As I hope you are aware, this semester, Professor Stokes has decided to try the “flipped-classroom model.” This involves the students practically teaching all the class material to themselves through the text reading, online “You-Tube” videos, etc. This also includes us (the students) being quizzed via online evaluations on the material before it is even mentioned in class. …
Sincerely, [Disgruntled Student]
I received this email last week, forwarded from my chairman. It is from one of my students in a large (~ 90) introductory statistics class. These students are typically young (freshman or sophomores), taking a required course, mostly to qualify to get in the business school.
The letter was startling to me, but did make me think about how different the vision of what teaching is to me and to some of my students. This student, and many others I presume, think teaching is synonymous with lecturing. When I first became a professor, that’s what I thought too.
I had many role models of lecturers in my math and statistics training, some good and some not so good. However, they were all effective teachers for me. In graduate school especially, I typically didn’t have a clue how the lecturer got from one line to the next on the blackboard, but I knew if I copied it down, I could figure it out later when I had time to think carefully. My ritual was to recopy my notes, with the rule that I could not rewrite a line until I understood it completely. This would sometimes take hours for one class (I especially remember this part was true for my complex variables course with Professor Wally Smith who was a flamboyant, entertaining lecturer). When I finished, I had a beautiful set of notes and a deep understanding of the material. I developed the confidence that I could figure out most any well written technical document, and that the key ideas needed to work any homework problem were in those notes somewhere.
When I first began teaching undergraduates, I used the lecture model too. As the years have rolled on, I have lectured less and less in my introductory undergraduate classes, and replaced it with having them “do things” in class. My journey to this point started when I became aware of an NSF funded research group who articulated a body of knowledge and skills that a person educated about statistical thinking should master. They also developed an assessment of this fundamental knowledge in the form of a test. This test covered concepts, not computations, and often the concept was couched in a real world application; that is, it was one step away from the actual statement of the concept. Since my course covered almost all of those key ideas and more, and I had the Powerpoints to prove it, I felt confident that my students would do well on the assessment. . I began giving that test at the beginning and end of each semester. Surprise! My students’ scores were not impressive at all. They scored at or slightly below the national mean. Even worse, their change from pretest to posttest was modest at best.
How could it be? Aren’t SMU students better than the national average? And aren’t I a better than average teacher? (Don’t we all live in Lake Woebegone?) I came to the realization that teaching my students to do the computations was the easy part and I was effective at conveying that information to them in lecture format, for the most part. Providing them with definitions and basic facts that they use for problem solving was also efficiently and fairly effectively done in lecture. But teaching them to select which of the computations or facts to use in any situation, or exactly what the computation was telling them about the world, was not getting through to a lot of them by listening to me say it or seeing it written on a slide. Furthermore, the homework problems I had carefully selected to provide them the Eureka moment, while they sat alone in the comfort of their own dorm rooms, about how to use those concepts and what they meant, wasn’t working either. Most of them apparently don’t have the same ritual of recopying their notes that I did, and why should they? They are much less experienced students (not in grad school) and not training for a career in a mathematical field.
So I decided to see if giving them a guide (me) while they worked on a problem would help. I began trying to select exercises for them to do in class. The difficulty here is that it takes longer for students to work through problems than for me to do it, and crowds out lecture time. What to do?! I began requiring that they read the book before class so that they would be familiar with the computations, the simple definitions and facts ahead of time. This saved class time for the more complex ideas, and for practice on how to use them, and for me to connect the dots afterward if the Eureka moment didn’t come to them on its own. The way I chose to make sure that they had prepared was the aforementioned “quiz before the material is mentioned in class.”
I have been using this method for several semesters and have noted a small increase in average scores on the assessment; they now score slightly better than the national average. But I’m hoping for more. This year I am in the teaching with technology learning community and had my consciousness raised about what technology tools I might use to improve student learning. I decided to see if I could find a tool that could help deliver the class preparation I was hoping they would get from the book (let’s face it—many students do not enjoy reading their statistics text). So this semester I have provided links to You Tube videos covering the reading material. I selected videos for material that I believe is efficiently covered by lectures—how to do computations, basic definitions and facts.
Does this add anything to student learning? I don’t know yet, as the semester is still young. I do know from the email that at least some of my students don’t like this way of doing things. They believe that I am not really teaching when I serve mostly as their guide, hint-giver, and dot-connector while they attempt the hard work of arriving at a deeper understanding of the material themselves. I’ll know more after the posttest and will report back. Stay tuned.
I am on a panel in CTE’s Higher Education in the Crosshairs symposium this Friday. The topic of this conference is what it is that we, as a private university especially, provide that is worth the money we cost. I believe that there is some knowledge (e.g., how to do a computation) that can be delivered equally effectively by a lecture watched on You Tube, in a classroom of 500, or a classroom of 30. Delivering this material is not where SMU has a competitive advantage. There is other knowledge that most students can acquire only through challenging themselves to do their own knowledge acquisition. We can provide the guidance, hand-holding, and interpretation to make this process less onerous to students. This is one place we should excel, when compared with cheaper education delivery models. Another part of our value should come from our ability to select or develop materials for our students’ in-class experiences that elucidate the difficult-to-grasp concepts. We should also be able to adapt or replace these materials when they are not having the effect we want, or when some contemporary connection with the world can be incorporated. This is where most of the intellectual content of the flipped classroom model arises. It is also what is hard to do cheaply, since it cannot be “installed” and reused indefinitely. Good teaching is always a work in progress.