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The inverted calculus course and self-regulated learning

March 3, 2014, 9:00 am

895220635_71c0ea6ee4_mA few weeks ago I began a series to review the Calculus course that Marcia Frobish and I taught using the inverted/flipped class design, back in the Fall. I want to pick up the thread here about the unifying principle behind the course, which is the concept of self-regulated learning.

Self-regulated learning is what it sounds like: Learning that is initiated, managed, and assessed by the learners themselves. An instructor can play a role in this process, so it’s not the same thing as teaching yourself a subject (although all successful autodidacts are self-regulating learners), but it refers to how the individual learner approaches learning tasks.

For example, take someone learning about optimization problems in calculus. Four things describe how a self-regulating learner approaches this topic.

  1. The learner works actively on optimization problems as the primary form of learning. Note that I said “primary”; some passive listening might take place, but the primary mode of learning optimization problems for this learner is doing optimization problems.
  2. As the learner works actively, she is monitoring many different things. What’s the process for solving an optimization problem in general? Have I set up my objective function correctly? How is this problem like the other ones I have seen or done? Does a computer-generated graph agree with the answer I got by hand? Am I too tired to work on this right now? How can I prevent myself from checking Facebook every two minutes instead of working on the problem? She’s not just thinking about these but monitoring them, like an airplane pilot would be monitoring the many dials and gauges on his dashboard during a flight, tweaking this and adjusting that as needed.
  3. As the learner monitors all this, she operates with two very important questions in mind: What is the criteria in this case for knowing whether I’ve truly learned the topic?, and Am I there yet? She has a clearly-defined goal state and the means of checking her progress toward that goal state. For example, the self-regulating learner will take the initiative to check her answer on the optimization problem using a graph, or using Wolfram|Alpha to make sure the derivative computation is correct.
  4. Finally, the self-regulating learner doesn’t let external circumstances prevent learning. She selects learning activities that serve as a buffer zone between her progress toward the goal and the items in her life around her. If she’s got to be at work in an hour, she’ll select some activities or a subset of the tasks in a problem at hand that she can do in 45 minutes. If she doesn’t have access to a computer at home, she will select learning activities that she can do at home and save the others for when she can study at a friend’s house or at school with more technology around; or work over the phone with a friend who does have the technology; or something, anything other than I couldn’t work because I didn’t have a computer.

Even before I started working with the inverted/flipped classroom, what I just described is a picture of what I envisioned for my students. It’s a picture of a confident, inquisitive, independent problem-solver who takes a can-do attitude towards her work, and who is set up well to learn new things for the rest of her life. Because in real life, all learning basically looks like this.

The theoretical framework for self-regulated learning was developed by Paul Pintrich throughout the 1990’s and culminated in a paper in Educational Psychology Review in 2004. In that paper, Pintrich describes four features of self-regulated learning that correspond to the four items I described above. But of course the idea of self-regulated learning is as old as humanity itself. And it’s worth pointing out that there’s a close relationship between self-regulated learning and the popular admissions-office concept of lifelong learning. When we talk about students becoming “lifelong learners”, what we really mean is “self-regulating learners”.

Back to the story about calculus. I’ve taught calculus dozens of times since 1994, and what I’ve been seeing more and more, and tolerating less and less, is an environment where students tend toward the opposite of self-regulated learning. This is a state where students do not learn, and come to believe that they cannot learn, without the strong intervention of a third party. There’s no activity, no monitoring, no self-assessment, no persistence – only the repeated cries to tell them how to start, how to proceed, and what the right answer is. A professor can make a career out of catering to these cries and simply giving students what they ask for. But I don’t think that’s in the students’ best interests, or anybody else’s, and by the time July 2013 rolled around I decided I was done with enabling a generation of smart young men and women to enter into a perpetual state of learned helplessness when it came to their learning.

Furthermore, I believed then and still believe now that the inverted/flipped classroom presents an ideal structure for teaching students how to be self-regulating learners. By focusing initial contact with new content in a class as a pre-class activity and using the liberated time for higher-order work, two things happen. First, students get the chance every day to practice the skills of active self-learning by extracting information from various sources and then doing something with it, and that practice can be relatively lightweight and closely monitored. Second, students get significantly more time to work on higher-order tasks that require even more close monitoring, and since they work on such tasks in class rather than outside of class, the monitoring is helped by their friends and by the instructor.

In other words, the inverted/flipped classroom can be an incubator for self-regulated learning. In fact, anymore, I think that a class isn’t truly an inverted class unless it focuses intentionally on self-regulated learning as a primary outcome as opposed to just a by-product. We can create videos and have group work in class all we want, but if it’s just the same old lecture course except that it’s time-shifted, then this is hardly an innovation.

In the next post, I’ll move on to discuss how self-regulated learning was baked into the course structure itself, with a special focus on the new-and-I-think-improved version of Guided Practice.

Image: “Creative independence”, http://www.flickr.com/photos/nattu/

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