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Published October 7, 2012 | Physics

Oops! I Accidentally Flipped my Classroom

Nathaniel Lasry and I unintentionally flipped our classrooms by trying to enrich our delivery of just-in-time teaching in our electricity and magnetism courses. Students were asked to do reading assignments accompanied by some short open-ended questions. They arrived at the lecture having read the material,and having acquired a vision of what parts were easy and what parts were difficult for them. And, then we gave the lecture; we didn't replace it; we still had to cover that material in the traditional just-in-time teaching approach.

Just-in-time Teaching on Steroids!

We started last year using a graded pre-class homework assignment on material as a warm-up with Lon-Capa, taking advantage of its ability to enable the creation of our own problems. First, there was a prior knowledge activation step where we tried to engage students. If there was a brand-new concept, we tried to scaffold it to some analogous previously learned concepts. We also asked students to write a short paragraph about what they already knew.

Simultaneously, however, we were involved with the research project Chantier 3, which is a multi-institution community of practice amongst people enthusiastic about active learning. We wanted to have a place to add some of the new ideas using asynchronous peer instruction that were being proposed by Liz Charles and Dale Roy, but which hadn't yet been implemented at John Abbott. As part of that work, we got students to interact and create a conceptual network of topics within the course charting the links between course elements.

The Theory of Active Learning, excerpt from presentation by Michael Dugdale

One of the first instantiations of these activities was called DALITE, a site for peer instruction à la Eric Mazur but done asynchronously in order that students interact off-site with other students' arguments submitted at different times. The asynchronous nature of this exercise allows knowledge to be built from semester to semester within this IT active learning environment. At the moment, DALITE is still a very beta version, but it allows us to look at the activities that students do when presented with a problem. In DALITE, students have to tag the problem to the various concepts that are in the course, and that tagging helps them develop a representation of how this object, this problem, this video or whatever, is connected to course concepts. Students can create a self-evolving concept map for their course.

The initial development of DALITE was supported by a special fund from Dawson College, and was part of an ongoing collaboration with the University of Toronto, OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education).

Wanting to create a structure where students were regularly doing something before coming to class, we started using DALITE within a problem-based learning context as a way to draw in all these ideas, taking physics outside of the classroom. For example you give students five minutes to find something with a velocity vector in one direction, but an acceleration vector in the other direction in order to help them master these concepts. They are asked to take a picture of it and upload it. We called it just-in-time teaching on steroids, but at that point, we had really flipped the instructional model. This type of activity left us a little exposed because we hadn't anticipated what we were then going to use class time for.

Preclass preparation shaped class time. My lectures already often play off what's happening in the classroom. Using Smartboards, I don't come in with a set of pre-prepared slides other than those for peer instruction and a plan to cover certain topics. My style is to interact, making up a problem and breaking it down to explain concepts. One of the regular events in just-in-time teaching is that students ask questions about what they found difficult. These questions tend to cluster around particular problems, and so that's where I start the class, walking through the theory guided by the questions.

Next semester, I want to use the time more effectively by adding active learning exercises. I'm particularly excited about the idea of interactive lecture demonstrations where students make predictions before they come into class about what a demonstration's going to show, and then you do it. Students then write about what they actually saw happening in that demo. You can structure your whole lecture around live demonstrations and add working in groups on more advanced problems to that in order to factor in peer instruction.

Other video excerpts from Michael Dugdales's Edtech Week presentation in Spring 2012 :

Student Reactions and Results

In respect to all the changes I've made, I'm getting the most resistance from the high-performing students who grasp the concepts and just see the additional resources as a little bit more work for them. The students who come out of the mechanics course feeling beaten by physics and knowing they're in for a tough time in electricity and magnetism, however, are suddenly finding that the subject is not so tough for them. I've had about four or five different students actually say this course is easier than mechanics, and objectively, electricity and magnetism is a far more difficult set of concepts to understand. Serendipitously, their grades seem to bear out their impressions.

For my part, the biggest payoff comes in the classroom. Apart from the grades, the sophistication of the questions I'm being asked is a sure sign that students really have grasped what I'm talking about and are moving beyond surface learning.

Are you using active learning in your classroom? How has it changed the way that you teach? What difference has it made for your students?

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