Monday, October 19, 2015

Flipped Classroom: Switched On (v2)

Take blended learning, add computers, and you get my next-generation (v2) flipped classroom. This means an enhanced ability to:

  • interact more efficiently with students in large courses
  • engage students in authentic practices in the discipline (assuming your discipline, like mine, relies heavily on the internet these days)
  • practice information literacy skills
  • collaborate with peers

Today, I share how the typical structure of my DISCOVERe (tablet-based instruction) courses has evolved into an experience that integrates the above points into a class where the tablets are not the only things that are switched on - so are the students!

0. Before students come to class
A reading assignment from a textbook is due to be completed by the start of class; I often also post links to videos I've recorded (or I've found) that introduce the topic for the day. This is the "lecture" - where factual information and approaches to solving problems are conveyed to the students.

1. (5 m.) While you're waiting…

While students are assembling in the classroom (and during the first five minutes of class), I have a projected slide that contains a problem to solve or a question to think about, as well as (often) the link to a Socrative quiz that the students should take. This entry quiz is always based on the pre-class video/reading assignment, to ensure compliance. I use the on-the-fly Socrative results to determine what concepts I need to spend more time in class discussing with them. Having never use this approach previously, I'm routinely surprised at which relatively complex concepts the students seem to already understand, and which relatively simple (to me) concepts the majority of the class struggles with!

I like "While you're waiting…" questions, because it gives students who desire more practice with material an optional opportunity to do so. As the term has progressed, I've seen more and more students actually taking the time to work on these practice questions as they wait for class to start.

2. (10 m.) Anonymous review of student exercise submissions (from previous class)
In the latter half of the previous class, I introduced a topic and set the students a rather difficult (at the time) problem to solve - one that they should be able to get at least part way into before encountering some issues that they haven't had to deal with before. The students work solo, and then in small groups, and then send me their work (digitally) by the end of that previous course period. This  approach does two things for me:

  1. It provides students context for the reading (and/or video-watching) assignment due for the following class (i.e. today's class). This is the typical blended learning approach: ask the students to attempt something with little essential background; they fail at it. Then, when they go encounter the reading assignment relevant to that problem, they are (hopefully) a bit more invested and have that mental "hook" to identify where they went wrong during their initial attempt. This, ultimately, leads to better-formulated questions in the following class meeting (today) when we discuss that topic.
  2. This gives me time to look over the work and assess, before today's class, where the class stands in terms of common themes: where they succeeded and where they had issues.

During this portion of today's class, I show some anonymous examples of student submissions and ask the students to perform some peer evaluation: "Does anybody see something in this approach that you like? That you would change?" I also use this time to point out, with praise, patterns in thinking that I've observed that show strong understanding of difficult concepts, even if the answer ultimately was not obtained (or was wrong).

Part of the reason I like group peer evaluation is that it helps me "grade" the student answers to the questions in class, so that all students get some hopefully-pertinent feedback on how to accomplish the exercise, even if it is not their work that is being specifically critiqued. This also potentially means that the instructor does not have to formally grade and return all of the student submissions - the students gain the benefit of having worked on the problem, and then they benefit from time in class to discuss any issues they encountered.

After we work through the solution to the question or problem and address questions, we move on to:

3. (10 m.) More practice; Q&A
in which I provide another, often just marginally related problem, for students to work on solo and then in small groups to practice the concepts just discussed. We also usually discuss the answer to the "While you're waiting…" question from the start of class at this point.

Other types of activities we do in class together involve learning to access and use online resources. For example, last Friday, as I was discussing types of mutations, we discussed how mutations in BRCA1 predispose to the development of breast cancer. A really fabulous question from a student was, "If the BRCA1 gene is involved in DNA repair in all of our cells, why don't BRCA1 mutations predispose to other types of cancer - like skin cancer, for example - as well?" So, today in class, I spent some time online showing students how I would go about learning how to answer that question. We went to the Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man website ( to learn about what's know about the genetic basis of breast cancer, and found some primary literature references indicating, for example, that male carriers of BRCA1 mutations might have an increased risk of developing prostate cancer. This lead to a great (but brief) discussion to the extent that we don't know enough about the BRCA1 gene, and all of its potential effects, yet! (Tangentially, this also raises the important point that gene names are not always accurate, nor do they always (ever?) reflect the true complexity of biology).

4. (5 m.) New topic
Having now completed the instruction on the previous topic, it is time to introduce the next topic (which builds on the previous topic), often with a story or scenario that sets up a new topic. I try to do this by being provocative, or by posing a puzzle that has no obvious immediate solution.

5. (15 m.) Try, and fail
Now with five minutes worth of "mini-lecture" by me on the new topic, students attempt to solve a problem alone, and then in small groups. Then, they electronically submit their work to me (usually as a screen shot of hand-written work on their tablets). For example:

Again, the idea behind this approach is to have students partly invested in figuring out how to solve this problem before they first encounter the relevant material (on their own, through the reading/video assignment for next class). The work they submit is what we will spend the first portion of our next class meeting anonymously evaluating and discussing whether the reading/video assignments led to any new insights about how to address the question.

6. (5 m.) Exit Survey
At the end of most classes, I provide the opportunity for students to reflect on the class period. This is often a Socrative quiz that asks questions like, "What did you learn today that you didn't know before?" or "What topic should we spend more time discussing next class?" or "How does what you learned today apply to your life?"

Summary (and a word of caution)

It takes quite a bit of mental effort to keep up this sort of course design, where, essentially, the first half of each class meeting is about material initially encountered during the previous class, and the second half of each class period is spent introducing students to concepts to be continued in the following class! Staying organized, and planning activities and pre-lecture work (e.g. which reading assignments and/or videos to watch) in advance, are key to success with this approach. To many, this is an unfamiliar structure, and it can take some significant mental gymnastics to appreciate this approach at first. The rewards will come!

Ultimately, the knowledge that all students in class have mobile devices that they can use to annotate PDFs, draw images, complete Socrative quizzes, seek information on the internet, and send and share their work with others (peers and the instructor) can create a classroom that is much more active and "switched on" – an environment where learning from one another takes place! In conclusion, in my version of the tablet classroom, the main benefits of the tablet in the classroom are two:

  1. I am assured that every student has access to a computer (and to the internet) - this facilitates actual student involvement in analyses that I would traditionally just describe while projecting screen shots, for example
  2. It improves the efficiency of submitting/exchanging/evaluating ideas and assessing performance. It simultaneously provides anonymity to those who wish it, and thus grants a voice to those who might not otherwise speak up in class

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