Friday, August 2, 2013

Managing Class Meetings in the Flipped Classroom

One year after redesigning my Intro to Ancient Rome class, I feel like my world has been turned upside down.  In many ways, it has.  I approach teaching in an entirely different--and far more thoughtful and informed--way; and I am more committed than ever to being an advocate for experimentation with the techniques of blended learning.  There's no single right model for "flipping" or "blending" a class (nor is there even agreement among learning theorists about what, exactly, these terms mean).  In its most successful format, my large enrollment course is probably best described as a modified flipped class.  I still do some lecture during class time, about 20 minutes or so; but use most of class time to review and practice difficult concepts; work with students to make connections between different parts of the course; and ask students to engage critically with the complexities of Roman history.

This past year has been enormously challenging, emotionally and physically.  Undertaking a project like this is not for the faint of heart.  Had I fully grasped what I was in for, I never would have done it. Seriously.  When I encountered pretty significant student resistance to the flipped model in the fall semester, I toyed with the idea of giving up.  For better or worse, though, I am one of those people who hates to fail.  I really, really hate it.  I was also very lucky to have the support of an amazing group of people affiliated with UT's Center for Teaching and Learning, especially Stephanie Corliss, Erin Reilly, and Julie Schell.  I'd be lying if I said that I enjoyed Rome 1.0 in Fall 2012.  I hated it.  I was miserable, frustrated, and exhausted.  I cried a lot.  I adopted two adorable kittens and posted a lot of cute kitten pictures on Facebook.

But I am stubborn and I knew that I could fix at least some of the big problems: too much outside of class work; not enough structure; needed to modify the assessments to match the course design; needed to find a way to define myself somewhere between "sage on the stage" and "guide on the side".  I needed to make it clear to the students that I was "doing my job", even if it looked a bit different from what they were used to in a lecture class.  Any instructor knows that it is so much easier to lecture to 400 students than it is to try to run an active and engaged class.  In the fall, I completely flipped the class.  I did no lecture during class time and used class time to identify misconceptions, review factual material, and encourage analysis.  This approach  was a massive mistake in a class that had essentially no direct contact with me, not least because it left the students with the impression that it was just an online class and that class time was a "waste" because I wasn't delivering content.  The low point came when some of them started a thread on the class FB page (I wasn't officially a member but I heard about it) titled "I Hate the Flipped Class."

As well, I made the mistake of retaining my old assessment structure of 3 midterms and a final.  In retrospect, it was no surprise that the students refused to flip and therefore got little out of class meetings (if they even bothered to show up).  They just crammed for the exams and resented having to binge view so many lectures in addition to the assigned primary and textbook readings.  By about week 6 of the fall semester, I felt like I was the ringmaster of a circus, desperately trying to keep all the lions and tigers from attacking me and running loose.  It was not a fun teaching experience, but I learned a lot from the failures.

Going into the fall semester, I assumed that the most challenging piece would be mastering new classroom technology, particularly the i>clicker.  Certainly, it took some time for me to figure out how best to integrate i>clicker questions, how to find a balance between spot-checking factual knowledge, using them to teach new facts, and seeking opinions (and, again, all the research and advice I found on this topic was essentially useless because it was aimed at problem-based disciplines, not humanities).  I also use a fair amount of peer discussion.  It's a huge, awkward classroom with fixed seating so I used the "turn to your neighbor" technique.  Again, it took awhile to figure out how to use peer discussion effectively.  The most important lesson: keep it short and sweet.  It's better to stop them mid-sentence than have them talking about their weekend plans.  I usually had them discuss something for 60-75 seconds.  Eventually, I got pretty good at moving between peer discussion, i>clicker polls, and group discussion, depending on the issue.  I frequently improvised.  So, for instance, I might start with an i>clicker poll and, if there was a lot of divergence, I'd have them talk to their neighbor and then vote again.  Or, if they got the question right, I might follow up with a tougher question and have them discuss it with their neighbor and then we'd discuss it as a class.

When I got this right, it was a lot like a well-choreographed dance.  I tried to speak no more than 2-3 minutes before asking some question that required them to click in, talk to their neighbor, etc.  When we did ethics case studies, they had in class worksheets to fill out.  For some of the questions, I asked them to work on their own and then compare answers with a peer; for others, we'd discuss it as a group.  In the spring semester, the students took a short (10 minute) quiz at the start of class every Tuesday.  I did these the old-fashioned way, with scantron forms and a timed Powerpoint.  Once we got the system down, it was pretty seamless.  The quizzes covered the material from the previous week as well as the readings/viewings due on that day.  This meant that I could assume a high level of preparation on Tuesdays and thus  rely a lot on peer discussion to do higher order analysis of the content.  The key, I found, was to introduce a lot of variation in classroom activities and keep things moving.   The bigger the class, the faster things need to move, I think.   As well, my goal was always to keep as many students as possible engaged at any single moment--so I avoided too much student-instructor discussion.  Finally, I gave them candy if they contributed to class discussion, a tactic that was extremely successful in eliciting contributions from around the classroom!

A big lesson, and something that I wasn't at all prepared for in the fall, was the fact that I would have to relearn from scratch how to teach a large class.  I was very comfortable and good at teaching lecture classes, but this was an entirely new experience.  Proponents of the flipped class like to describe this transition as moving from "sage on the stage" to "guide on the side."  That's not at all how it worked for me.  When I tried to become a "guide", students revolted.  They thought I wasn't doing my job; they assumed I didn't know *how* to do my job.  I've never experienced such openly disrespectful behavior in a classroom as I did in Fall 2012.  I realized that, in a large enrollment class, the only way I really had to construct my authority as the expert (and to remind students of that authority) was to perform the role--that is, to be an occasional sage on the stage.  The trick was to find a way to balance these different roles, it wasn't to exchange one role for the other--at least not in a large enrollment class and not for me (I'm female, 5'3 and look like I am maybe 30).

Once I figured out my role in this new classroom environment, things went much more smoothly.  I was still asking students to play somewhat different roles than what they were accustomed to, but it worked once they saw that I was comfortable and confident in my new role.  To my mind, the biggest challenge in a flipped class is this redefinition of roles.  It is going to vary a lot, from instructor to instructor and class to class.  As instructors, we are accustomed to developing a consistent teaching persona.  The flipped class, which shifts the focus from the instructor to students, demands that we always be ready to adapt.  Teaching becomes much more improvisational (and therefore nerve-wracking).  It requires a lot of thinking on one's feet and a willingness to go off script at some point (often multiple points) in every class--all while making sure that the day's material is covered.  To give an example: about 30 minutes before every class, I would get the viewing stats for the assigned lecture(s).  If about 2/3 had viewed the lecture, I knew we'd have a smooth day; if 50%, I knew there'd be places where I'd have to do a bit more content delivery than planned; if lower than 50%, I'd have to revise some of the discussion questions and rely less on peer discussion.  I could have a great plan in place, but the success of it always depended on the students--and on my ability to quickly improvise if the students had not prepared or, for some reason, misunderstood a concept that I assumed would be basic.

The basic goal of a flipped class is to make learning more efficient for students.  The challenge is that they are so accustomed to learning in other ways that they tend to resist taking on the role of the "flipped class student".  I learned the hard way that trying to reason with them was pointless.  As a group, they simply could not see that the class activities were designed specifically to help them learn how to learn Roman history.  They were convinced that they already knew how to learn and that I was an obstacle.  In the spring, I made a point of not referring to the class as flipped.  I just explained how the class was going to work; what was expected of them; and used the phrase "active learning" ad nauseam.  I also introduced an enormous amount of structure and made sure that every activity was incentivized, so that they would be able to see for themselves how each activity was helping them to learn.  Finally, I introduced exam wrappers as a way of encouraging them to reflect on their learning strategies and better understand how the different parts of the class were contributing to their learning.  One of the more interesting things: attendance was very strong (about 300 on Tuesdays and 250-275 on Thursdays) although every class was captured and there was no attendance requirement.  These numbers remained consistent throughout the semester.  A large number of students clearly figured out that the in class work activities were an efficiency, were saving them study time down the line.  It was fascinating to see them discover this for themselves and then adapt their behavior.

If anyone is interested in seeing a PPT from one of my classes, I'm happy to share.  I'm trying to get one of the class sessions made available for public viewing (but we'll see).  The bottom line: I don't think it matters much exactly what you do during class time.  It definitely doesn't need to be high-tech, bells and whistles.  It's more about a. developing a clear understanding of your changed role in this environment, while being sure that it's clear to the students that you are still running the show and communicating to them your expectations for them; b. designing activities that force individual students to be involved at all times, as much as possible; c. paying attention to variety and pace; and d. being comfortable with improvisation.  It's a requirement in a student-centered classroom.  I constantly reminded myself that it was about my students, not me.  It was my job to meet them where they were and find ways to get them where I needed them to be by the end of a given class period.  Sometimes class played out exactly as I had planned.  Most of the time, it did not.  At the same time, as I grew more experienced in my role, I became a lot more skilled at using things like i>clicker or discussion questions rather than lecture to teach.

It is enormously challenging to run a flipped classroom, especially when dealing with hundreds of students and inadequate instructional support (I had one TA/100 students).  It is stressful and sometimes frustrating and depressing.  It takes a lot of trial and error, and a lot of tolerance for failure and resilience to student guff (surprise!  some students love lecture!  not all students are desperate for active engagement!).  It is also tremendously rewarding to see students learning deeply and well, to see them making connections and raising insightful questions.  It was a very hard year for me, but deeply satisfying and exciting.  I'm very much looking forward to the start of Rome 3.0 in a few weeks!

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