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What kind of student preparation should we care about?

October 11, 2012, 9:52 pm

Whenever I talk or write about the flipped classroom, one of the top two questions I get is: How do you make sure students are doing the reading (and screencast viewing) before class? (The other is, How much work is it to do all those videos?) Everybody seems to have this question, even if they don’t ask it. It seems like an important question. And yet increasingly I think it’s the wrong one.

In my flipped transition-to-proof class, we meet three times a week for 50 minutes each. In between classes, students have roughly 6–10 pages of reading to do in their textbook and around 30 minutes of videos to watch. This is not a huge amount of work to do, but it’s substantial, and the way the class meetings are set up — 10 minutes of quizzing and Q&A, and then launch into a proof-writing problem done in groups — if they don’t prepare, they’re toast.

But here’s the thing: I have no way of policing their preparation. I suppose there’s some way I could make sure they’re reading and viewing a certain amount every night, but this begins to feel like a cross between my daughter’s third-grade class (with its nighly reading logs) and a police surveillance state — not exactly the vibe I was hoping for in the class.

So instead we measure preparation indirectly. With each reading and viewing assignment, students get a short, bullet-pointed list of what they need to know before showing up at class, a couple of exercises that help them instantiate the learning objectives on that list, and then the injuncton that it’s up to them to find a way to attain fluency (not mastery, yet) in those objectives. Then they get quizzed on those objectives and thrown into a problem that presupposes partial attainment of them. How they get there is not something I can control or manage, and so it’s something I have learned not to obsess about.

Students can do all the reading and none of the viewing. Or vice versa. Or go find another book or video playlist instead and set up their own reading and viewing. Or something else. Every student processes information in a different way and has a different backstory, and I have no control over either one of those things. So I am learning not to worry about how I make sure students do enough reading and viewing. Instead, I think very hard about how to make sure students are clear on what they need to know how to do for the next class and whether I have given them a sufficient base of resources and support for learning those things outside of class.

Out of curiosity, I asked both classes one day last week to give me a sense of what proportion, on the average, of the reading they did between classes and how much of the screencasts the watched. I had students respond using clickersm anonymously, and having them respond in terms of percentages. A lot of students are going all or nearly all of the reading most times:

On the other hand, students really favor the screencasts:

When I followed up with the students after the voting, I found out that a sizeable portion of the class is doing about 75% of the viewing and 75% of the reading, but never all of both. Instead, they patch together what they need from multiple sources, including sources outside their book and my screencasts. And they mostly said that doing 75% of each is better than doing 100% of either one and 0% of the other. That is, it’s better to partially consume two different resources that you can use to bolster each other, than it is to go all in on any single one of them. I don’t have data to support that theory, but it seems reasonable, and based on the high level of student performance in the class so far I have no reason to think this kind of patchwork preparation is hurting the students.

So rather than trying to make sure students do the reading and the viewing, which is an impossible task short of turning the class into a police state, it seems like a better idea to make it clear to students what they need to be able to do coming into the next class, and then give them quality resources and strong support in getting there — and then trusting them to get the job done. All kinds of important life skills get exercised if things are approached this way.

Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ruminatrix/

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