Have Students Take Small Steps Toward Owning Their Learning

Higher Ed 19 / Special / April 12, 2019

–Dr. Thomas Mennella–

Flipped Learning is an amazing meta-strategy when implemented correctly in the classroom, but I think it’s fair to say that many of us who are dedicated to Flipped Learning get lost in the details often. What is the ideal length of a Flipped Learning video? Is a particular innovation considered FL1.0 or FL3.0? What shape should be used to represent Bloom’s taxonomy? While I’m as guilty of this Flipped Learning egg-headism as anyone else, we need to recognize it for what it is: Flipped Learning Egg-Headism! This is akin to scientists debating if carbon dioxide or methane is more responsible for global warming. It really doesn’t matter; the globe is warming! And the details of Flipped Learning don’t matter for its primary consumer either; that primary consumer is the student.

All students want is to learn effectively, and Flipped Learning offers that to them whether or not Bloom’s taxonomy is a triangle or a diamond. So let’s get out of the weeds, see the forest, and provide our students with some simple strategies that will allow them to get the most out of their learning, even if they’re not in a fully flipped environment. But let’s do it on their turf, not ours. In other words, let’s tweak some typical student behaviors (that don’t always work) and make them embody the best of Flipped Learning’s potential: understanding the big ideas of each lesson, making connections between concepts, taking good notes and asking good questions. All of these are best practices identified by the Global Elements of Effective Flipped Learning:







Make ‘Flash Chains’, Not Flashcards

Argh! Flashcards. The bane of my existence. My students see my courses as nothing more than a collection of thousands of terms to memorize, and they make flashcards to do just that. Nothing could be further from the truth. My courses are teeming with rich, wonderful and amazing stories, where the characters just happen to have funny names. Those character names, of course, are the terms. But it’s what those things are doing, in a living cell, that really matters. So meet your students where they are. Let them make flashcards, but then challenge them to physically link those cards together (using hole punches and paper clips or string) to create a story. Comprehension lays in the connections between the facts, not in the facts themselves and flash chains can leverage this. To go one step further, have students label those connectors and draft brief summaries on the nature of the connection. Have them state, in their own words, how and when one fact connects to another.


The Power of the Mind Map 

I remember during a professional development session years ago, when my colleagues were griping about the challenges of getting their students to truly learn course content, my only contribution to the discussion was, “I just hate the linear nature of time.” That became one of the many times when my colleagues looked at me strangely and then just moved on, disregarding my comment (even my family does that to me!). But I do hate the linear nature of time. Science, history, literature, math – all of it is a web of interconnectedness. Complexities built upon complexities underlie calculus, caused the World Wars and allowed cells to divide. But we are left to explain all of this to our students in a linear, step-by-step fashion because we exist in a reality governed by linear time. So frustrating. But we can have our students grasp the interconnectedness of our content by explaining it to them linearly, but then challenging them to give that content back to us as a mind map. Mind maps are web or network diagrams that illustrate the linkages between things (see the example below on climate change), and the best mind maps feature linkages that are labeled and described as well. Having your students create mind maps to represent your class content will force them to revisit that material and reflect on it. But also to transcend the linear nature in which it was first explained and appreciate how the individual topics that they learned about in a step-by-step way are interconnected. A popular mind mapping app is MindMeister, and it is available on many different platforms.



Notebook Sharing

Ah, the student notebook. From middle school to graduate school, this is every student’s lifeline to learning. Something magical happens when knowledge hits a student’s eyes and ears, enters their brain, and then transposes itself onto paper in the student’s own hand.  Countless studies have shown the learning and cognitive benefits of taking notes, but those benefits are only as good as the notes themselves. And, too often, students slack and don’t take as extensive or as careful notes as they should. Implement a program of notebook peer-review among your students. Design a simple rubric by which students can assess each other’s notebooks for clarity and thoroughness. (Here’s an example from Mr. Lopez’s Math Class blog.) This will accomplish two things: weaker students can see, for themselves, the kinds of notes stronger students take. This role modeling can benefit those students as they begin to emulate and adopt the note-taking habits of stronger students. Also, peer-review is a motivator. Knowing that someone is going to be looking at your notebook and assessing it, is often an incentive to do a better job at taking notes in the first place.


Encourage Relationships and Interactions

Your students have questions; there’s no doubt about that.  But only a small percentage ask them. The other students are shy, lack confidence, they don’t want to appear confused, or they’re not comfortable troubling you.  Remove the voluntary nature of question-asking and make asking questions a culture in your classroom. Require your students to come up with at least one question after every class session. They can submit these questions to you anonymously. Then at the start of the next class session, share those questions – all of them – with your class (e.g., as a Google Doc) and highlight how similar most of them are. Explicitly demonstrate to your students that each one of them is pretty much as confused – and confused by the same things – as their neighbor. Then address those questions in class, spending the most time on those topics that generated the most confusion. Slowly, transition away from the anonymous submission of questions and move towards mini-group sessions where collections of students discuss their confusions with one another and agree on consensus questions to ask you. These group discussions will allow student-to-peer mentoring and allow students to reflect on their learning. Ultimately, create a classroom environment where every student sees the value of asking questions and understands that asking you a question directly in class benefits their classmates as well.

Students make flashcards, they take notes, and they have questions. But these commonalities among most students can be leveraged to achieve better, deeper learning in your classrooms. The suggestions above are intended to do just that; meet students where they are, leverage what they’re already doing, but subtly change them to achieve some of what Flipped Learning has to offer. And when your students want more of this deep learning (and they will), and when that student interest drives you to try Flipped Learning in earnest, you know where to find us. The staff at FLR and the global community at FLGI will be here waiting, ready and eager to help.


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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April 12, 2019