Thursday, March 23, 2017

Active learning in the classroom, flipped or otherwise

This started as a comment, but became a post when it started looking like a novel! There is a really interesting discussion going on at xykademiqz's blog in the comments section (starting here, where commenter idm asked about active learning). Xyk's comments about flipped classrooms sync with my experiences, namely that in a flipped classroom, the class covers less material AND that it is easy to screw it up so that the students learn nothing. While it is certainly possible to do a bad job in a lecture based class, I think it is harder to do it so badly that students may as well have not taken the course. In my field, less material per class means that even if done perfectly, flipping all the classes would mean that students either take much longer to a degree, or start out well behind colleagues coming from unflipped programs.

Like Xyk, I find it really irritating that active learning now means no lecturing. I find that I can get students to ask (and answer!) questions in class, even in a room of 200 students. In my lectures, I often stop and poll the students/get them to ask questions/have them set up or solve a problem/demo something or show them a video showing a concept in action, etc. Even an audience of researchers really excited about a topic loses focus if a seminar goes on too long. A lecture-based class does not necessarily mean the professor drones on for the full class time every time. (Also like Xyk, I was an extreme introvert as a student, and would have hated flipped classes and found it difficult to learn if I were forced to interact with others the whole time).

Another commenter (Alex) points out a really interesting study in physics, which suggests that students learn concepts better in a flipped classroom (consistent with most studies), but learn problem solving better in a lecture-based classroom. This is not too surprising to me. Students learn problem solving by wrestling with problems, and they do more of that as assigned homework in a traditional class than in the 150 minutes of problem solving in a flipped class. Plus, watching someone problem solve in a video is not the same thing as doing it live, where you can interrupt if you get lost or confused.

Back in the olden days when I was a student (which was well before flipped classes became a thing), some of my smaller, focused, upper level courses were taught in a hybrid style, where at least some of the class time was used for interactive problem solving (usually one student at the board working a previously assigned problem, with the class discussing the strategy and/or comparing strategies). This was really effective--I still remember some of those classes many years later, especially ones where I was at the board! This mania for flipping things also forces people for whom that style doesn't work well to go against their strengths, just as forcing everyone to lecture would hurt those for whom a more active/flipped learning teaching method is better. As with anything, there is a time and place for everything, and perhaps entry level STEM is not that time or place (at least for folks expected to have problem solving skills like scientists or engineers).


pyrope said...

My department has definitely jumped on the flipped classroom bandwagon, including pressuring junior faculty to teach in that fashion - which I think is very problematic...not only because the evidence that a flipped approach promotes better learning is tenuous, but also because faculty teaching flipped classes receive consistently lower teaching scores.
That said, in a couple of my classes our 'flip-mania' has pushed me to add team based modules where students work on specific projects. I alternate between lectures and group activities. I think it works very well for one of the classes, where I've managed to come up with mini research projects that are clear and tie in well with lecture topics. I'm less happy with the other one because the research projects are more open ended and that results in some flailing. One other plus of incorporating some flipped exercises is that it gives me an opportunity to teach students some skills like how to present scientific data in a poster/preso and how to use basic software like excel and powerpoint.

xykademiqz said...

I agree with everything you wrote, Prodigal!

pyrope, I am with you -- many of our flipped classes get lower teaching evaluations because the students think the professors aren't actually teaching at all. As prodigal mentioned, flipped classroom is really not easy to do right and requires a ton of work, especially if the effort is to be recognized by students. It's very easy for it to seem like you are just making students watch videos at home, while you are just walking around the classroom while they do their practice problems in class.

I have introduced a number of mini-projects that require programming and tie to the material; students seem to really enjoy them. But I simply consider these to be part of HW and haven't felt the need to call my teaching "blended" or whatever the term du jour is.

I think us "lecture" folks need to work on branding, as the "flippers" (tee-hee) seem to have claimed for themselves pretty much everything that everyone who's a good teacher has always done anyway (e.g., created interesting and varied course materials, showed demos/videos/answered questions/done examples in class).

Grumpy said...

I'm a huge contrarian so ordinarily I would jump right in and fight against the flippers with you​ guys.

But honestly I think I learned almost nothing from lectures throughout my schooling. Vast majority of learning came from reading and working on problems by myself and chatting with colleagues or professors in small groups when I was stuck. I even went so far as to pretty much stop going to classes throughout grad school.

I never had the opportunity to take a flipped class, but I wish I had. The ones I heard about are very heavy on at-home learning. It is just they acknowledgement that class time is a unique opportunity for students to engage eachother. I dunno though...maybe I would have ended up skipping the flipped class too.

The article that Alex linked was fascinating. But honestly I have seen several that report contradictory evidence...Even that article didn't go so far as to say traditional lecture = better for quantitative problem solving. Just that other factors played a bigger role for the 2-3 sections they monitored.

prodigal academic said...

Thanks for the comments!

Pyrope, I feel for you. I find it very frustrating to be forced to use a tool, whether it is appropriate or not.

Xyk, I agree on the branding. The discussion is pretty much set up as lecture only vs. active engagement (but mostly flipping). I've never really considered the non-lecture things I do in class to be anything special either, but maybe I should!

Grumpy, I don't think there is any substitute for spending time working on problems, at least in my field. This requires many hours of work at home, since the amount of class time is not nearly enough for practice time. As a student, I would have had to spend hours at home on the problems, even in a flipped class. After my (foolish) first year, I worked on problems in groups, but they were the groups of my choosing, and I worked on problems alone first, before discussing it with others. Aside from the fact that I don't think I would be more effective in a flipped setting, I worry that students would work on problems ONLY in the classroom, which is not nearly enough for mastery. It is hard enough to get them to work on problems in a more traditional course, where there is at least the expectation that HW is done outside class. Unfortunately, I agree that classes can be useless in any format. :-)

xykademiqz said...

Grumpy, as a student, I was a hopeless narcoleptic in class. Many classes would just lead me to falling asleep. (On more than one occasion I fell asleep while sitting in the first row, where I'd only sat to force myself to not fall asleep.) However, in both undergrad and grad school, I most definitely had courses where the lectures were engaging, held my attention the whole time, and where I learned a ton from both listening and from the notes I took.

Nothing replaces working on the problems outside of class, but learning was much easier, more effective, and more enjoyable for the courses where the lecture was well executed and explained/emphasized the key points.

I have a student with ADHD in class this year who says he can't focus in anyone's class; he gets stuck on one thing and can't get unstuck, and by the time he's unstuck the lecture has moved one and he can't catch up. He keeps reading and rereading the book on his own, and he's doing okay, but has problems identifying which concepts are more important than others; I think that's what lectures are the most useful for -- separating the wheat from the chaff. Today's textbooks are anything but lean, they have to have tons of colorful examples, blurbs connecting to technology, anecdotes about scientists and discoveries, as well as technical information of second- and third-tier importance; it's very easy for a diligent student to get lost and not focus efforts on the right things.