Class Time Reconsidered: Making the Most of 150 Minutes a Week

Flipped ClassroomI’ve spent the day in sunny Denver, Colorado, catching up with my grad school colleague Nick Galatos and giving a talk on, well, the flipped classroom for the University of Denver mathematics department. I hesitate to use the term “flipped classroom” because I’ve been involved in a lengthy conversation on Twitter over the last couple of days debating the definition and merits of the “flipped classroom” idea. It’s clear that the term rubs some faculty the wrong way. Some see their classrooms as already “flipped,” and so don’t see what the buzz is all about. Others take “flipped classroom” as code for “having students watch online video lectures” and question the value of that activity. Others, particularly Siva Vaidhyanathan, object to the implication they see in the term that the classroom lecture has no value.

Given those conversations, I titled my talk at the University of Denver “Class Time Reconsidered” to highlight what I see as the central and very useful question at the heart of the flipped classroom idea: How can we make the most of the relatively limited time we have with our students during class? Advocates of the flipped classroom (at least those who understand the term to be more than just code for online lecture videos) argue that class time should be used for the harder portions of learning, the sense-making that is required after students have been introduced to new ideas and techniques. That introduction, that is, the students’ first exposure to content, can happen before class, through textbooks or, yes, online lecture videos. I think that for many courses, particularly in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields), that argument makes sense, and so in my talk I explored some options for implementing the “flipped” approach in a mathematics course.

I was careful, however, not to argue that this is a one-size-fits-all situation. Context–the course, the students, the instructor, the material–all matters. We talked about particular topics in the mathematics curriculum where it seemed that a student’s first exposure might best come during class, guided by the instructor. This discussion echoed a recent Stanford study in which students learned more when they engaged in hands-on projects before reading a textbook or watching a video, as well as earlier comments by Furman University’s Mike Winiski along these lines. For example, when we start the unit on probability in my stats course, I like to confront a few important misconceptions students often have about probability during class through a series of clicker questions before they start reading the corresponding sections in the textbook. Other mentioned definitions (the definition of a limit, the definition of continuity at a point) as topics best explored first during class.

One interesting fact about that Stanford study that I missed when it was announced last summer: Each student participated in the hands-on exploration phase of the study individually, not in a classroom environment. While we can conclude from the study that a student’s first exposure to a topic (in this case, a particular topic in neuroscience) should be through some kind of exploratory activity, not “information transfer” like a textbook or lecture video, we can’t conclude from the study that such an exploratory activity is best conducted during class time. In that sense, the study doesn’t support a “flipped flipped classroom,” in which textbook readings or video lecture follow classroom exploratory activities, at least as I define the flipped classroom. A student’s first exposure to a topic could still happen before class, even if that first exposure is more “exploration activity” than “information transfer.”

The term “flipped classroom” means different things to different people, and poor journalism only muddies the waters. There are some really important questions raised by the idea, however, and I hope those questions aren’t lost in all the buzz.

With that, I present the slides from my talk today. Look for links in the notes for additional information on the examples included in the slides.

Image: “final exam,” dcJohn, Flickr (CC)

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