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Is Reaching Every Student Relevant (or Possible) in Higher Education?

Editors Features September / September 18, 2018

-by Thomas Mennella-

Just a few short weeks ago, the Flipped Learning Global Initiative (FLGI) made a major announcement: it is shifting the name, branding and focus of its signature FLIPCON conferences to RESCON. Instead of promoting the message of Flipped Learning, FLGI will now fully embrace the philosophy of reaching every student, in every class, every day. This change does not only impact the conferences; it is a philosophical change. Internal discussions have been ongoing at FLGI about reaching every student (RES) and what that means.

For my K12 colleagues at FLGI, RES is a no-brainer. It is the mission of K12 education to teach each and every student, and – as a means to that end – to reach them. After all, a single student who cannot be reachable in an elementary, middle school or even high school environment cannot be taught. And, if not taught, that student will struggle with standardized assessments, weaken the ranking and reputation of the school, and require costly remediation. All of this provides a strong incentive for all districts to RES. It is a critical part of the work that they do, and so embracing Flipped Learning (FL) as a proven and high-impact strategy for reaching every student becomes – again – a no-brainer. In essence, if K12 educators must reach every student, and FL provides a means for doing so, then adopting and scaling FL in K12 education becomes an obvious best practice. But, what of higher education?

In many ways, higher education is still viewed as a privilege, instead of a right. Students elect to enroll in college, they’re expected to dedicate themselves to their studies, and their failure academically or otherwise is seen as the student’s burden and fault, not the institution’s. This is especially true of elite colleges and universities where there’s always another eager student to fill that vacant seat and an enormous endowment that can easily absorb the lost revenue of a flunked student. This difference of perspective between K12 and higher education has, I believe, also caused students not to be seen as individuals in college. Instead, we – professors – often see the class as the single entity. We celebrate high-class averages on exams, offer opportunities to remediate low averages, address the entire class about lapses in effort or performance, etc. Through this lens, the notion of reaching every student does not compute. Indeed, there isn’t an “every student” at all; there is merely a class. Could FLGI’s message of reaching every student, every day, in every class resonate with a higher education culture that thinks so differently? Do we see students as individuals in college?

To answer the second question first, I headed straight to where we all go with any nagging question: Google. What surveys have been done, papers researched, blogs written on faculty perspectives of college students as individuals? I searched for “college professors perspectives on students” and found nothing. Pages and pages of irrelevant information. I tried, “What do college professors think of students?” and still, nada. I did find surveys that sought to measure some aspect of faculty perspectives on students, such as this, but nothing by way of published results, anecdotal musings, or even (the expected) frustrated ventings. I found nothing. I take this to mean that we don’t see our students as individuals; higher education is guilty of treating our students as a single teachable entity, a single paying entity, a single indivisible body. And, through that lens, the notion of reaching every student just isn’t going to make sense.  

So who’s right? Is K12 onto something when each and every student is a person to be reached, taught, trained and bettered individually? Is higher education more efficient in moving classes through the pipeline, seeing lost and failed students merely as chunks that have broken away from the cohesive whole? I’ve worn both lenses and embraced both philosophies. For the first five years of my career, I was the typical college professor. I was a good teacher, and a strong lecturer, but I ran my class one way and one way only. You either kept up, or you fell behind. I announced class averages after every exam and congratulated the class when it did well and chastised it when it failed. Then, I adopted FL merely as a way to embed more active learning into my courses. But, the group space activities allowed me to circulate through my classrooms and talk with students individually. As I got to know them, they became comfortable with me and office hours picked up. More and more, students were coming to my office to speak with me individually. I began to know each student as a unique individual, and I could no longer see my class as a singular whole. I no longer report class averages, and I now strive to reach every student, in every class, every day.

Higher education has a lot of ground to make up here. Our counterparts in K12 have been striving to reach every student for decades, maybe even centuries. As FL continues to prove to be the most efficient path forward, they will hop onboard that bus in no time. But, for us, just seeing every student is going to be a change. Then we need to care about reaching them all. And only then will we embrace FL as holding the key we need to accomplish that aim.  

So, let’s close by fast-tracking that change:

  • Each one of your students is an individual; you know that’s true, so just accept it. Each one has good days and bad days, has experienced joy and heartbreak, and your class is not the sum total of their busy lives, just as they are not the sum total of yours.  
  • Each one of your students is paying good and hard-earned money to sit in your class. No one passed a hat around the class looking for donations just before you walked through the door. The class is not paying your salary, each individual student is paying your salary by virtue of the tuition that they fork over each year.
  • Each one of your students deserves your attention. Just as you expect your doctor’s attention when you are in their examination room, your students expect your attention as well. The only difference: your doctor sees individual patients, one at a time, all day for 15 minutes each. You see all of your clients (i.e., students) at once for large blocks of the day. But the same rules apply: those who pay should be heard. To do anything else is educational malpractice.

Now that we agree that your class is made up of individual students who each deserve your attention, the only remaining question is how to achieve that. Provide your students with videos to watch at home, freeing class time for a differentiated classroom (Flipped Learning). Give your strongest students challenging work to push them to new levels of comprehension. Give your middling students activities to refortify those critical concepts from your unit. Remediate your struggling students with review assignments (differentiation). And circulate. Move among your students, speak with them all, help them all, coach them all, teach them all, mentor them all, and see them all… as individuals.  






Thomas Mennella
Dr. Thomas Mennella
I have been an instructor in higher education for over ten years. Starting as a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, and then moving on to an Assistant Professorship at Delaware State University (DSU), a small public university, I experimented with Problem-Based Learning (PBL) and was an early-adopter of the iClicker student response system. Now an Associate Professor at Bay Path University, a private liberal arts institution in western Massachusetts, I primarily teach Genetics, Cell and Molecular Biology. I am Flipped Learning 3.0 Level -II Certified and a founding member of the FLGI International Faculty.




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