Four Small Changes That Can Open Big Windows for Learning

Lead Features 19 / Top Feature April 19 / April 15, 2019

–Dr. Thomas Mennella–

Let’s face it – transitioning to Flipped Learning is a significant undertaking. It requires time, planning, commitment and a little bit of faith (because, if you have any doubt at all that it will work, then you’re worried about the time needed to switch back, too). And to be fair, if you’re curious about Flipped Learning, or even willing to give it a try, these concerns and time commitments might be just enough to scare you off. That is true even if you are starting to feel like your students aren’t learning as deeply as they could or if you feel like something is missing from the education that you are delivering.

The fact is, Flipped Learning works and now hundreds of peer-reviewed, scientific studies are proving that. So don’t worry about ever switching back. But your concerns for the time needed to transition to Flipped Learning do have merit. So let’s take a middle path. Below, I offer four very small changes you can make to your college-level instruction that will leverage some of the benefits of Flipped Learning, without making the entire switch. I’m confident that once you see the potential this approach offers, and you see the transformative effects that it has on your students, you’ll be all in and switching to full-fledged flipped instruction by the start of the next academic year. But first, what are the benefits of Flipped Learning?

One of the benefits of Flipped Learning is not the videos. Flipped Learning often uses videos, but videos are not central to Flipped Learning, and some of the best-flipped instructors in the world don’t use them. Instead, Flipped Learning has everything to do with time. That’s it. That’s the ‘magic sauce’ of Flipped Learning; it frees class time. This time can then be spent building individual relationships with your students, asking them what still confuses them, providing just-in-time remediation and review, and assessing their learning in unique, novel and individualized ways. So the four simple strategies offered below revolve around these principles: freeing class time to better educate your students. And these strategies are guided by the Global Elements of Effective Flipped Learning, an internationally compiled and vetted collection of best classroom practices. Along with each strategy below, you’ll see the global element(s) that informs it demonstrating how and where each strategy can open windows of learning for you and your students.  


Strategy #1: Stop reviewing the syllabus on the first day of class

First impressions make all the difference, right? How many well-qualified applicants were not hired for the job they could master because of a lack-luster 45-minute interview? How many marriages are built on a first date that went amazingly well (ahem, my hand is raised…). Think of the message that it sends to your students when, on the very first day of class, the entire session is spent with you talking at them (not to them) to review course policies that (A) they have no interest in that early in the semester and (B) mainly revolve around failing the class – a real bummer on Day 1. Instead, consider recording a brief audio tour of the syllabus that students can listen to before coming to class where you explain course policies. And yes, they probably will not listen to it before Day 1. Who cares? I guarantee you that they’ll listen to it when they need it, and that’s all that really matters. Then, use that entire freed Day 1 to get to know your students. Develop icebreakers where you and your students can share interesting things about each other. Poll them on their anxieties about your course and offer what you can to allay their fears. Show your students that you care about them as individuals and that you’re invested in them, personally. That first impression will last all semester, I promise you.


Strategy #2: Record pre-class announcements

If you’re anything like me, five to ten minutes before most class sessions are spent on logistics and minutiae. “Remember, Exam 3 is in two weeks.” “I’ve been asked to tell you about a guest speaker that the department will be hosting next week.” “If you left a water bottle in class last week, please come up and describe it. I have it with me if it’s yours.” “Bueller, Bueller, Bueller.” If we’re interested in reclaiming class time, this is the low-hanging fruit. Record a brief audio file of yourself making these announcements ahead of time and post the file to your LMS. That’s a five-minute recording, tops, but it can free up to ten minutes of class time. Then reclaim that time at the end of class to provide your students with a brief activity. A favorite of mine (for the sciences) is: “Go on Google Images and find one single image that best captures and illustrates much of what we learned about today.” The power of this exercise is in its simplicity. Students need to reflect on what they just learned, critically evaluate images to find those concepts illustrated in them, and then be prepared to discuss that thought process aloud. Why? Because you’re moving around the classroom as they engage in this activity, probing them on their thought processes. Students are also assembling a repository of great diagrams that they can then study from later.


Strategy #3: Embrace the exit ticket

As class wraps up, have students complete an ‘exit ticket.’ This is either a single quiz question that gets at the heart of understanding that day’s learning or it’s a simple prompt, such as: “What topic(s) remain confusing for you from today?” Based on student responses to that exit ticket, you’ll be able to determine if there is any residual confusion and where that confusion lays. (This is Formative Assessment, by the way.) Then, you can follow up with your students using your LMS. Post a brief audio file where you clarify the confusion and/or answer the most common questions from the exit ticket. Or post additional resources that your students can use to gain better understanding and clarity (e.g., YouTube videos or textbook tutorials). Doing this will accomplish two significant aims: it will add an extra safety net to your sessions, capturing students that remain confused and offering them some remediation to reach the lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy before moving on to new material. But it will also demonstrate to your students that you care about their learning; that, once the class session is over, your job is not done and neither is theirs.


Strategy #4: Consider alternative assessments of student learning

Exams are important in college; I get that. But exams are not, and should not be, the only method by which we can assess student learning. Test anxiety is a real thing, and — since I’ve flipped my instruction and I’ve gotten to know my students individually — I have met many students who learned my course material deeply, understood it thoroughly, and did poorly on my exams. We must give students credit for their learning, beyond exam scores. Consider allowing students to make videos where they explain critical course concepts back to you, in their own words. A true test of understanding is how clearly one can explain something to another. If you’re lucky enough to have graduate teaching assistants (TAs), issue them rubrics and task them with going around your classroom to have “micro-conversations” with individual students. You’d be surprised how quickly you can assess a student’s comprehension in this way. Allow students to propose their own assessments. Student choice results in student buy-in, commitment and ownership. Your students are creative, unique and capable of incredible achievements. Give them the opportunity to shine by allowing them to propose alternative ways to demonstrate their learning, which leverage their individual and unique strengths.

The strategies above are not earth-shattering. These are small changes that you can implement with nothing more than a Smartphone (for making the audio recordings) and some imagination. But once you see the value and power that freed class time offers, you’ll want more. And you can have more…. through the adoption of Flipped Learning. I’d say, “Good luck,” but you don’t need it; things are about to get a whole lot better for you and your students. So I’ll just say, “Enjoy.”

Thomas Mennella
Dr. Thomas Mennella 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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