Homework as Engagement

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It's a beautiful day in the land of Flipped Chemistry. The students arrive with bright eyes and inquiring minds. They've done the reading, achieved a basic mastery of the concepts, and are now ready to polish their newly-won knowledge in their groups. I usually wake up right at that point.

When I first flipped my General Chemistry class, I assigned reading and hoped for the best. I had assigned reading when I was lecturing and found that almost none of the students actually did the reading, but hope springs eternal. After all, this was the new, improved, flipped General Chemistry class. Surely the students will do the reading.

Nope. Most of the the students arrived with zero preparation, zilch, nada, nothing, goose egg, squat. Here we are doing the worksheet: (Student) What's this here? (Me) That's the first thing in the reading and it's right there in bold in the book in front of you. Arrrrgh! (That was me, again. Although I do try not to say that last part out loud...)

My class evolved over the next few years. Now I use online homework to elicit engagement with the material before the students arrive in class. My flipping scheme goes like this: 1) reading assignment, 2) online homework, (in class the next day) 3) group quiz on the reading assignment/homework, 4) worksheet. Repeat until we run out of semester.

In my mind, the students do the reading then attempt the homework, going back to the book as needed when they work the problems. Ha! In reality, they almost universally skip the reading and dive right in to the homework. I know this from direct reports. The students tell me right out that they go straight for the homework. I've seen them in action. They open the homework, read the problem, fire up the online textbook, and scroll rapidly until an equation appears that has potential. Then they try to plug and chug. If that fails they scroll to the next equation. The process is very utilitarian. It cuts out most of the time wasted, you know, thinking. A shame, really.

Is it worth having the homework at all? The first that happens in my class is a group quiz. There are usually seven problems, five from the reading/homework and two from the previous worksheet. I overhear a lot of conversations that start with "There was one like this on the homework last night." So, yeah, the homework is worthwhile. It engenders engagement in the material even if it isn't exactly the kind of engagement I was hoping for.

I know that many flipped classes use videos for an introduction to the material. My experience is that student hate the long ones (45+ minutes) and will only use the short ones (six or so minutes) as a last resort.

Some classes make the videos mandantory. Many of my colleagues report that enforcement is a problem. In some cases, it is possible to monitor who has opened the video but not how much of it was watched. Of course it is not possible to tell if the brain was on while the video was playing.

I have talked with colleagues who are using systems in which you can post questions during the videos that have to be answered before the video can continue. Giving points for these questions motivates the students to participate and, possibly, even learn something.

I am interested in what you do to engage the students and, for that matter, in how you flip.
I've developed a questionnaire that I've sent to all the people who got the password for my worksheets. The returns have been interesting. I hope to post about this in the future. If you would like to participate, download the flipping questionnaire and email your answers to me at JohnOsterhout<at>JohnOsterhout<dot>com.

About the Author
John Osterhout received his B.S. in Biochemistry from Rice University and his Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the University of Texas at Austin. John was a member of the Rowland Institute for Science in Cambridge Massachusetts for thirteen years before moving to the University of Arizona. Since 2008 John has been Chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas. John's research interests are in protein folding, Trojan horse inhibitors for HIV and snake venom proteins. He teaches general chemistry and biophysical chemistry. John uses flipped classrooms for both courses.