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Flipping calculus

August 25, 2013, 2:38 pm

56130749_ce37f49f67_mIn the last post, I said I might be taking a couple of weeks off, and I ended up taking three. Well, the week before classes start is basically a blackout period during which nothing gets done except course preps, so that’s why.

Yes, it all starts back up again here this week. This semester is going to be fuller than usual for a lot of reasons, three primary: First, I’m up for contract renewal in January, meaning that I am approaching the “midterm exam” at the halfway point toward tenure, which requires the usual aggregation of evidence demonstrating that I’m making satisfactory progress. Second, I’m teaching my first upper-level course since arriving at GVSU, one section of our Modern Algebra course, which I have not taught in a few years and I am anxious to get into it. I’m also trying out a new platform for classroom response systems in that course and I will tell you all about it later. Third, and biggest by far, I’m rolling out an inverted classroom version of Calculus 1.

We are running 14 sections of Calculus this fall and I have two of those. I didn’t intend to do anything flipped with my sections of Calculus at first. But a couple of things happened early in the summer that changed my mind. First, I taught the same class in a more-or-less traditional mode during our 6-week term from May through June. The class went fine in terms of grade distributions and course evaluations, but I came away frustrated – at way too many instances of students saying “It makes sense when you do it but not when I do it”, at the complete ineffectiveness of lecture to accomplish anything related to learning (even though the students liked my lectures), at the uneasy feeling I had at the end that many of the higher-scoring students would have no chance of doing anything important or novel with calculus without third-party instructions.

The second thing that happened was that I talked a lot with my colleague, Marcia Frobish, who is a non-tenure track faculty member here who runs the Math Center (for students to get help from peer tutors) and who has taught Calculus for us in the past. She mentioned something about flipping the calculus class, and the more she talked about it, the more I thought she was right. So in the end, Marcia and I made a pact to take our three sections of Calculus this fall and take the plunge into flipping it.

I didn’t make this decision lightly. The last time I did a fully inverted classroom, the students were mostly sophomore and junior mathematics majors with some mathematical maturity, the material lends itself well for flipping, and the material was so different from what students had experienced in math classes before that a different course design like the flipped classroom was not such a shock. In calculus, though, most of the students are first-semester freshmen who have a conception about what mathematics is, and what a mathematics class ought to involve, that is very entrenched – and often wrong. So I believe the probability of an epic pushback from students is a lot higher than it was in the proofs course. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t very nervous about that.

But I’d also be lying if I said that the traditional classroom serves students as well as possible, despite the level of comfort and familiarity they may have with it. In fact, the proofs class taught me that building students’ self-regulated learning skills in mathematics needs to start a lot earlier than the sophomore or junior year. The flipped classroom in Calculus seems to offer just what students need: A chance to build those skills, along with their technological and reasoning skills, in small steps so that the shock of the proofs course is not so great.

I will be blogging a lot more about the course as the semester progresses, but one thing I have already learned about flipping calculus is that it is much easier when you have a partner. Marcia and I split the labor for making the videos and were able to make almost 50 of them in a space of just three weeks! Also, I will confidently be able to say that my sections are not the only ones being flipped. I also consider Matt Boelkins a partner in this, since we are using his excellent and free book Active Calculus, which lends itself very well for the inverted classroom. I hope to say soon that the students are also partners in this – certainly the 24/7 public relations campaign for the inverted classroom kicks off this week to coincide with classes starting. It should be an adventure.

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

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