My Flipped Journey

Andy Rundquist, Hamline University

I was at a physics chairs conference several years ago, and we were discussing how to deal with students cheating on homework. It was where I first heard of and I came away pretty depressed. One suggestion that I laughed at when it was mentioned, was to just do quizzes instead of collecting homework. I laughed because I did not see how I could cough up that much class time for assessment, especially since I tended to collect homework on a daily basis. It is funny to think about it now, but that experience is what led to one of the biggest changes to my approach to teaching. These days people would call my response “flipped learning,” but at the time, I called it “stopping cheating.” This past summer I went to another chairs’ conference and the subsequent conference on online learning and I got a chance to share some of what I have learned since jumping on this flipped bandwagon.

I am constantly tweaking my teaching. Often what makes me crabby in one class is what is addressed in the next. A lot of the changes I have made have been centered around the preciousness of class time. In class students have nearly unfettered access to me, so I figured I should prioritize the things that we do in class so that I could help them the most. The thing that dropped to the bottom of the list was reading the text to them, which was a very cynical description my chair gave of my lecture style after he visited my classroom in my first year.

So what does my class time look like now? My students are engaging with each other and the material, using physical whiteboards to draw up potential solutions to challenging problems, and talking with each other and me trying to place the new material in the context of the old. I encourage my students to come prepared with 1) an understanding of why we are studying the daily topic in the first place, 2) an initial knowledge of the vocabulary we will be using, and 3) experience with where and what their resources are. They do this by reading the text, watching the videos I provide, and talking with each other through our class backchannel.

I am constantly prioritizing what should be done in class versus out. The list is long, but includes derivations, history, examples, lab planning, assessment, and tying ideas together. I make choices about that list on a daily basis, with very few things always being in or out of class. I do my prioritization based on how I feel class is going, what questions students are asking, what I have done in the past, and what logistics are needed.

Making this change has made teaching harder for me. In class I have to have an overall plan, but otherwise I need to be flexible to meet students’ needs. If I ask them to do a problem that is too hard, I need to figure out where they are stuck and make quick decisions about whether to “teach” them at that moment or let them develop their own models as they struggle. I have learned a lot talking to friends and colleagues who are high school teachers, especially those who use the modeling curriculum.

I have had to give up a few things. In the past, I was usually present when they learned (or at least heard about) some cool thing. Now, they have almost certainly read about it or studied a video about it before class, so I do not get to witness that “ah-ha” moment. I console myself by taking that cool thing and having the students really dig deep with it in class, but I would be lying if I said I did not miss that sage-on-the-stage feeling every once in a while.

One thing I will not miss, though, is looking at my watch whenever a student asks me a tangential question. You know that feeling, when a student has demonstrated an interest in the topic, but is tying it to something that would take too much time away from your lecture to cover in today’s class. In the past I had always look at my watch before answering. Not anymore. I have already “covered” what I wanted to with my reading assignments and videos and other resources that I have provided. If a student wants to dig deep right now in class, let’s do it! Better to honor their passion than to be a slave to your calendar, I say.

Probably the coolest thing to come out of all of this, for me, is putting some of the tools I use to create resources into my students’ hands. When I started to realize how much more useful my solution set screencasts were (to save time going over them in class) compared with just the paper copies, I started to look into having students turn in their work the same way. My solution screencasts do not just show the work, they discuss the steps in detail, mostly because I talk a lot faster than I can write. Turning that around and having students explain their thinking is much more valuable than looking at a sheet of their (you hope) handwriting. That sort of thing is also useful when groups are trying to bring you up to speed on their progress. Forcing groups to wait around until their turn at the end of lab is not nearly as efficient as having them make a screencast/video of their progress that they can email you and you can watch before the next lab.

My most recent experiment with “flipping” is what I have dubbed “flipping the flip.” In a non-science-major physics of sound and music course this past fall I had the students only come prepared by having them think about a simple question. One example was “what actually makes the sound of a snap?” I did not ask them to read or watch videos or anything leading up to class. I did it because one of the biggest problems with a flipped pedagogy is student buy-in and preparedness. I wanted to see what I could do in a class where I did not expect much (if anything) from them before class. Once in class, I would throw out a problem like “what’s going on in this simulation” or “could you snap in outer space” and slowly they would start working together to figure out what was important/hard/weird/exciting about the topic. At the end of the class we would gather and they would put in their requests for resources. They would ask for pages in the text to read that might explain what confused them, or they would ask for an explanation from me about why we would use one equation and not another. I would dutifully go provide those resources and they would use them to prepare for the various assessments we had in class. It was a fun class to teach, but I felt that it put even more pressure on me to be flexible while trying to get them from A to B.

There has been a lot of research about flipped class teaching, but I think more could be done. Determining the best mix of at-home versus in-class work would save me a lot of time, though I do think there is a lot that will always be case-by-case. Research into the best ways for students to make use of out-of-class resources, including static content, dynamic content (where they can interact with the material somehow), and peer/instructor-based connections (like backchannels), is vitally needed by this physics research engineer. At the end of the day we are all trying to help students learn in the best ways possible. I will keep looking at what makes me crabby about the last course I taught to figure out what to try in the next course, and I will continue to keep tabs on the research that you and others are doing to help me do that.

Andy Rundquist is an Associate Professor of Physics at Hamline University in Minnesota. His research interests include the generation, characterization, and optimization of ultrafast laser-matter interactions, and how to leverage technology to aid student learning.

Disclaimer – The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.