Getting student buy-in for the inverted calculus class

March 6, 2014, 2:25 pm

370413613_6869b53f24_mSo far, regarding the inverted/flipped calculus course, we’ve discussed why I flipped the calculus class in the first place, the role of self-regulated learning as a framework and organizing principle for the class, how to design pre-class activities that support self-regulated learning, and how to make learning objectives that get pre-class activities started on a good note. This is all “design thinking”. Now it’s time to focus on the hard part: Students, and getting them to buy into this notion of a flipped classroom.

I certainly do not have a perfect track record with getting students on board with an inverted/flipped classroom structure. In fact the first time I did it, it was a miserable flop among my students (even though they learned a lot). It took that failure to make me start thinking that getting student buy-in has to be as organized, systematic, and well-planned as the course itself.

Here are three big “don’ts” and “dos” that I’ve learned about getting students to buy in to the flipped classroom, mostly through cringe-worthy teaching performances of my own in the past, along with some examples of how we built these into the calculus course.

DON’T: Make a production out of your use of the flipped classroom to your students.
DO: Explain the workflow of the class to students in a clear way on Day 1 and remind students of that workflow on Days 2, 3, 4, …

You go into the first day of class and enthusiastically explain to students that they will be participating in a new, exciting, and innovative class method called the “flipped classroom”, that they may have heard about on 60 Minutes or elsewhere in the news. There won’t be any boring lectures in this class! Instead they’ll be watching lectures on video at home, and then working on challenging activities in the class, under your supervision. It’s exciting, it’s the latest thing, and it’s going to be awesome.

None of this is false. But it turns out that when many students hear “innovative” and “new”, their brains translate it as “experimental” and “unproven”. And it turns out that students don’t like being part of an experiment, especially when their grade is the outcome of the experiment.

In the flipped calculus class, I included a brief but substantial overview of the flipped course design structure in the class syllabus. To summarize, it tells students that:

  • You learn better when you are working actively as opposed to listening passively.
  • In order to make as much time and space as possible for active work in class, we’ve pre-recorded many of the lectures and put them on YouTube.
  • You’ll be expected to prepare for class by watching the videos, doing the reading, and working through the Guided Practice exercises. This should take you roughly 3 hours a week (about one hour per class meeting).
  • By the way, this is sometimes called the “flipped classroom” design.

So we communicate in the syllabus what we are doing, why we are doing it, and what students are expected to do on a day-to-day basis. As the class got ramped up through the first and second weeks of the term, every day I would take a few minutes in class to explain what students needed to do for the next class and how long they should expect it to take. What I did not drill in every day was how awesome the flipped classroom is. Students don’t want to hear this, and they don’t need to. They want, and need, to know what it is they are supposed to do, and it’s helpful to know why. But leave it at that.

(Exception: If you have a lot of pre-service teachers in the class, it might be interesting to talk with them about the flipped class, since they may be practitioners of it themselves before long.)

DON’T: Assume that the benefits of the flipped classroom will be obvious, or even easily grasped, by students.
DO: Take every opportunity to point to specific examples of student performance in the flipped class that illustrate those benefits.

The benefits of the flipped class are numerous. The research is showing that students in a flipped class learn at least as much content as their counterparts in a traditional classroom, if not more, plus flipped class students are getting explicit instruction on self-regulated learning behaviors that are useful everywhere. But don’t expect this to be obvious, and don’t expect it to sink in if you put it in the syllabus or make a big deal out of it on the first day. Instead, expect a lot of cognitive dissonance among students as they try to reconcile this new way of “doing school” with what they are used to.

The best way to have that reconciliation is to point to and celebrate specific student successes. When a class gets all correct answers on an entrance quiz, make much out of it: “Isn’t it great how you can learn this stuff without me?” or, “See? You guys are smart and don’t need some professor telling you what to do.” When a student improves their grade on an assessment from a previous assessment, say, “Look at how your hard work is paying off” and “You know what I think is really great? The fact that you learned most of this without a lot of help.” There wasn’t any formal system for doing this in the flipped calculus class – just a habit of mind that I adopted and deployed on a daily basis to be generous with praise whenever it was merited.

DON’T: Hide from student opinions on the flipped design of the course.
DO: Solicit student feedback early and often.

I’ve blogged before about the value of frequent course evaluations and not waiting until the end of the semester to get student feedback. This is especially so when you are doing something out of your and the students’ comfort zones like a flipped classroom. I recommend having at least one mid-term course evaluation done in addition to the usual end-of-term evaluations and being prepared to make halftime adjustments to meet student concerns.

The way I did this for the calculus class was that I had the usual end-of-term evaluations. Our Faculty Teaching and Learning Center came in and did a Mid-Semester Interview on Teaching, which is a highly structured focus group-style meeting in which I leave the room and a facilitator from the FTLC comes in and asks students various questions about the course, which they discuss in small groups and then share with the large group. These Mid-Semester Interviews are an outstanding resource. If you are in an institution with a teaching/learning center that offers these, do take advantage regularly. If you aren’t, find a partner in your department and trade doing Mid-Semester Interviews for each other.

In addition to those two evaluations, the last 5 points on each of the three timed tests in the class consisted of writing prompts to get student feedback on how things were going in the course so far – what was working, what could be improved, and what general questions they had. This was not just for show. I took student observations very seriously, and when there were good ideas put forth that would really improve the class, I’d implement them, sometimes the following day.

In general, I would say that whenever I’ve suffered a failure with the flipped classroom, it’s never been because of the flipped structure, or some course design flaw, or some recalcitrant student. It’s always because of some failure of communication between me and the students. I didn’t explain in sufficient detail how long an assignment should take; I didn’t make the avenues for getting help clear enough; I didn’t make myself sufficiently available for office hours. Communication is key.

Those of you who have tried a flipped class before, or even some other kind of non-traditional pedagogy, what would you add to the don’t/do list?


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