Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Flip again

Here's an interesting piece about a flipped course. These are the bits that stood out when I read it:
Only about 25 percent of them watched the prerecorded lectures before class. As a result, class discussion of content became an exercise in futility. Their comments at the end of the semester made it clear that about two-thirds of them preferred a typical lecture class.
I'm pretty sure my students would have been no more interested in watching a Superprofessor lecture on Ancient Rome than they were in watching me—it wasn't me or my style (as they clearly said in the surveys); it was the extra work required of them.
Provide a lot of structure, including weekly quizzes that require students to stay on top of the course content.
The students' graded performance—especially in the A-B range—advanced remarkably over previous versions of the same course. The same content, more difficult exams, and new instructional methods led to improved learning.
[Students] have to come to see the value of doing assigned pre-class work and then see that coming to class is an efficient way to learn (or, more precisely, to earn high grades). 
Contrary to what the fashionable disruptive innovators might have us believe, flipped classes are not easy to teach, and they are not easy to take. 
In sum, the flipped course is more work for everyone, but the better students learn more as a result of doing the extra work. Is this really a surprise? There's a percentage of students who will do whatever it takes to earn high grades (and it's pretty clear here that grades are the motivator). Set the bar high and they will find a way to get over it. So that's the obvious thing to do. Except that there are other students. They might not be capable of what the others can do. Or they just might not care so much. The decision teachers have to make then is whether to leave these students behind, or at the very least to run a serious risk of doing so, or not to raise the bar quite so high after all. And the obvious thing to do in this case is to try raising it and see what happens. That's what I always do, and I imagine it's what most people who teach at the college level do (and probably what all teachers do, unless they are constrained from doing so). But there comes a point when you're leaving too many of your students too far behind. And then you have to stop raising the bar and focus more on making sure everyone, or nearly everyone, gets over it. Which is likely to involve explaining things to those who don't understand. And then you're lecturing again.

I don't mean to sound too much as though I'm defending traditional lectures. I was taught with the tutorial system, which usually meant one-on-one teaching for an hour or more a week plus lots of independent (but guided) reading and writing. We were explicitly encouraged not to go to lectures, regardless of our major. And philosophy, we were told, is an activity, not something that you really can learn from lectures, so philosophy lectures seemed extra pointless. I still went to some because I found them useful or inspiring or just a nice change of pace, but if I lecture now it's not because that's what I grew up with. And I don't really lecture. I never do all the talking in a class. But I do most of the talking because I understand and care about the material more than anyone else in the room. My classes are part question-and-answer, part general discussion, part conversation with those who care the most or understand the least, and part lecture. Sometimes I try other things, but these are the staples that I keep coming back to. No doubt different approaches work better for different people, but I really doubt that flipped classrooms are any kind of miracle solution to the age-old problem of getting people to understand difficult material, or of getting people to work when they would rather play.  


  1. I suspect I subsist on about the same "staples" as you do. I distrust any method presented as a "miracle solution." It seems to me that flipping is going to be more effective in smaller classes. I've heard stories of at least doing flipped activities even in large lecture hall courses, but as you note, the effort needed to sustain this as more than a once-in-awhile activity can be considerable, and there is the issue of people getting lost and/or behind. I think the main task is to figure out what will work--for you, your students, and your particular subject/content--to get the maximum number of students engaged with the material. Perhaps one reason why there can't be "miracles" here is that any given approach runs the risk of "getting old" (boring) over time, at least for those who will get bored at the first opportunity...

  2. Yes, I distrust "miracles" generally, but especially in this case. Partly because the idea of flipping a classroom is roughly the same as treating a class as a discussion section, i.e. something designed to supplement lectures and readings done elsewhere, and partly because philosophy in particular seems unsuited to any approach to teaching that assumes students will not only have read/listened/watched as required but will also have understood the assigned material. The first makes me suspicious because many of us learned to teach by running discussion sections, and if we have moved away from what we did then it's probably because we found something that works better. The second makes me suspicious because philosophy is hard and often needs to be explained. Other subjects are hard too, of course, but not always in the same way. Just understanding the meaning of the words on the page can be very hard in philosophy, so some lecturing seems unavoidable. Unless you only assign very easy stuff, or have such good students that you can rely on them to teach each other.