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Flipping lectures – reflections on a term of learning

The Approaches to Knowledge course on Arts and Sciences BASc at UCL has now finished. For this module most of the lectures were ‘flipped’ – that means (for anyone who doesn’t yet know!) that most of the content went out to the students via video – in this case to the UCL VLE Moodle.  We used the large plenaries (the old lecture times) for Q&A sessions and other activities.

These are my reflections on the experience.

But before offering my reflections I should ask the students, right? Right. I aim to get as much feedback in depth as time will allow. But now the holidays are coming up so I’ll offer my first thoughts on flipping here in the interim.

Evaluation is harder when you vary more than one variable at a time

Approaches to Knowledge was innovative in both content in delivery. It is therefore important for both the students and me to separate things out when evaluating so as not to throw attractive babies with potential out with any less appealing bathwater. I must confess that purely from the point of view of evaluating the flipping side of things, there were times during the term when I would have liked to be teaching PHYSICS1001; it would have been relatively easy to upload my old lectures on Newton, electromagnetism and thermodynamics and run lots of lovely interactive problem-solving classes – some of my own invention, and some as Mazur does and Bates and Galloway seem successfully to have done recently.

But we want to innovate meaningfully on Arts and Sciences in content as well as method of teaching, so I was (and am) committed to teaching new things as part of our flagship degree. I’ll blog on the content of Approaches to Knowledge later. Again, I’m looking forward to student feedback. But overall I think things came together in the end – and this was always my intention. I want the students to think of their education more as a work of art or a great piece of classical music, something you have to stick with until the end and to dwell within for it to make sense; I would like to offer this as a kind of counterbalance to the tick-it-off, each-outcome-must-be-known-in-advance approach to education which has come to dominate.

What did we do in the flipped lectures?

Mostly we did large Q&A sessions involving the whole cohort of 80+ students. The students submitted questions before the plenary and their peers voted on which questions they wanted to discuss. We took the top-voted questions each session; the full hour of the plenary was taken up in discussing as many of these questions as possible.

Did this work?

Generally, I thought it worked well. Some teachers were better at handling the floor for a full hour than others. I generally sat as a ‘chair’ on the side of the stage and made (very) occasional interventions. My colleagues were very tolerant of my doing this – and for that I’m grateful! I think it is important in team-taught courses to have a strong presence uniting the module throughout its duration, and that’s why I involved myself – in however small a way – in each session.

The flipped sessions worked best when teachers prepared a little extra material the night before the plenary and used this material as a focus for their answers. However some teachers, in my view, also handled questions well for the full hour just by talking directly to students and asking for comments from the floor when the time was right.

On one or two occasions, however, the plenaries became a little too unstructured and ‘chatty’ and it did not feel as if enough formal, academic learning was done. I felt this happened in one of my sessions, for sure. There was also a propensity for this to happen if some of the students’ questions were more general, or personal – such as ‘Do you think God can explain X?’, or ‘Do you think it is appropriate for students to do Y ?’. These are not bad questions in themselves, of course, and all such discussions are an important part of learning, but in some of these instances more work was needed to link the session back to established academic thought and the main themes of the course.

What else did you do in the plenaries apart from Q&A?

We had one session which was an ‘unconference’ and one session was a ‘colladebate’ (TM ;-)). We also had a play about knowledge and the disciplines, which I wrote. These sessions mostly worked well and were a lot of fun in some cases, but they form part of a discussion of content and so I’ll save this discussion for later. We also had one panel session with me and our teaching assistants sitting on the panel. I think we could do more of these.

What did you learn as a flipped lecturer?

I think the most striking thing I learnt was more conceptual than procedural. And that is that when you liberate something, when you grant more freedom to the people in an enterprise, you then have a problem in working with that freedom. I really shouldn’t have been surprised by this. Just look at new democracies, how long such situations can take to settle down, or look at any corporation which is ‘turned over’ to its employees. For me, one feeling I was often left with at the end of a plenary was ‘Great, there were lots of interesting questions and discussions in that session…but we need somehow to tie these together in a take-home bundle’.

So there was a paradox in that because we liberated the lecture slots we actually needed more time in which to discuss the material and then bring the ideas back to some place where the students could have a take-home. We very rarely had time to both discuss and summarize.

I must stress that this is really a problem you would want to have. I have no doubt that the students learnt more by having many opportunities to discuss their ideas with lecturers. But the perception may be that because each session was not wrapped up in a parcel at the end, work is left unfinished – and one may not have such a perception at the end of a traditional lecture. I think this is a short-term issue. Things that were learnt in the plenaries will stay learnt – pennies have dropped – but we can still look to improve on the learning experience here.

Will you go back to old lecture styles of chalk and talk?

No, definitely not. It is a no-branier to me that generally students get more than double the benefit by seeing your lecture on a video (which they can stop, rewind, play at different times etc) and then have a full hour in which to discuss their thoughts on the video.

OK, so how will you improve for next time?

1. I’ll make sure that I and any other colleagues involved in the module think about structuring the plenaries so that, although the plenaries remain student-led, they have definite foci spaced throughout the sessions.

2. I would like to have more time in the plenaries for student summaries, opportunities for students to present work to the group, do diagrams, run debates etc. I think, in the first instance, this would be achievable by simply doubling the time for the plenaries and having the first hour for discussion, large Q&As etc and the second hour for students to summarize what they have learnt, and to do various short pieces of work to achieve this. At the end of each plenary one could aim for, say, four take-homes: One thing I’ve really grasped; one thing that intrigues me that I want to know more of; one skill I’ve learnt; one thing I don’t understand – something along those lines. Doubling the plenary time would mean about 5 hours per week contact time – quite a lot for a humanities course. Would College approve of this? Would some hard-pressed colleagues be able to dedicate such time? I don’t know. But if the students enjoy it and see the value, it is the sort of move we should look to make in the new world of HE.

Hopefully the students will also give me some helpful suggestions on ways to improve.

You don’t think all lectures should be flipped, do you?

No, I don’t. I thought that among our best sessions were two conventional lectures. But perhaps they worked so well because they came after a bunch of flipped lectures! We know that variety and surprise are important in learning – they keep the emotions enlivened – and having a mix of the traditional and the flipped is an excellent way to go. At a guess I’d say a proportion of about 75% to 25% (flipped to non-flipped) for a course would be ideal, with the different styles being used depending on what you want to achieve.

Anyone else working with flipping at the moment? I’d be interested in any comments you would like to leave.

Photo under CC license from MikeBaird

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