Saturday, June 1, 2013

Orienting Students to the Flipped Class: What Worked for Me

I have only seen very preliminary data about the student surveys we did in my flipped Rome class at the end of the spring semester.  One decision we had to make before we even administered the surveys was whether we wanted to include the descriptor "flipped class" in the section that asked for the students' reactions to their experiences in the class.  After some internal debate, I decided to go ahead and include the term, but also a short definition of the term ("flipped class, that is, a class that includes acquiring knowledge of some content outside of class and practicing course content in active ways during class time").  I knew that it would confuse my students because they had never heard their class described this way.  I didn't realize that the very first question would be "Did you know you were in a flipped class?"  Oops.  Apparently this generated a fair bit of discussion on this class FB group, wondering what was going on!  However, the semester was over; they had done well; and I think they realized that it didn't really matter what label someone put on their experience (in fact, part of why I agreed to use the more jargony term was precisely so that, if they took another flipped class, they would understand that it would be similar to what they had already done).  Ultimately, in order to be able to make good comparisons to the fall cohort, it made sense to ask the spring cohort the same set of questions.

I'm sure I'll have more particular things to say when I see the full range of feedback from the students on their experience in the class.  Interestingly, though, even though they couldn't have known they were in a flipped class, only slightly fewer of them indicated that this was the case than in the fall cohort (when we repeatedly talked about what a flipped class was, used the terminology, and even generated enough resentment for a group of students to start a "I hate the flipped class" thread!)  Additionally, the average ranking for every aspect of the flipped class experience was higher for the spring cohort than the fall, again despite the fact that they had never heard their class described as such.
I'm told that, on the whole, they had very little to say about the questions related to the flipped class aspects (outside of class videos, i>clickers, peer discussion, etc.) and spent most of their time responding to questions about the ethics component of the course.  In part, this was likely because many of them were finalizing their ethics portfolios around the time they were completing the survey.  But I suspect that there's another, more important force at work: the flipped class was completely normalized for them.  Because I never completely flipped it; because I eased into the flip gradually over the semester; because I always kept a bit of the "sage of the stage" in place even while putting a lot of the onus on them to keep the conversation going during class, it didn't strike them as particularly unusual.  If anything, they liked the fact that it emphasized active learning, that I regularly involved them in discussion with each other and as a group despite the rather large size.  Whereas the fall cohort had pretty strong feelings about the flipped class model--con and pro--the spring cohort treated the class structure as something unremarkable.
If, as I think is the case for post-secondary, large enrollment lecture courses (and, likely, even many smaller seminars), it is actually counter-productive to make a production of the course design to the students; if, it turns out, student buy-in can be achieved in ways other than making them fully aware of the pedagogical designs at work, then what *are* the necessary components for a successful student experience?  One word: orientation.  The students must know what to do, how to do it, and why they are doing it (at least in part).  Instead of spending my second class day discussing the flipped class with 400 students, I focused on orientating the students to the course; the teaching team; and the tools that we would be using during the semester (e.g. quizzes, worksheets, videos, discussion board).  I talked about each activity we would be doing, how it would work, and why it was a part of the class.  I discussed "best practices" for watching the pre-recorded lectures: take notes, shut down all other windows, sit at a desk.  I explained what peer discussion was and why they learned better and retained more information when they had to explain it to one another. 

Over the first three class sessions, I rolled out the class tools.  First I got them oriented to how a typical class would run and the sorts of things I expected from them, including classroom etiquette.  Then the TAs and I modeled an online discussion.  Only then did I have them try it--and on the first discussion, when a couple of students "trolled" other students, we jumped in immediately with rebukes.  For each activity the students did, they got substantial feedback from me or a member of the teaching (e.g. on the ethics worksheets, which we collected and my TA commented on).  Finally, the teaching team and I put clear boundaries in place: we were happy to help them find an answer to their question but expected them to be self-sufficient.  By the time they took the first midterm exam, it was very clear that the students knew what to do and what was expected of them.  It was not at all a surprise that, throughout the semester, the spring cohort far outpaced the fall cohort on midterm exams and final course grades.

In the fall, it was clear to me that a major source of student anxiety was simply disorientation caused by the disconnect of being in a massive auditorium yet not being the passive recipients of lecture.  Even students who did well, who followed instructions, reported feeling a sense of disorientation.  As an instructor, I was shocked at the amount of helplessness I saw.  Far from being empowered students, the flipped large-enrollment class seemed to cause many of them to be even less able to be independent, self-sufficient problem-solvers. It wasn't the flip per se, but rather, that the flip was happening in a physical space that many of them associated with an entirely different kind of learning.
Humanities professors like to say that we've been flipping classes since antiquity.  Well....yes and no. It's nevertheless true that humanities classes often involve the assignment of some kind of reading that is then reviewed or discussed in class. This works pretty well in graduate seminars and moderately well in upper division undergraduate courses. It doesn't really work at all in a large enrollment course (by which, for the current point I am making, I mean any course in which not every student can speak during a given class).  Once students have a bit of anonymity, they don't see the point of doing assigned work.  When students don't do assigned readings, class discussion grinds to a standstill.  Professors eventually give up and resort to spending most of class delivering content, with pauses for some discussion of points they have raised (the good ones do, at any rate; others will just lecture for the class period while the students dutifully scribble down notes....or, more likely, demand the PPT slides and study from those).  
The issue, as all faculty know, is one of class size (which is why there is such tremendous irony in the embrace of MASSIVEoocs as the solution to all that ails public higher education).  With a small enough class, we can hold students accountable--and they know that and so will often prepare assigned readings.  In large enrollment classes, on the other hand, it is nearly impossible to hold individual students accountable for thoughtful, daily preparation.  In such courses, in fact, students often take the view that they will EITHER come to the class OR do the readings, but not both (this view was clearly expressed in student surveys from the Fall 2012 version of the flipped Rome class).  Thus, it requires a significant shift in student expectations and habits to get them to, as it were, do the flip.  By relying on experiential rather than conceptual learning--in other words, by asking them to do something rather than understand exactly why they should want to do something--I seem to have found a way to get a class of 400 to make this shift. 

I can imagine a time when the flipped/hybrid model is more widely practiced in large enrollment classes at universities, when it would make sense to announce at the start of the class that the course will use that course design.  For now, however, that information means nothing to my students.  The only effect it seems to have is negative. It stirs up anxieties and causes students--to whom I am a complete stranger teaching content that is completely foreign to them--to be overly worried about their grades, about being subjects in a mad professor's teaching experiment, and worse. So, for now, I'll remain a stealth flipper.


  1. It might be worth looking at where this issue is discussed. In particular, I like Ian Beatty's point suggestion:

    "I make a distinction between “explaining” clicker use (and other active-learning strategies I use, such as group whiteboarding and group exams) and “selling” it to the students. If students feel like I’m trying to sell the idea to them, they get suspicious, because I’ve stupidly communicated the idea that (a) clickers are something controversial that needs to be sold, and (b) they have some kind of valid opinion on the matter. I prefer to take the position that “this is just the way I teach, because overwhelming evidence and experience show that it’s what works well, but I also want you to understand what I’m doing and why so that you can play your role with as much awareness as possible. The more we’re on the same page, the better this whole thing works.” See the difference? It’s all about framing."

    Beatty is a noted researcher in physics education research (even got his PhD in it). I'll be using his tack this fall in my courses. This blog might be of interest as well.

  2. Thanks for the suggestion. Yes, it is exactly an issue of framing. Also true for non-tech stuff. I added an "ethics flag" to the course this year. Had several complaints that it "added" too much work, even though all the case studies were from Roman history. It just changed focus of how we talked about material, didn't add work. In the fall, I will mention the flag on the syllabus but otherwise say nothing. Framing... Interestingly, though, most of the research on flipped classes argues that you have to tell them. It seems like, as more of us actually implement the mode, we are finding out this is not only not true but may actually cause problems. I wrote a lot more about this on an earlier post: