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How I flipped my class without even knowing it.

In 1988 I joined physics department at Perm Polytechnic Institute, as an assistant professor teaching labs. The next year the department chair offered my to teach a general physics course. The first thing I did was I “flipped” the course.

At the time I did not have any intension to go into physics education research, I did not read any literature, I did not know any terminology, I just wanted to do a good job. And I wanted to know if the job I did was good. So, I needed to establish my own teaching goals and tools to measure the level of their achievement.

I thought that engineering majors did not need to have a deep understanding of the fundamental concepts, but needed to master a skill of solving problems of a certain difficulty level from the list of certain topics. To learn how to solve problems one has to solve problems (same as to learn how to swim, or ride a bicycle). So, I decided to focus on problem solving.

Of course, no one can solve any problem without having a certain level of preparation; in physics one has to know definitions and laws and be able to do some math (more at What does “thinking as a physicist” mean?). I went to the institution library and selected a most abundant physics textbook and the most abundant book with a collection physics problems, so every student in my class could borrow them from the library.  

I took a calendar and counted all lectures, discussions and laboratory hours for the semester. Then I planed several review lectures to cover large portions of the content including problem solving examples (they would take no more than 25 % of the total lecture time). I planed laboratory exercises. The rest of the lecture hours and all discussion hours I planned for making students solving problems under my guidance.

I set the condition that an average student should spend about 15 minutes per an average problem. I decreased this number by a fifth to account for any unforeseen events. The result gave me the number I was looking for, 160, the number of problems I needed to assign to each student to solve during the semester.

Then I read all the problems in the book and selected 160 which I thought were the most important to learn by an engineering major student, divided them between the lecture and discussion hours. Then I read the textbook and selected specific pages, chapters, paragraphs students would have to read before each class. Then I made a calendar specifying which pages about what topics students had to read before the given day, what definitions and laws they had to memorize, and what problem solving examples they had to study.

At the beginning of each discussion or a “discussion lecture” I would test what students read by asking direct questions or giving a short quiz. Then students would spend the rest of the class working on the problems (assigned to this hour according to the calendar); if they had a question they would call me, if they solved a problem, they would call me to check it (I kept track for each student). If I had a suspicion a student did not do the work or did not grasped the concept behind a problem I asked questions probing student's reasoning.

At that time no one had an email or access to the Internet, but students could come to my office hours or leave a note in my mailbox asking to clarify on the upcoming “discussion lecture” some concepts from the textbook (“Just In Time Teaching”). During the problem solving sessions students could discuss with each other their work (“Peer Instructions”), but every student had to demonstrate his or her individual solution (when I used the same approach at another institution a girl told me she could never solve any physics problem and it would be wasting of time trying to teach her, I just asked to give it a try, and I remember when she showed me her first problem convinced the solution was wrong, but how excited she was when I told her she was absolutely correct!).

Usually we had two midterms and a final where I tested students ability to solve problems. And I really liked how things worked out.

Soon I added high school and then middle school classes. Before beginning each new class I went through the same procedure and I never had any doubts about it. It worked. It worked for me and I believe it worked for students, too (I had never collected any official feedback from students besides the grades, but I had a lot of positive feedback on a personal level, even from students who did not do very well grade-wise).

Gradually I shifted from teaching to research on teaching. Only years later I have learned the name for what I did – “flipped classroom”. When I moved to the US. I found technologies which allowed offering students videos or computer simulations (in addition to reading a textbook, which is still the only abundant resource many Russian students can find), but as many other adjuncts, I usually stick to an old fashion lecture-lab-discussion format (with some modifications, though), which also works fine it you do it right (check for example http://www.nifdi.org/)

The last time I taught a truly “flipped” class was about 15 years ago.

I do say however, that there is no mystery in how to flip a course. Anyone who has time and willing to put some effort in changing his/her teaching can do what I did in 1989, the recipe still works. Saying this, I also want to share my doubts about making students watching short videos instead of making them reading a textbook.

There is a common concern that kids do not read enough, and that that leads to various negative results. Watching “Mach Ado About Nothing” movie clearly requires less mental work than reading the play, and especially than analyzing the play after the reading. Offering videos is like offering cliff-notes. It seems like giving up on making student working hard: “You guys are not going to read the book anyway, flipping the cliff-notes is better than nothing”.

Would it still lead to better students’ outcomes?

Firstly – it does not matter. It is not about students, it is about you – a teacher. You know why you want it and only you can truly control what you get from it.

Secondly – yes, it will lead to better students’ outcomes, but only if that was yours – teacher’s – true goal, because that would make you work harder (otherwise it would be just an imitation – mimicking – of activities which look a lot like a new kind of teaching, but in the end just a fog to cover your … Thirst for fame? Wish to look like others? Fear to be fired? A race for a promotion?).


Dr. Valentin Voroshilov (www.teachology.xyz)

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