Bringing experiential education techniques to the “flipped” Classroom, undergraduate-professor partnership, and student engagement
Agata Buras QC’16 and Jim Stellar
This blog post explores how experiential education ideas could be applied right in the classroom as course-based teaching is by far the most dominant form of interaction between the university/college and its students. We were inspired by the conclusion section of a previously posted short paper blog post by Ms. Singh, The Social Brain and the Experiential Education to apply those ideas to a recent course we taught in the fall of 2014. This post is our reflection on what we learned in that course.
As background, AB and JS first met at Queens College CUNY in a 200+ students general education neuroscience course (PSY103) that JS co-taught in the spring of 2014 with Professor Richard Bodnar and was the subject of a Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education paper (Bodnar et al. 2013). In that course, AB and several other undergraduate students provided the instructors with immediate feedback on lecture following each class meeting. That experience led to the idea of JS’s and AB’s collaboration in the fall of 2014 on the teaching of introductory psychology (PSY101) to 40 students using a new (to JS) teaching method – the flipped classroom / hybrid course structure. To prepare for that course, AB first functioned as a research assistant over the summer of 2014 finding literature and videos on hybrid and flipped classrooms techniques. During the class itself, she attended as an observer and gathered the student’s reactions, which shaped how the course unfolded. After the course finished, JS moved to the University at Albany SUNY in the winter of 2015, but we continue working together to reflect on what we learned.
Background on the course itself
The introductory psychology class was originally scheduled to meet Wednesday and Friday. We decided to cancel the Friday class as part of the hybrid method. Because the course was not advertised as a hybrid, achieving that step meant securing the permission of the students in the first class meeting. They readily agreed with some of them being very grateful not to have to commute to Queens College for what would have been their only Friday class. Of course, that was not the point.
In replacement of the Friday class time, we asked that all students watch a few short YouTube videos created by the instructor on key points of the chapter for that week and take 10 minute quiz in essay format on the videos at the beginning of each Wednesday class meeting where there was not a midterm exam. The total of all weekly quizzes carried about 10% of the grade – a level designed by us to make the students pay attention but not create a serious penalty for missing an individual quiz.
In a second replacement of Friday class time, students were asked to read the textbook chapter for that week and answer 25-30 multiple-choice questions provided through the Learning Management System (LMS) and chosen from the course materials provided by the book publisher. The trick was that the answers were given a separate file and students were asked to check their own work. If they did not get answer correct and understand why the provided answer was the best one, they were asked to re-read the relevant sections of chapter and make sure they understood both the question and the answer. The goal was to encourage the students to interrogate the text, to actively read and discover the answers to these multiple-choice questions. An incentive for them to do that work was that all of the multiple-choice questions on each midterm and the final exam, about half of the total exam points, would be drawn from these exact questions and answers.
Under the theory that the students were doing on-line some of the learning that would ordinarily occur in class, in the Wednesday class meeting, after the quiz, we employed two instructional techniques. First, a bit over an hour students heard an interactive lecture that was based on PowerPoint slides posted on the LMS several days before class meeting. This made sure the content material was covered. Second, following that lecture we held a 30-minute discussion on that week’s chapter in small break-out groups that was then followed by a 15 minute report out and a full-class discussion.
At the end of each Wednesday class a 5-minute single-question anonymous survey was done on 3×5 cards. Questions concerned the pedagogical structure of the course, e.g. the break-out discussions, or they concerned content topics, e.g the relation of the on-line videos to the in-class lecture and discussion. Students were asked to make a 1-2 sentence positive comment on one side of the card and a similar but a negative comment on the other side of the card. Cards were collected by AB, who analyzed the results, grouping them together by theme, constructing a small table of the themes, and communicating to JS who distributed them to the entire class through e-mail. In addition, both JS and AB remained after class for extensive individual after-class conversation as much on the format of the course as clarification of content details. One-on-one e-mail communication and the occasional phone call or outside class meeting rounded out the course management.
We should note that while we sometimes speak of and thought of the class as an experiment in teaching, it was a simply regular class in the hybrid format with intensive student feedback in class and out. Many other instructors have made videos to supplement their classes or used hybrid or even fully on-line teaching methods. Also in this project, there was no control group. We did not do a careful study, but rather kept the entire process conversational between the two of us and the class. The results, except for survey data, are anecdotal, and neither of us are experts in the science of teaching methods. However, we are an experienced teacher/student, devotees of experiential education, and are looking for ways to apply that thinking to the classroom.
One more feature of the class deserves mention. We decided early on, in part in conversation with the students, to tie the course to a relevant current event. We chose the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white policeman in August 2014 in Furguson, MO. This effort and the break-out discussion format was a product of in-class conversation and use of the survey cards. As an event, it offered the opportunity for the highly diverse student population of Queens College to frame discussions of course topics, particularly social psychology, personality, learning, clinical psychology, and much of the neuroscience discussion of unconscious decision making. It also gave opportunities for examination of topics such as implicit racial bias, micro aggression, self-handicapping and other more specific topics. Where it applied less well (e.g. sensation and the retina of the eye), we did not force the topic and waited until some relevance reappeared (e.g. higher level perception). In in-class group discussion, students were often able to bring personal experiences and other current events to bear.
Key points of observation
Below are some of the factors that we though, upon reflection after the course ended, played the most important role and were the most experiential.
Improved Student–Teacher Interaction of the flipped classroom
Studies on the flipped classroom show that this style of teaching can produce improved student–teacher interaction. For example, Bergmann and Sams (2012) and others point out that when teachers aren’t standing in front of the classroom talking at students, they can go around and actually interact with learners. If teachers use flipped classrooms this way, they are more likely to better comprehend and respond to students’ emotional and learning needs. Research makes a strong case for the benefits of such interaction. Studies (e.g. Hamre and Pianta writing together in 2005 and 2009 on both children and the classroom in general) have shown that having teachers who recognize and respond to students’ social and emotional needs matters as much to academic development as specific instructional practices. We see that this feature is especially true for the students from diverse backgrounds as occurred in this our classroom – those who are the first in their families to go to college and who in general can use a little extra encouragement.
In our course, we found the interaction between us and the students grew throughout the course as the students got used to the techniques of working outside the class. They appreciated the short videos posted in a YouTube format that was easily accessible without login or download requirements of the LMS. Many students told us that they listened to the videos on their cell phones as they rode the bus to the Queens College campus. We even observed a few of them walking into class, ear buds in place, finishing the video just before class began. In general, they told us that the format was natural and we felt that was important in getting them to do the work so we could interact more with them in class rather than just present the material for the first time.
For example, one of the videos was about the role of prediction as a key concept in learning in either classical conditioning (think Pavlov’s dogs salivating to the bell) or in operant conditioning (think Skinner’s rats pressing a lever for food in little boxes). By watching the video, taking the quiz, the class was primed for the learning lecture which included more esoteric aspects of learning upon which prediction depended, e.g. the phenomenon of post-reinforcement pause in operant behavior responding in what is called a Fixed Interval Schedule of reinforcement). It may be no accident that the video ended with the instructor (JS) pointing out that after each midterm exam the students do not study like the rats on a Fixed Interval Schedule, but he was sure that they would do so if the instructor made the exams appear on an Variable Interval Schedule (e.g. randomly) throughout the term. The instructor concluded by saying that under that exam format, the students also would probably hate him. The combination of emotion and intellectual point was well received and we noticed students seemed to engage well with lecture, praised the video, and seemed to write better about the concept on the essay portion of the midterm exam.
The principle of student-faculty interaction rests strongly on the emerging field of social neuroscience where the believed finishing experience of human evolution where we lived in groups to enhance survival potential led to a variety of brain mechanisms of evaluation that depend upon social interaction and probably particularly on facial and other forms of non-verbal communication. There are many books written in this field and neither of us are expert on them, but here are a few more recent ones (Susan Pinker, The Village Effect; Joshoua Green, Moral Tribes, and others)
Opportunities for real-time Feedback from students
The defenders of flipped classrooms also stress that increased student–teacher interactions give teachers more opportunities to provide feedback to students. Such increased opportunities for feedback could improve student learning because feedback has a very strong impacts in any instructional practice. By asking the students to evaluate the course and telling them that they were helping future course design, we also produced their engagement with the course itself and we felt that led to increased participation with the course content. Of course, we did not separate out the factor of Wednesday quizzes, but we were running about 90% attendance at the end of the term when introductory psychology classes typically fall well below that rate and we felt from many conversations that the students were engaged.
Student engagement is enhanced by the contact:
Another great benefit of flipped classrooms is that “they speak the language of today’s students”, meaning they help with better understanding and interpreting of what the student had to say. Nowadays students have this tendency to turn to the web and social media for information and interaction- the flipped classroom can help decrease that. There may also be another, deeper, reason students find video lectures more engaging. Many people believe that the engagement of an activity tends to wear off after about 10 minutes. After that, students either need a change of stimulus, emotional variety, to step back and process what they’re learning. One benefit, of placing lectures online may be that they can break down direct instruction into more engaging, short bites of learning. Also, if one gets distracted or misses a point, he or she can go back and re-watch missed material.
Self-Paced learning is reported to be helpful to students
Putting lectures online permits students to learn the material at their own pace according to their needs. As we may know, everyone has their own speed of processing information; therefore a flipped classroom allows the teacher to place an entire year or semester’s worth of lectures online, allowing students to go through the curriculum at their own speed without slowing or rushing anyone.
The flipped classroom or hybrid format gives the students the opportunity to engage more in what they are learning therefore makes it more memorable. Also, the in-class exercises helped them remember the material better because they were almost forced to pay attention and engage in a fun way of course.
More on the weekly surveys of teaching methods produced student engagement
Each week J.S and A.B prepared a question about either an in-class exercise or the material that J.S presented to the class. At the end of each lecture, every student received a 3×5 card. On one side of the card a student was asked to write one or more positive opinion (s) about the exercise or the lecture and then flip the card over and write one negative opinion about the same question.
The main purpose of this was to gain feedback from the students on how we, as a professor and research assistant, are doing on presenting the experiential education to the class. Also, we wanted to have a better perspective of how experiential education is helping them learn and understand the material learned in class. After A.B analyzed the results and we shared them with the students, students started to get a better idea on what is experiential education. After we made improvements in the course that they suggested, students became more engaged.
Undergraduate partnership in the teaching of the course
One of our goals from the beginning was to present ourselves as an example of a student-faculty partnership to all the students to gain their interest in the teaching of the course, going beyond what was evident in the content and the required nature of the course. Our hope was that by presenting this collaboration, we would more deeply engage with the students. This seemed to work as we received survey feedback that they appreciated the structure. Although AB was an undergraduate and did not therefore involve herself in any grading or related activity, we believe such an arrangement can work well with graduate TAs, who are often also close to the students in age and position. By doing the postcard surveys, and by presenting herself as a research assistant in the development of the course, AB was able to better draw out the students and engage with them.
A second and more hidden benefit was the work AB did before the course began and the constant personal feedback to the instructor as the course unfolded sharing her expectations and reactions to the course design as it was developed and unfolded. We made no secrete of this instructional design access and felt that it too improved student engagement. Indeed after the course, several students wanted to work with us on the next version of the course and engage in writing with us about bringing experiential/active learning techniques to classroom teaching.
Faculty effort in preparing to teach a new course
JS’ perception of preparing to teach this course after a long time away from the topic (more than 15 years) was that the hybrid/flipped class structure was not a burden. There was a required period of adjustment to video recording software on the laptop, and some adjustment to posting on YouTube, but in general, JS found it no harder to make short videos than to make PowerPoint lecture slides. This form of hybrid teaching should not be a work barrier to adoption.
Working on this course and writing this blog together was fun. It was too bad, in a way, that we did not get to repeat the experiment in the Spring term at Queens College.
We recognize that there is a good literature on this topic and the even using the words “flipped classroom” and “hybrid” interchangeably is probably not correct. We know we are not experts. And we are sure you can discover the relevant literature and form your own conclusions from an on-line search. But we wanted to share our experience and we wanted to share it together. Comments are welcome.