Friday, September 21, 2012

Lots of Moving Parts

Teaching a 100+ student class is a challenge.  It's not the teaching part that is difficult for most of us but all of the classroom management issues, the degree of organization that is required to ensure that everyone and everything is in the right place at the right time, the time it takes to answer the inevitable logistics questions that arise for the students (despite the fact that you covered all of it in posted course documents and multiple times in class).  Make it 400 students; add a team of 4 graduate student TAs and 2 undergraduate graders; and have both in class and outside of class activities to harmonize and the challenges become all the more apparent. There are a whole lot of moving parts and a lot of potential for something to go wrong.  Three weeks into my adventure in flipping, I find myself mentally and physically drained by Friday afternoon (and, in truth, by Thursday morning).  Am I getting old?  Well, yes; but that's not the real cause of my bone-aching exhaustion.  Rather, it's the fact that there's so much--and so many people--to keep organized.  BlackBoard, UT's current LMS (Learning Management System), helps a lot; so does our class site on Piazza and the Echo recordings of every class session.  Still, there's a lot to do this first time through.

A brief overview of the course's set-up: The class meets three days/week for 50 minutes (really, 45 minutes because our room is on the southside of campus and most of the students have class in the next hour on the other side of campus; rather than deal with a mass exodus at 45 minutes after the hour, I lopped off the last 5 minutes of class).  The students are asked to do three types of work outside of class: read selected pages from the course textbook (A Brief History of the Romans); read selections from ancient primary sources (Livy, Vergil, Sallust, etc.); and view pre-recorded videos in which I digest, explain, highlight the content delivery of the textbook.  During most weeks, class time on Mondays and Wednesdays is devoted to looking closely at a momentous event or action (e.g. rape of the Sabines; Tiberius Gracchus' land redistribution legislation).  The assigned primary text reading generally provides an account and/or analysis of the event discussed in class. 

Mondays are typically spent reviewing the major elements of the event (i.e. carefully working through the primary text to extract out important plot details and also identify potential reporting biases).  The goal on Monday is to highlight the aspects of the case study that will help them to evaluate the ethical justifications for an ethically-questionable action.  Typically, this means teaching them how to combine textbook "facts" with the close reading of a primary text.  On Wednesdays, we engage in ethical analysis. Active and engaged learning is the focus of class both days and I use a variety of methods to support that (i>clickers; peer discussion; class discussion).  On Fridays, a senior graduate student prepares a review of the textbook/video content.  I work closely with her to have her review mirror the student-centered ethic of the class.  She selects certain "high priority" content to focus on, and then writes i>clicker questions or poses questions for peer discussion.  Her review is designed to elicit learning from the students and help them identify gaps rather than simply to re-deliver content.  The material that they review on Fridays provides the historical background for the case they will work through the following week.  Ideally, I'd have Mondays be devoted to review of content and the case study on Wednesdays and Fridays but at UT, during football season, well, that seemed unrealistic (though I do take attendance and attendance is 10% of their final grade).

Harmonizing: When I wasn't filming lectures this past summer, I was working on redesigning the in class part of the class.  I had decided early on in the process that I would be doing case studies, but I struggled a lot with exactly how to do that, and how to create a clear connection between the Roman history component and the ethics component.  I knew that a key to the flipped class's success was creating a clear relationship between the out of class and in class parts of the course.  Still, it was difficult to see exactly how this might work.  As the class has gotten underway, I've made a point of regularly and deliberately reinforcing that connection, whether by asking i>clicker questions about material from the lectures/textbook or by posing questions for discussion that require them to put together the specifics of the case study with the larger historical picture (e.g. Livy says the Tarquins were bad and yet we know that, under their rule, Rome became the most powerful city in Latium).  I also made the decision to have the review session be held during regularly scheduled class time.  I don't require attendance, but about 75-80% are attending.  Thus far, I've been extremely pleased with how seamlessly these out of class and in class activities are coming together, reinforcing one another, and leading to much deeper learning and more sophisticated student insights.

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