around the average, though again only a small minority hated the course. You also have to keep in mind that student eval scores for this course always run low, because few biology students like statistics. Unfortunately, the scores on the various granular questions my university asks turned out to be a little hard to interpret. I mention all this just for completeness. I don’t find student course eval scores very helpful to improving my teaching, and I see no reason to be concerned about them unless they were disastrous. The students also fill out quite open ended comment forms, which I have yet to look at. When I do look at them, I’ll only be looking for evidence of widespread issues. It’s a bad idea, pedagogically and emotionally, to worry about the inevitable few students who hate the class. A class of any size is almost sure to contain at least a few students who hate it.