Tuesday, January 10, 2017

An Adventure in Active Learning

I decided that I finally wanted to give this flipped classroom thing a shot. When I found out that I was scheduled to teach a Matlab/Mathematica class, a couple of years ago, I figured it was ideally suited for this experiment.

I spent the previous summer thinking through the format, reimagining the material, and the pacing. The idea was simple.

There were excellent 15-minute videos on the Mathworks and Wolfram sites, which students would watch before class. They would take a quick, but super-easy, quiz at the start of every class to ensure that everyone watched the videos. We’d then spend class time doing actual modeling, programming, and discussing common pitfalls and misconceptions.

I was very excited at the start of the semester. If I were a student, I would have loved the class I put together. Without a doubt. That's what I thought!

The excitement drained away quickly.

About 1/3 of the class was super-engaged. They watched videos, they were active in class, and I felt that they truly got something out of the class. If all of my class did as well, I would have thought that the experiment was successful. Grudgingly though, I had to admit that this 1/3 would have mastered the subject, even if I did not show up to class.

The middle 1/3 tried to keep up. They were somewhat inconsistent. In some classes, they were very active, and in others, they struggled. Would they have done better in a traditional class? Who knows!

About 1/3 of the class did not watch the videos. Consistently. I exhorted them, unsuccessfully, to come see me after class, so that we could work on the gaps in their understanding. Class time was miserable for them. They hid behind the terminals, doing their homework, while the rest of the class was busy solving problems.

After about a month I realized I had completely lost them.

Overall, I felt terrible about the experiment. It failed.

I haven’t tried flipping my classroom, since.

I have tried to do several post-mortems to figure out what went wrong; if there was something I could have done differently to fix the problem I saw, fairly early on.

The whole process relied heavily on students doing their homework. I was open to them not getting all the material in the videos. We could discuss that stuff in class. That would have been wonderful.

But flipped classrooms are still relatively rare in my university. Their novelty meant that students hadn’t realized the importance of keeping up with assigned material.

This was an undergrad class. The distribution of “work ethic” is often wider than in grad classes. From my experience flipped classrooms can work well even with a wide distribution in ability, given relatively high appetite for hard work.

But, vice versa, is another story.

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