Tuesday, June 27, 2017

"Just Joe's" Top Tips for Fantastic Flips

I just completed day one of the California State University system's Course Redesign with Technology summer institute, where I was happy to be able to present three different times on augmenting university classes with technology to enhance student engagement:

Ross guiding CSU faculty through strategies for student active learning
By the way: at past institutes, I introduced myself as Bio(logy) Joe from Fresno. This year, I realize the value of not promoting that I am a biologist, because everything I do as a faculty professional developer is to try to make my practices discipline-agnostic. My goal is to develop and disseminate information that faculty from any discipline can use. Yesterday, one of my colleagues suggested that I be "Just Joe" – hence my new moniker.

Yesterday, while I was presenting, and listening to other CSU experts, I distilled three great tips for those of us who teach classes in a blended learning ("flipped") format. I'll couch these tips in the context of two questions and complaints I often hear from faculty who have tried this approach:

1. For videos that students watch before coming to class, what types of content should I present, and how long should be videos be?

Yesterday, my colleague Ji Son gave a great description of how to divide course content and practice between pre-class and in-class: think of Bloom's taxonomy. Give students the factual (lower Bloom's) information in brief (three to five minute) videos. Spend class time doing the higher Bloom's levels: tackling employing knowledge in new circumstances, evaluating information, etc. in that classroom setting, where students have you (and peers) as a support structure! This is critically important for students who have fixed mindsets.

2. Students aren't engaging in my exercises during our in-class time

Two main challenges might explain this reluctance

a. First, I've heard many stories from faculty of how they started out with so many great new techniques and approaches, but their time (and enthusiasm) to support those changes tapered off over the semester. This is often sensed by students as faculty getting "lazy."

The best answer to this: be as conscious as you can as you're designing how you will integrate new pedagogies. Think sustainably: just make one change each term, and make it a small change, so that you can be sure you have enough time all semester long to support your innovation. Students prefer consistent energy across the semester.

b. Another perspective that students sometimes have about faculty is that using a flipped classroom approach is a "lazy teacher" approach, especially when we spend most of our in-class time answering student questions and facilitating small group work.

I have three recommendations

a. The most important: do everything you can (see below) to onboard students into the value of your class augmentation/enrichment/redesign strategy. Describe/provide to the students:

  • how what you are doing is probably going to be new to them
  • how you know that your changes have been shown to be effective (i.e. that you're not necessarily testing unproven strategies on them as "guinea pigs")
  • how their participation and regular preparation for a flipped class is absolutely critical and essential for the class to work and help every student succeed

Do this as early in the semester as possible. Some places to do this: in your course syllabus and during the very first day of class. I now spend about a half-hour of class on each of my first few days of class giving students structured exercises and time to learn all new technologies/workflows. This can include providing online resources (videos, tutorials) for using those technologies. At the same time, I reinforce how all of these approaches help improve their ability to succeed in my course.

b. It can also be very valuable, in the first days of class, to survey your students to try to learn about their attitudes and perceptions on your pedagogical approach. This way, if you have any concerns coming into the semester about whether students will appreciate what you're doing, you will find out what sort of concerns you will need to explicitly address on this first days. Some example survey questions might include (for a flipped classroom approach):

  • How much do you like being able to ask questions during class? (a little, some, a lot)
  • What percent of class time do you prefer be spent on lecture? (0-25%, 25-50%, 50-75%, 75-100%)
  • How much time do you expect to spend outside of class preparing for class?
This process can be very eye-opening about the gap between your expectations for student activity/involvement and their own expectations. Only with these data can you be effective in helping the students understand the value of their adapting their schedules/expectations/activities to conform with your pedagogical approach.

c. I have had a lot of difficulty (spanning multiple semesters) figuring out how to get students to prepare to ask questions and engage in group work during class. In other words: preparing students to realize that their homework has two components:

  • read/watch the material for class
  • prepare questions, based on thoughtful reflection, to ask in class

To help prime students, one of the things I prefer to do is to assign students a "homework question" to try to complete by the next class meeting. I do this at one or both of the following ways:

  • at the end of the current class meeting and/or
  • in the video I am asking the students to watch by next class

Such a question that I pose to students will always be a tough question that, at its core, requires the students to use the pre-class video and/or reading material. However, that question usually has one final part that will be difficult (to nearly impossible) for students to complete. The goal of this is to force students to consider how the information/topic engages higher Bloom's levels before class. Then, when they come to class, you should be fairly confident that a number of your students will have FAILed to answer that question (where the acronym FAIL stands for First Attempt In Learning - that's not my invention, but I'm not sure who to attribute this acronym to). This approach ensures that, at the very least, students should come to class expecting to work on figuring out how to appropriately answer that question.

A final thought about helping students prepare for the in-class portion of a flipped class

Be very explicit with your students about how students can go about developing appropriate/useful questions to bring to class. This might take the form of providing students with a flowchart of prompts to help them pinpoint where they encountered difficulties:

  • Where in the process of answering the question did you get stuck?
  • What were the questions racing through your head when you gave up? Write those down and bring them to class. Examples include:
    • "Do I need this piece of information?"
    • "How do I incorporate this information in my answer?"
    • "Why is this information provided in the question?"
    • "What does this term mean?"
    • "I had multiple possible options of how to proceed at this point - which one should I choose?"
    • "How do I know what to do next? I don't know what options exist for how to proceed."

Do you have other methods you use to help students develop questions to ask during class? Please let me know by e-mail or as a comment!