A Simple but Riveting Way to Start and End a Flipped College Course

Higher Ed August 19 / August 18, 2019

— Thomas Mennella —

I love Subway sandwiches.  While I can go on and on as to the many reasons why this is my favorite fast food, the main reason is the respect they show for the bread of their sandwiches. Their breads are varied, baked on the premises, and it’s actually the first question they ask you to prepare your order! “What bread would you like?” Why do I care so much about bread?  Because it starts and ends the sandwich; without bread all you have is a pile of meat and cheese.

The meat and cheese of Flipped Learning are the individual space and group space activities.  Indeed, these are the most important parts of a flipped course, and it’s only fair that much time and effort be spent on these.  But, how a flipped course begins and ends is also critically important. Without a strong start, flipped courses can lose student buy-in and support.  And, without a strong finish, the instructor loses the opportunity to fully and comprehensively assess student learning. Below, I offer two tips for each: for starting and wrapping up flipped college courses.

Starting a Flipped course: The top slice

Even before the semester starts, I release a welcome message on my course’s LMS site (roughly two weeks before classes start).  This welcome message includes a link to a course trailer that I created.  I’ve blogged extensively about this idea here.  But, briefly, a course trailer is a short video that introduces students to your course in an informal and engaging (and, ideally, somewhat amusing) way.  In this video, you can make the case for Flipped Learning in general, explain why you adopted this approach, let students know what they’ll be doing in your course each week, and make your overall expectations clear.  Here’s a link to my course trailer for Genetics.  Using a course trailer will save you the time in class that you’d normally need to explain your course to your students; it will have them arrive to the first day of class with clear expectations, and it will allow you to achieve their buy-in early.  

On the first day of class, I intentionally arrive a minute or two late.  I rush into the classroom slightly out of breath and slightly disheveled.  I apologize for my tardiness, tell my new students how busy I am, tell them how much we need to cover in this course and tell them that we’re starting with content immediately.  The first topic we will be covering, I say, is Traxoline.  “How many of you have heard of traxoline?” I ask.  Usually none of them have. And then I show this slide.  I read it aloud and then ask for a volunteer to tell the rest of the class what traxoline is, in their own words.  You could hear a pin drop, at that point. Every student looks like a deer caught in the headlights of a car. Why?  If you haven’t yet followed the link to traxoline above, you need to. The paragraph about traxoline is gibberish. None of it makes sense because the majority of the words, indeed all of the technical terms, are made up.  Traxoline cannot be understood because these sentences contain no meaning.

Yet, the brilliance of this exercise – credited to Judy Lanier – is in the questions that follow.  Each question asked on the slide about traxoline can be answered using the context of the paragraph.  (For example: “What is traxoline?” It’s a new form of zionter, of course.) Shockingly, and perhaps horrifyingly, this exercise shows how students can master gibberish.  I ask my class, if you made flash cards on traxoline, could you ace this quiz?  Yes, of course they could. But, they would never – could never – understand it.  For far too long, I believe, the genetics and molecular biology that I taught in my classes was traxoline to my students: content that they memorized and gave back to me, but was nothing more than gibberish to them.  Traxoline is why I flipped, I tell my students; comprehension is now the sole goal in my classes. In fact, “traxoline” is used as a trigger word in my courses. All a student needs to do is raise their hand and say: “Traxoline,” and I know that my words are no longer making sense to them, and it’s time for me to slow down and remediate.  

So traxoline and course trailers make up the top slice of my courses’ sandwich.

Ending a Flipped course: The bottom slice

I’m going to do it!  I’m going to cuss in this staid and professional periodical.  I’m going to say it, the ‘A’ word: ASSESSMENT.  It’s every educator’s favorite word, especially in higher education, right?  Here are two tips for achieving bona fide assessment of student learning that are far more fun than grading exams and will make you, and your chair, much happier.  

The first is to use eReports.  eReports are multi-media presentations (videos, essentially and typically) that students create in lieu of exams.  Students gather (or create) images that best represent the topics assigned for the eReport and then draft a script of narration for explaining those concepts to you, the video watcher.  They then assemble those images and narration into a video file that they share with you. The old adage that you never truly understand something until you can explain it to someone else is true and timeless.  eReports put this adage into application by having students explain course concepts back to you, in their own words, to test their understanding. eReports avoid test anxiety in students because they are projects worked on at home or in class over a period of time.  And since each eReport is unique, they are far more fun to grade than exams. I’ve blogged about eReports for FLGI here and hereHere is a montage of snippets of students’ eReports from my Cell and Molecular Biology course.  And, finally, here is the rubric that I use to grade my students’ eReports.  

My last tip is for achieving the bane of most college instructors’ existences: summative assessment of overall course learning outcomes.  During the first week of class, I release on my course’s LMS site a comprehensive short answer ‘quiz’ that covers the entire course. Since students are just beginning the course, they typically do very badly on this quiz, and that’s fine; they get extra credit just for completing it.  As the semester wraps up, just before finals, my students are asked to take that same quiz again. This time, the expectation is that they do quite well (since they’ve all but completed the course). Then, I grade the first quiz (the ‘pre-test’) and the second quiz (the ‘post-test’) all at once for consistency in my grading.  Certainly, individual student performance can be compared, pre- and post-, but what makes this work so well is that the questions on the quiz are grouped together by the course learning objectives (CLOs) listed in the syllabus. By tallying aggregate student performance on the pre- and post-tests, by CLO, it becomes instantly apparent what students learned, and didn’t learn, in the course.  And, this is the grand goal of summative assessment.  

Here’s a sample of the CLOs from my Genetics course syllabus.

And the data from my pre-/post-test assessment.

Data such as this goes a long way to making my chair very happy at the end of each semester and definitely checks the box for bona fide metrics of summative assessment for student learning. 

What about the meat?

Are the meat and cheese of flipped learning important?  Yes, critically so. Pay close attention to your Individual Space assignments and your Group Space activities.  Your flipped course will succeed or fail on the quality of those resources. But once you get those right, don’t forget the bread! Pay attention to student buy-in and understanding of Flipped Learning, as well as to the assessment of their learning: in other words, how your courses start, and how they end. Doing so will ensure that you make the best flipped sandwich in town and that you start and end your flipped courses just as well as you run them. Good luck for another amazing academic year! 

This article is based on the author’s presentation, of the same name, at the Higher Education Flipped Learning Conference in June of 2019.

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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