Sunday, April 2, 2017

Should I flip my course?

Is that stinkin' ol' teaching method really that bad?

There are many professors who teach effective conventional courses. There is nothing wrong with it and from the point of view of many teachers and students it can be a win-win approach. From the professor's effort point of view, the old way may also get the most bang for the buck. Profs can teach their favorite topics with a relatively parsimonious effort. Often, they are very good at it and deliver fascinating and highly instructional lectures. Active learning components are frequently included providing compelling experiences.
Ploid in his BIS101 lecture. Credit: Universal Pictures

From the point of view of the student, "passive learning" is a familiar environment, one in which she is likely adept. Several students in my flipped classes have told me that they learn best by taking notes during a professor's conventional lecture, then revising, supplementing, and organizing the notes after lecture. In conclusion, traditional teaching should not be thrown under the bus. Rather, you should carefully reflect on the cost and profit of changing teaching method. How much time will it take? Will the effort required pay back in terms of personal satisfaction, career objectives, and enhanced student learning? In my case, the balance of these factors seems positive, but this may not be the case for others.

Why I decided to flip

My decision to flip was partially serendipitous. Three years ago I had limited knowledge of the topic of flipping and active learning. I liked teaching, although I was (and still am) careful at balancing it with an active research program. Although I did not realize it at the time, my flipping activity started with my decision to provide custom video content to explain specific, difficult concepts. For example, how to analyze and derive a restriction enzyme site map. Or how to map genes on bacteriophages. Once I made a few of these movies, I decided that they could be effective and I could do better ones. I applied for intramural funding to pursue this objective. After I got the funds, my interaction with education improvement personnel at UC Davis convinced me to try flipping. 

Why I will continue flipping

On the lecturer skill scale, I am pretty good, but not great. I am lively and fairly clear, but not crystalline. I can go off on a tangent and get down the rabbit hole of delicious details before I realize that most of my pack is lost. At the ripe age of my late 50s I realized that I needed more structure and discipline. I also needed to figure out what exactly I wanted my students to learn. I needed to have very clear objectives. I also am a junkie for the new and untested, for something that forces me to learn, plan and create. Flipping fulfilled these needs. It forced me to adopt a clear and preplanned structure in which specific objectives are addressed, while providing an outlet for penned creativity. Setting up my flipped course involved overcoming challenges, solving problems, addressing errors and a lot of work. Nonetheless, I feel that I am probably better at it than at conventional teaching. For this reason, I will continue doing it. 

In conclusion and in case this has not already transpired, I do not consider myself a flipping guru or prophet. A better characterization would be somebody who, while fumbling through it, has considerable fun, some success and learned a few lessons. In future posts, I will address further my work, experience and outcomes connected to flipping. 

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