Bay Path University Teacher Tom Mennella Provides a Detailed Look at his Flipped Course and how Students are Benefiting from This Instructional Model
I saw Tom Mennella present on his flipped Genetics course at NERCOMP14 in March and was impressed with the clearly defined structure of his approach. I asked him to consider writing it up for EmergingEdTech, and I'm delighted that he did! Here's Tom's thorough overview of how he has successfully flipped BIO210 at Bay Path University. – K. Walsh
In March of 2014, the Flipped Learning Network (www.flippedlearning.org) adopted and released a formal definition for flipped learning:
“Flipped Learning is a pedagogical approach in which direct instruction moves from the group learning space to the individual learning space, and the resulting group space is transformed into a dynamic, interactive learning environment where the educator guides students as they apply concepts and engage creatively in the subject matter.”
Prior to this, there was no consensus definition for flipped learning, flipped classrooms, flipped anything. And, while having a definition like this one is important, this definition still allows for a great deal of instructor-specific style, design, and flavor, as it should. After all, there is no one way to teach a flipped course, and some approaches and styles work better for some instructors than others.
In this article I share some of the techniques and strategies that I have adopted as part of my flipped course in undergraduate genetics at Bay Path University. But, I make no secret of the fact that this course is still a work in progress. I continue to tweak and adjust my flipped courses each year to try to better leverage this wonderful approach to instruction. And, at the end of this article, I candidly convey my successes and failures, and relevant student opinions.
My Flipped Course
At Bay Path University, BIO210 is a single semester undergraduate course in genetics. This course, like many in the sciences, delves into a great deal of content, but it also features concepts that are quite mathematical. In this way, genetics is somewhat unique as compared to many other courses in a biology curriculum. And, where math is involved, there really is no substitute for practice, practice, practice. So, once I became aware of the flipped classroom format, I immediately realized that this approach could provide me with the class time I so desperately needed to review and practice critical concepts with my students. Serendipitously, at this same time, Bay Path was engaging in a campus-wide course redesign initiative and had decided to become an iPad institution. These ingredients were to combine into a perfect storm – in a good way – allowing me to leverage all that the flipped classroom had to offer.
Each week of my course represents a module, with its own learning goals and objectives. If my class meets Tuesday and Thursday of each week, then each module begins Thursday afternoon, after class has concluded for that week. At this time, two full length (60-75 minutes) recorded lectures become available for students to view online. Bay Path maintains an institutional subscription for the Tegrity platform, which works very well for us, but there are a variety of options and formats available for lecture capture. For a single instructor, piloting a flipped class on his or her own, I would recommend VoiceThread. This web- and app-based platform offers a free subscription option and suffices well for a single course.
What Students Have to do Outside of the Classroom
For my course, each recorded lecture that students watch is a traditional PowerPoint lecture with my voiceover. It is delivered online as I would have delivered the lecture to the class in a traditional, lecture-based course. Students have four days to watch these two lectures (e.g., from Thursday evening to Monday evening).
On Monday evening, students must submit one reflection assignment for each lecture. These reflections are short and simple. Students are told that the reflections need only to conform to this template: “The concept from this lecture that I understood best was…, because… The concept from this lecture that I understood least was…, because…” However, the power that these short simple reflections offer is incredible.
Firstly, they offer a wealth of formative assessment. By reading these reflections prior to our next class meeting on Tuesday, I get a snap shot of what the class, as a whole, understood most and what they understood least. Also, though, I am able to track the comprehension of individual students over time in the course to monitor if a particular student consistently struggles with basic concepts and perhaps requires some intervention on my part to ‘right the ship’. Invariably, however, for each lecture there is a single concept, or a small number of concepts, that the vast majority of the class reports to be confusing in their reflections. And, if the vast majority of the students are confused by the same thing, that’s not their fault, it’s mine.
What We Do in Class
So, as the class meets for the first time in a module (on Tuesday), I begin with what I call “Office Hours in Class”. And, this is very much what it sounds like; very informally, with nothing more than the whiteboard and some dry erase markers, I review the concept(s) reported to be most confusing in the majority of the students’ reflections. However, I do not lecture. I do what I would do for a single student, on scrap paper, at my desk in office hours, but I do it for the entire class. In this way, I try to clarify those confusing concepts.
This is followed by “Challenge Questions”. Students self-select into groups of three or four and they are presented with questions written to mimic those that will be encountered on the upcoming unit exam. Student groups are given 10-15 minutes to work through each question and then volunteers are solicited to present their answers. These answers are not deemed correct or incorrect by me, but instead, they are discussed as a whole-class group. We try to, together, identify what parts of the answer are relevant and what parts could be improved. And, together, we mold that answer into a better one that all of us agrees best answers the challenge question.
Active Learning on “Fun Day”!
The class next meets on Thursday, and Thursday is our “fun-day”. Each Thursday, I have activities prepared that are directly relevant to the concepts being covered in that module. But, these activities are also designed to be somewhat engaging and entertaining. Again, students separate into groups and are then presented with the activity (the class has no prior knowledge of the activity so that no preparation can be done prior to class; everyone comes in with a clean slate).
Some examples of these activities are:
- A mock trial where DNA mutations are tried for being guilty or not guilty of harming the human genome (students are divided into a defense team, a prosecution team, witnesses, etc.)
- Role playing activities where students act out different aspects of genetics processes
- “One right, one wrong”: Students create simple diagrams or illustrations for a particular concept and intentionally include one aspect that is absolutely correct and another that is absolutely incorrect; the rest of the class must then try to find the correct fact and the incorrect fact in that diagram.
- My favorite, “on-the-fly” presentations: On-the-fly presentations are my go-to activity. Students arrive to class and are told that they will have 30 minutes to find five images on the web that best illustrate a given concept that is part of that week’s module. They must download the images, annotate them, and be prepared to present those images to the class and explain how and why those images were selected and what concepts they illustrate.
- Case Studies
All of these activities are greatly enhanced by iPads in the classroom. iPads allow the students to create content in a more streamlined manner, share content more easily, and do so in a uniform way that all students can easily access and manipulate.
These activities engage students, the students are active, the classroom gets loud, and it’s wonderful! There are many smiles, lots of laughter, and the fly on the wall would never guess it had landed in a college-level genetics class. Class on Thursday ends with a brief quiz to assess student learning of that week’s core concepts. Finally, remember, it’s Thursday. So, in a few hours, another two lectures become available for viewing on Tegrity and the class gears up for another module next week with “office hours in class”, challenge questions, a Thursday fun-day activity, and quiz.
Please note: no new content is presented in class. The online lectures are the only part of the module where new information is presented to the students. All other module components exist solely to clarify and fortify those concepts. In my opinion, this is a critical aspect of flipped instruction; the flipped classroom cannot be used as a means to deliver still more information to students. This would defeat the purpose of the flipped learning format.
How I Grade
One question I commonly get when I present this course design to colleagues is, “with so much going on in this course, how are grades determined?” I come from a philosophy where, if students spent time on something, they deserve credit for that time. The student reflections, their participation on Thursday activities, and their overall class participation are all graded for effort, not quality. In other words, if the student did the work, and demonstrated effort, they get full credit (even if the content is incorrect).
Quizzes, the unit exams, and the cumulative final (yes, cumulative) are mastery-based points. The students must demonstrate comprehension and mastery of the course material to earn these points. I’ve designed the grading structure so that any student who earns 90% of the effort-based points and 50% of the mastery-based points gets a C- in my course. To me, this is a fair grade for a student who worked hard but learned little. I no longer curve, I no longer ‘adjust’; all of it is built right into the grading structure. I tell the students on day one of the course – and repeat it throughout the semester – “work hard, do your work, and you will not fail this course”. I can offer no clearer or stronger guarantee than that.
What the Students Think
Finally, what do the students think? Student feedback for this course has been overwhelmingly positive. Each semester, there are a handful of students who simply and vehemently hate the flipped format. But, they are always vastly outnumbered by students singing its praises.
Student opinion has been more mixed regarding the formation of groups and the fun-day activities. Initially, I had selected the student groups for challenge questions and fun-day activities. Each student was assigned a letter, a number and a color and we would cycle through letter groups, number groups and color groups so that group make-up was being shuffled week to week. Many students did not like this, so I switched to students self-selecting into groups. But, this too has its disadvantages. I continue to search for the optimal strategy for students groups (and I would welcome any insight or suggestions in the comments to this article!).
Also, a good number of students disliked the fun-day activities. Many commented that it felt more like busy-work than learning, and I sympathize with that opinion. This fall, I am doing away with these activities and I am devoting all of Tuesday to “office hours in class” and all of Thursday to Challenge Questions. I will see how this goes, and I hope it makes better use of class time for learning, while not sacrificing student engagement (there will be fewer smiles and laughs, though, I’m sure).
Overall, teaching in this format has been an enormous improvement over the traditional, lecture-based style. Student learning outcomes are improved, student satisfaction is much higher, and student retention and true understanding of course content appears to also be increased (although further study is needed to show this conclusively).
Blooms taxonomy states that the best learning occurs when students evaluate material relevant to the concepts being taught, and when they create new and novel material specific for that content. In my opinion, the flipped classroom – more than any other teaching strategy or approach – allows the most time to be devoted to evaluation and creation in the classroom, where students can be guided and coached by their instructor. When done appropriately, there is no better way to teach and no better way to learn than through the flipped format. And, as I tell my colleagues every chance I get, I will never teach another way again.