What do you do with all that class time?

November 5, 2012, 7:00 am

It’s now week 11 of the semester, so it’s time for some updates on the flipped transition-to-proofs class. Also, this blog needs a jumpstart.

The flipped structure of the class presents a number of logistical and planning issues that can be challenging. For example, structuring the out-of-class reading/viewing activities can be tricky. So can staying disciplined so that you release screencasts at a reasonable pace without procrastinating. But the most challenging planning issue so far has been simply figuring out what to do in class and how to do it.

The whole reason I decided to flip this class was because students needed as much time hands-on actually investigating mathematical questions and writing proofs as possible. All the information transfer in a traditional setup was just getting in the way. So with the flip, all that transfer time is outside of class, leaving the class meetings for… what exactly? Students should be working on proofs in some way or another, but within the time constraints of the class meeting, this isn’t as easy as it sounds, and how I’ve dealt with the various contingencies that arise in class has been a work in progress.

At first, I gave problems to the students and required that all the work be turned in by the end of class, although I reserved the right to grant extensions if it appeared we needed more time. Since, like most professors, I am a notoriously bad judge of how long things take, the need for extensions happened a lot. But the extensions didn’t help some groups who had difficulties meeting with each other outside of class, and there was this sense among the students of constantly working under tight deadlines on tasks that take more time than they had. They were neither enjoying what they did nor doing an especially good or thorough job of it all the time.

So around the middle of the semester, I changed to policy to give students until the end of class to complete their work on the problem, but if a group didn’t finish during the class period, then students in the group were responsible for completing the work as an individual homework assignment to be handed in at the next class. This approach incentivizes effective group work and individual participation in the group work, because if a group finishes, then nobody has any homework; but if the group doesn’t finish, those who have been tracking with the group’s work and contributing should be able to finish up in a minimal amount of time.

eventually ditched this approach too, for two reasons. First, it was creating a lot more grading than what I wanted. I was going from 7–8 group problems to grade every day to 20–30 if a lot of the groups didn’t finish. It’s not laziness talking here — a fundamental feature of the flipped classroom is having a large number of small assessments that are returned quickly with feedback. When it takes a week to wade through the grading of all those problems, it defeats the purpose of the classroom. Second, having students take home classwork goes against one of the main reasons for flipping the class, which is to provide students with large amounts of time outside of class to work.

As of a couple of weeks ago, I think I’ve found a model for classwork that works for us. Students still need to try to complete their class work in class. But I’ve set aside either an entire day or a half-day every couple of weeks (or so) that is totally open free time, and if a group needs to complete a classwork assignment, the students turn it in on that day. They can either work on the classwork outside of class and hand it in on that “makeup day”, or they can show up and finish it up in class then. I’m sure this idea filtered up into my brain from some of my colleagues who employ standards-based grading. This approach has worked well for students. They work hard in class and most students finish their work in class. But if they don’t, they get a few days to let it cool off and to think about it, then they can finish it in class later. The stress level has definitely dropped among the students and it hasn’t blown up my grading workload.

Carving out that makeup day in the schedule is difficult right now, but worth it. After this academic year, the course is being changed from being a 3-credit course to a 4-credit course. Then we’ll have actually an extra hour peer week baked into the schedule for things like this, if we need it. If we don’t need it — if all groups are all caught up on their class work prior to the makeup day — then we can use that time for review, for open Q&A, for doing peer assessment of writing, whatever. We can do that now too; the times for doing that are just less numerous.

What about you? Have you tried something like the setup I’m describing and it’s worked well? Tell us all about it in the comments.

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