Lecture flipping- conclusions

2014-05-29 09.37.57

As I write this, the students on the biochem course are sitting their exams. A fitting conclusion- we’re all reflecting on what we’ve learned, although I’ve probably got an easier time reflecting on what I’ve learned from my lecture flipping experiment. A few weeks ago I wrapped up the online poll reported in my previous posts. In addition to the “agree/ disagree” polls, I collected a large number of free-text responses. Many were along the lines of “good idea but…”. From a small number of very enthusiastic comments it is clear that the flipped format works really well for highly motivated learners with good self-discipline; these are most likely the students who would do well whichever format we throw at them. Many others said they preferred the traditional lecture, typically without clearly articulating why. It would be easy to dismiss the less positive comments on the basis of “they just don’t want to put in the work”, but it’s more complicated than that. So what have I learned, and what will I do differently next year?

Managing expectations and changing habits

Among several similar comments this one is very telling: “Lecture flipping doesn’t teach in the depth we need.” To me this reflects the traditional expectation of coming to school or university to “be taught”, rather than to learn. I have not visited my colleagues’ lectures much, but I suspect most of our teaching especially in the first year is about “telling”. “I think lecture flipping is a good idea but it seems a bit like trying to do a seminar as would be done in say history, where material would be read and then discussed. I don’t know how well this could work with science subjects because often we are just being told facts rather than made to consider our opinions.” A typical expectation is that the lecture is where learning happens. Come to the lecture as an empty vessel and leave filled up with knowledge. Some concluded that, all things being equal, “I didn’t learn as much in the flipped lecture as I would have in a normal lecture.” As an additional learning resource for exam preparation, the videos were universally welcomed; as a tool for breaking the pattern of “passive learning” in the lecture, not so much.

My interpretation is that the concept at the heart of lecture flipping is so radical that I’ve not done enough to explain and “sell” it to the students: I provide you with all the material you need to learn the fundamental concepts at your own pace, with as much or as little repetition and redundancy as you like. You can listen to me talking through it all, or just read. You do your best to come to the lecture prepared, and perhaps you’ve done the homework exercise. During the “lecture”, we do something that’s way more interesting than memorizing stuff- get your brain in gear and apply the concepts you’ve learned to new, real-world problems. Understand why these concepts are relevant. Discuss with others in the course, learn from them, teach them what you have understood.

Clear structure and guidance

One of the side effects of time-pressed preparation was a certain off-the-cuff quality of the whole experiment. Sometimes I was only able to release videos and homework quizzes at the last minute. Since not all the material for the following week was laid out in front of them, some students were confused and “didn’t know what [they were] supposed to do”. These students come from a school system that is in love with testing and has often been accused of “teaching to the test”, with very tightly defined testable learning outcomes. At the time of my lectures, they had been at Uni for little more than three months, still getting used to taking charge of their learning. My conclusion is that I need to put more effort into organising materials and guiding them through it. Structure is everything.

Classroom management

One of the most frequent comments was “I think this group is too big to do lecture flipping, people talk too much and you can’t hear what you’re saying…” Inviting peer discussions during the pub quiz inevitably led to a more chaotic lecture- that was the whole point. More problematic was the space between those discussion periods. With a very large class it is impossible to switch from chaos to lecturing within seconds, and apparently there was residual chatter for quite a while even after I started talking again, with the consequence that some could not hear me well. The commenters expressed a lot of anger at fellow students for not shutting up (Rude people will be rude. Thought it was great, shame about all the people talking over at all times). With hindsight, part of the problem was the nature of pub quiz questions. It does not always take long to settle on one of the MCQ answers, and many will have had idle time before I continued. That’s presumably when the discussion moved on to “last night in the pub” or to weekend plans, and I can’t blame them for tuning back into biochemistry reluctantly.

What next?

If I was to get rid of the interactive lecture but kept the videos and homework quizzes, lecture flipping would be a sure-fire success –no commitment required from anyone. Some students suggested “half lecture, half quiz”. A colleague at a recent conference talked about his extensive experience with lecture flipping and was asked “So do you re-cap the material as a short lecture?” and responded that he felt strongly this would send the wrong signals; that it’s OK to come to class unprepared. I realise that my flipped lecture (half discussion of the homework quiz, half pub quiz) had little to offer to anyone who has not had a chance to do the work, maybe for legitimate reasons.

The compromise might be in ramping up to “full flipping” more slowly so students can get used to this way of working, and allowing for a little more slack in the system. (quote: I think if we’d used that method for a longer period of time, those kinks would’ve been ironed out, as people realised that they needed to listen for the answers. (Plus some people are just grumpy and don’t like change until they get used to it) While I want to keep the pub quiz element, the first half of the lecture slot needs to run more smoothly and feel more like a traditional lecture so everyone is tuned in. It is probably going to be a combination of brief summary, case study, worked example and homework discussion.

For the pub quiz, I am going to make more use of free-text questions and drawing functions of Nearpod. While that means that the result can no longer automatically evaluated by the Nearpod server, a writing or drawing activity is more engaging and challenging than ticking a box and should therefore keep classroom talking task-focussed for longer. The collective answers will give really valuable insight into the students’ developing understanding.

Finally, the videos need to go onto YouTube to eliminate problems with access and hosting, and to allow downloading if desired. That also means more attention to copyright issues, but so be it. Videos have to be shorter and less condensed so that only one concept is explained in each, and there will be follow-up exercises on our virtual learning environment. Alternating short chunks of video and exercises offer more flexibility and make it easier to stay focused.

It’s been an exciting experiment and a rewarding experience. Many technical and pedagogical issues need addressing, but overall this was an encouraging pilot study. Plenty of work for me this summer to produce more videos, more questions and case studies.

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