The Flipped Classroom: Experiments and Experiences

brain_hardhat_sign_halfI’ve been teaching our undergraduate introductory statistics class here at GSC in the online format since Summer 2012, but this term I was offered a chance to teach it face to face. I started the class with an experiment: based on all the recent discussions I’ve been hearing about the “flipped classroom,” I thought I’d try providing all my “study” and “lecture” materials online, and spend our three hour weekly meetings working on the hands-on projects I assign each week. I posted sample projects and my own screencast explanations of them, and also incorporated an online tutorial I’ve used in the past to help walk students through the concepts and give them practice with the material. I  provided extensive links to video resources such as Khan Academy specific to each topic. My plan was to discuss the conceptual reading (chapters from Charles Wheelan’s Naked Statistics) with the students at the start of each class, then let them work on their spreadsheet projects with my help, and only briefly cover the material for the next week at the end of the session. My experience teaching online had led me to think this might be the best use of the limited time I have face to face with students.

Did the “flipped classroom” idea fail for my students? No, there are still important elements that I will continue to use, and that my students have said they find helpful. But my implementation needs to be tailored to the needs of my students.

I haven’t completely given up on this notion, but last night several of my students informed me (very kindly and politely, but firmly) that if they had wanted to register for a hybrid or blended class, they would have done so. They wanted more from me in the classroom than help completing their projects. They wanted an introduction to the new topics before they had to attempt the work online by themselves.

So last night we spent about an hour going through the classic “count the M&Ms and construct tables and graphs” exercise, which I had already planned to help solidify understanding of the probability concepts underlying statistics, we had a lively discussion of the readings, and then we went over the topics for the coming week in more extended detail. We had about 30 minutes left at the end during which time I answered questions from individual students about their projects… and I ended up needing to stay for another 30 minutes to address everyone’s questions. But I think everyone was more satisfied at the end, including me.

Did the “flipped classroom” idea fail for my students? No, there are still important elements that I will continue to use, and that my students have said they find helpful. But my implementation needs to be tailored to the needs of my students. I think there are several factors at work here:

  1. Change is scary. Although it is easy to find cases where students have lauded the flipped classroom, and in many situations evidence indicates that it works very well, there are many other cases of students complaining about the change. Possibly one of my errors was in telling my students up front what I was doing differently (although they certainly have noticed that I handle many aspects of the class differently than their other instructors, especially deadlines and multiple attempts on graded work, and they aren’t complaining about those changes).
  2. Students may perceive the flipped classroom as “more work.” As Derek Bruff notes, “Our colleagues in the humanities have for years (decades even) asked students to “do the reading” before class so that they can discuss the reading during class.  However, these colleagues also frequently complain that students don’t actually do the reading.  The flipped classroom doesn’t work if students don’t come prepared.” (Emphasis mine.) Several of my students have admitted that they are not completing all the assigned preparatory work before class. Some of them claim it takes too long. But others are completing all the prework (and spending hours doing it) and just “aren’t getting it.” These are the students who have been the most vocal about wanting an introductory session before tackling the self-paced work.
  3. Statistics is a subject around which many people have anxiety. Most of my students admit that they would not have enrolled in this course if they had had a choice. Some have described having anxiety attacks before or during class. I am dealing as much with affective challenges as cognitive challenges, and affect is more easily influenced face to face, and through social learning.
  4. I don’t lecture. Even when I spend time in class going over concepts, my classes are highly interactive, with questions being thrown out to the students, students asking questions and answering one another, and students suggesting variations on our activities. This kind of interaction is difficult to provide in an asynchronous distance format… but I have found it to be highly effective with students of all ages and backgrounds, and across a wide variety of subjects.

 I don’t have answers at this point. Last night was the fifth week of twelve, and I’ll try the “new” format (more time discussing the next topic in class, rather than the previous topic) for several weeks before I’ll feel I know how well this is working. But I welcome comments from other instructors, especially those experimenting with hybrid, blended, or flipped classes. Do you think the subject matter makes a difference? The number of meetings per week? The age and background of the participants? Post your comments here, and I’ll follow up in a future post about my ongoing adventures in this area. 😎

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