Monday, May 19, 2014

Guest Post: You teach science, but is your teaching scientific? Part 2: Flipping your class.

The second in a series of guest posts about using scientific teaching, active learning, and flipping the classroom by Sarah Seiter, a teaching fellow at the University of Colorado, Boulder. 

When universities first opened in the middle ages, lecturing was the most cutting edge information technology available to a professor - books were copied by hand so the fastest way to transfer information was to talk at your students (see the awesome TED talk below for a breakdown of how universities can and should change). Lecturing is still the default at most universities, and faculty spend hours developing their lecture skills. But studies have shown over and over again that lecturing is one of the worst possible ways to get students to learn. This means that our most accomplished scientists are working like crazy to master a method of teaching that is straight up medieval.
Lecturing isn’t going away any time soon, but you do a lot for your classes by incorporating active learning techniques, sometimes called “flipping” a class. The main feature of a flipped class is that students do the knowledge acquisition (the lecture-like) part of the course at home, and then do “homework” in the classroom with the instructor and peers to help them apply knowledge.

Flipped Classroom Fears:

Instructors often imagine a Lord of The Flies style scenario when they start flipping their classrooms, but this isn’t usually the case. In fact, most students are actually so conditioned to sit quietly in class that it can be difficult to get them to talk about the material. However, there are a few things you can do to get students in the frame of mind for productive discussion.
Flipping your classroom will probably not result­ in chaos. Nobody is going to smash the conch shell and kill Piggy, but they might learn something.
  • Start small: If you’re just getting into transforming your class, it can be helpful to start with something small, like flipping once a week.
  • Get extra staff: Since group work key to flipped classroom, it helps to have extra staff to facilitate peer discussions. If you have graduate TAs, consider deputizing them to lead group exercises. If your university has an undergrad TA program, get as many as you can and spend a day training them on how to ask good questions and facilitate conversations.
  • Explain to students why flipping works: Students will sometimes complain if they’re used to sitting passively in lecture, and they’re suddenly forced to do homework in class. But flipping builds skills that they’ll need in the workplace or graduate school, so reemphasizing what they’re gaining can help get them to buy in. 

Tools For Flipping: Case Studies

Case studies usually involve taking scientific data or ideas and then applying them to a real world situation (medical, law and business schools have been using them for years). Case studies are all over the internet, although the largest clearing house is the National Case Study Library (the American Museum of Natural History, the National Geographic Society, the Smithsonian, and the Understanding Evolution project at Berkeley also have great resources). The National Case Study Library is the largest and is searchable by topic and age, and includes teaching notes for each case, and can be a great place to get started.

Picking Case Studies: Some case studies are purely hypothetical, but I tend to gravitate to those that use real data from published studies like this one on the evolution of skin color that uses studies from a lot of disciplines to build to a conclusion, or this one on conservation corridors and meta-populations. A lot of case studies open with a fictional story, but this approach is a little corny for me, and I’d rather focus on the real scientists and their questions (the narrative case studies can also get weird (like this paternity case study that could also be a great Maury episode). In general, just pick things that work for you and your students. 

DIY Case Studies: If you have papers that you already like to teach, then consider turning them into a case study. To do this, I usually write an intro briefly framing the problem or question. Then I give students actual graphs from the paper with follow up questions to help them process the information. It is OK if the study has a few confusing elements; while we often want a clear story to present to our classes, there’s great evidence that using “messy” data builds scientific skills. You may have to modify graphs, or remake them for extra readability. This could mean re-labeling axes to remove jargon (e.g. in a paper on insects, “instar” becomes “developmental stage”). It might mean dropping some treatments (you don’t need 10 nitrogen treatments to understand eutrophication). Usually I follow every graph with 2-3 questions that follow a basic format:
  • Question 1: Ask students to detect any trends or differences in the graph. 
  • Question 2: Have students think of an explanation for the results
  • Question 3: Ask students to apply their “findings” to the question or problem posed in the case study
The above formula is just a starting place so add or alter questions to suit your needs. Sometimes I’ll use two or three graphs, and use the formula above. I usually end with a question that ties all the graphs together, like asking them to recommend a policy solution, or contrast the findings of different researchers.

Using Case Studies In Class: You can prepare students for a case either through a short lecture or through a homework assignment or reading quiz (this can be done using classroom management software like Blackboard, or Sakai). Once students have the background, have them break into groups of two to three, and work through the questions. It can be helpful to stop every few minutes to go through the answers (some case studies build on earlier questions, so early feedback is key). A great feature of case studies is that they can take nearly an entire class period, so you can go an entire day without having to lecture.

Clicker Questions 

The other main tool for flipping your classroom is clicker questions. Clickers are basically a real-time poll of your students so you can check how they are learning. Most instructors use them for participation points, rather than grading them for correctness (this encourages students to jump in and grapple with material, and not worry about making mistakes). Your university might have a set of clickers that you can borrow, or you have students use laptops, tablets and smartphones in place of clicker with apps like Poll Everywhere, GoSoapbox, Pinnion, or Socrative (these have different features and price points, so see what works for you). For a more comprehensive list of clicker tools , see this article from a team at Princeton.

Writing Good Clicker Questions: Good clicker questions should encourage discussion, and force students to apply their knowledge, not just test what they remember. This can mean using information to make recommendations, doing a calculation, or making predictions about the outcome of experiment. Standard clickers only allow for multiple choice questions, but other web-based tools will allow your students to do free responses, draw graphs, or give other types of answers. There are lots of great web resources on how to design clicker questions (in appendix). The slide show below shows some clicker questions we used in our flipped evolution class at CU Boulder.

Using Clickers In Class: Once you have your clicker questions written, then you’ll need to deploy them in class. Below is a basic blueprint for how to run a clicker question

1. Tell students to break into groups and get ready to discuss a clicker question
2. Give students about a minute to discuss the question, and open whatever clicker software you’re using. You’ll usually hear a 30 second surge in talking that dies down after about a minute. After about a minute give students a warning and tell then close out the clicker question.
3. At this point you can show the results of the clicker poll and start to unpack the question. If your questions are challenging, you should be getting significant amounts of wrong answers, so seeing a wide range of answers means you’re doing it right. Usually if 10% of your students are getting the question wrong, it is worth discussing the question in depth
4. Make students be able to articulate why right answers are right and why wrong answers are wrong. You can call on groups to get them to explain their answers (this is nicer than cold-calling individual students). If nobody wants to talk about wrong answers, say something like “why might someone think that B is a tempting answer?” so that nobody has to admit to being wrong in front of their peers.
5. It can be helpful to follow up with another question asking them to apply the material in a different way.

In conclusion, flipping your classroom can be done pretty cheaply and without that much more work than lecturing. This post is really just a starting place, and there are ton of great resources on the web to take you further. I’ve compiled just a few of them below. Good luck and happy flipping!

By Sarah Seiter


Videos on Flipped Classrooms:

Resources for Clicker Qs:
Clicker Question Guides from University of Colorado Boulder

1 comment:

  1. I have been interested in implementing more active learning approaches and flipped classroom for awhile now. Thanks for the great and detailed posts!