The flipped classroom, part deux: What’s working, what’s not

Long(ish)time readers of this blog know that I’ve been experimenting with a variation of the flipped classroom lately. I plunged in last spring with my Intro CS class, and it went so well that I decided to flip both of my classes this term. Overall, I am still pleased with the results, but in flipping two classes I’ve learned a bit more about the practical aspects of the flipped classroom (and time management, too).

For the purposes of context, the two courses are 200-level courses that are required for the CS major. One of these contains a broad mix of ability levels (everyone from seniors who have taken almost every course we offer to sophomores fresh out of Intro CS, and one intrepid first-year student), while the other is mainly students who have just taken Intro CS.

What’s gone well

I have yet to post a video: I’ve stuck with my original model of posting targeted readings for each class, along with a small assignment to test comprehension of the material. This strategy continues to work well. While I could probably buy myself some more class time if I posted mini lectures online, I’ve found that doing very targeted mini lectures in-class on the trickier concepts works well and usually leaves plenty of time for in-class activities. And the daily assignments, when I have time to review them, show me immediately what students are grasping and where they are struggling.

My teaching, I feel, is more creative as well. When your goal is to minimize lecture and maximize problem-solving, application-oriented activities, you have to think very carefully about what you’ll present and how. This has made me view the course material in new ways, and caused me to re-evaluate some of the topics I typically present.

I’ve also found that I stress less about getting “behind” in the content. I’m less concerned overall with presenting content and more focused on “are the students learning what I want them to learn from this unit”? Content can always be finessed to match the schedule. And again, this sharpens my focus on what’s really important in terms of learning objectives.

Finally, having the daily assignments worth a small number of points continues to be a fairly sufficient motivator for having the students do the work ahead of time. This is more true in one class than in the other, but I find that most of the students are doing the prep work most of the time.

Challenges

The biggest challenge I’ve faced is finding a sustainable model for the daily assignments. Obviously, this was much easier to handle when I was teaching one course, but I completely underestimated how much time keeping up with the grading (even if it’s just a quick check) would take. I am way behind on the grading here!

Surprisingly, Moodle (our course management system) is much more of a hindrance than a help here. It takes FOREVER to grade even simple assignments: so many clicks, so much navigation! I’ve resorted to having students hand things in on paper at the start of class, which is easier for me to grade but means I can’t peek at their submissions before class to plan out our class time.

I’ve had more success with two types of assignments in particular: Moodle quizzes and discussion forums. Quizzes are auto-graded, which is wonderful, but the Moodle quiz interface also allows me to scan all the quiz attempts and see which problems people are missing and how many attempts they require before they can answer the questions correctly (and color-codes them too!). I find I am better prepared for class when their daily assignment is a quiz. With discussion forums, I can also scan the responses quickly and grade them fairly quickly too. In the future, I will definitely rely more heavily on these types of assignments.

Another challenge is that this type of course takes a lot more energy than a typical lecture course. I’ve found that when I’m tired or extremely busy (which is often the case this term), I fall back on lecturing because it’s “easy”. Yet I definitely feel like the more lecture-heavy classes are less effective overall—I joke that the more I talk, the less my students learn. The investment of energy up-front reaps way more rewards in the end, and if I invest the time up-front my students will, too.

What does the future hold?

Next term will pose a very interesting challenge: I’m teaching basically a new prep (a course I haven’t taught in 4 years that I am completely overhauling), an elective course on computer security. Essentially I’ll be inventing and flipping a course at the same time. Oh, and security is not my area of expertise, either. I’m glad I got the chance to play around more with flipping two very familiar classes and work out some of the logistical kinks before tackling a much more challenging-to-me course. Luckily, I have a lighter teaching load (1.5 instead of 2.5 courses) next term too, which should alleviate some of the time management issues as well. My experience in flipping 3 courses has strengthened my commitment to the concept, and I look forward to next term’s flipping adventure!

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