In Defense of the Flip

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[originally posted 12/2/2014]

147506_defense3.jpgIt's that time of the year again where the turkey has been roasted, eaten, sandwiched, casseroled, and sworn off till next year (or next month for some); and if you are in academia you are now preparing for final exams and course/instructor assessment. It was just earlier this week that I passed out our standard institutional assessment forms to my first flipped biochemistry course and because I wanted to gauge the various blended learning techniques I employed over the semester, I added my own additional assessment. In this survey, I asked my students to rate the various tools I utilized in order to "help deepen student understanding on a variety of biochemistry related topics and to facilitate the development of critical thinking skills". These tools included: video lectures, 10 minute "muddiest point" lectures in class, Sapling Online Homework, lecture powerpoints, Facebook "Journal Club" Discussions, Facebook Course Management, exam study guides, exam study sessions, POGIL workbook activities, case studies, metabolic pathway posters, and the Moodle course management page. Students were asked to rate these tools on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being not beneficial at all and 10 being very beneficial) and then comment on the tool they found most beneficial and least beneficial. The average ratings for these tools can be seen in the graph below.

147507_technology assessment.jpgThe standard deviations for these responses where quite large, ranging from 1.8 to 3.0, which to me indicated that these students varied greatly on the tools they appreciated, which should be expected since these tools target a wide range of learning styles. However, I will note that I inadvertently left out one of the most important tools - the textbook. It would have been great to see if there was a correlation between students who valued the lecture videos as little to no benefit but highly valued the textbook, and would be something I look into next year. And while the overall averages may seem disheartening at first glance (particularly the POGIL workbook and video lectures), reading the students comments have been very reassuring; so I wanted to take a moment and discuss some of the common disparities between student perceived gains/values and instructor perceived gains/values that I noticed as a result of this assessment.  In their comments students asked me to:

Improve lecture videos (so that they are) strong enough to stand on their own w/o needing text"

So okay, yes I admit, I took the "good enough" approach this semester because I had over 25 video lectures to make in less than 13 weeks, I do see reflection of that approach in the student evaluations and am planning to revamp a number of the lecture videos this summer and next fall to incorporate interactive features such as questions, polling, and feedback, but I do not want my lectures to ever be good enough to stand alone. I want to encourage my students to continually seek out a variety of resources and to never be quite satisfied so that they keep trying to learn more. As an instructor whose primary goal is to create life-long learners, I am actually encouraged with the student quote above because it indicates that he or she wanted to learn more. That being said, I am learning that it is important in the flipped classroom to constantly remind my students that the lecture videos (as they currently are now) would have been identical to me lecturing at a podium for an hour in a traditional lecture, but now they can pause, rewind, and fast forward as often as they wish, and access these videos throughout the entire semester; and that in traditional lectures, the classroom lecture is meant to help clarify and supplement the required text reading. And, as I said, there was a wide range of disparity in the student valuation of the videos which was reflected in their comments from "The lecture powerpoints and videos were beneficial because it helped identify the most important points from the chapter" to "More in class lecture, flipped classes are very confusing and do not allow the professor to lecture to the students the knowledge they need". 

"POGIL - some concepts, actually most, were too complicated for the scope of this course"

The POGIL workbook, surprisingly to me, was one of the least valued tools by the students. Based on the comments, the students were frustrated both at the level of challenge and that there was no answer key given at the end.  Again, I believe I need to be clearer about the overall purpose of utilizing POGIL activities in the classroom; however, I believe students will always be frustrated and uncomfortable when challenged and it is important to teach them (especially a class made up of 99% pre-med majors) that they will not be given an answer key on the job. As I was reading over the POGIL "How-To"  I ran across this statement : 

Students are missing the experience of science as the exchange and evolution of ideas, and gender and ethnic issues are being ignored in the design of courses. Poor performers withdraw from learning, and even the best performers may disengage because they are not challenged. The results are low levels of learning and high levels of attrition... To address this situation and to help students become better learners in our courses, it is essential to recognize that education has two components, content and process, and that the process component often is not given adequate attention. Science education needs to be concerned equally with both the structure of knowledge, which is the content component, and with the development of the skills for acquiring, applying, and generating knowledge, which is the process component." 

I believe to help our students become better at processing the knowledge they gain from lecture, we have to push our students hard, make them uncomfortable,  and challenge them. Therefore, when I was reading these comments such as "they weren't beneficial because there weren't clear answers, and they were pretty extreme cases, some really hard to understand", actually pleases me as an instructor to no end. But I will agree with the students in that it is important to incorporate some sort of post-activity reflection/discussion, and I will be spending time during the Holiday break figuring out how to do this given the in-class time constraints (and, as always, am open to suggestions from my colleagues).

"I think the class should be more lecture based. While the flipped idea is fun, I think that for a class with this much information, we need a lecture"

This is actually one of my favorite quotes. While I couldn't agree more that an undergraduate biochemistry course meant to prepare both pre-med and pre-graduate students for their post-baccalaureate careers does cover an immense amount of material, I believe this, in particular, is one of the biggest reasons this course begs to be flipped. By incorporating engaging lecture videos (yes something I need to work on), text readings, and challenging/provoking in class activities, we as flipped instructors, can encourage  our students not only to gain fundamental knowledge they need to "make the grade" but to develop the skills they need in order to apply that knowledge critically allowing them to derive new connections and new ideas in their future careers. 

At BSC, our mission statement specifically says "Birmingham-Southern College prepares men and women for lives of significance. The College fosters intellectual and personal development through excellence in teaching and scholarship and by challenging students to engage their community and the greater world, to examine diverse perspectives, and to live with integrity."  If I were to simply "concentrate on the things we absolutely have to know"  as some of my students have request, I would not be living up to the expectations of the college, and even to the students themselves. While flipping the class, such as a biochemistry course, may not seem to have instant gratification for the instructor, I do believe my students will (eventually) see the benefit of this course. In the meantime, let us continue to teach, assess, reflect, and modify!!

About the Author
As an educator, researcher, wife and mother, I am dedicated to developing and assessing innovations in chemistry education, medical diagnostics, and the biophysical characterization of non-helical DNA structures found in the non-coding regions of the genome. Website: