How I flipped my class without even knowing it.
(and also incorporated “Just in time Teaching” and “Peer Instructions”)
Soon after graduating with M.S. In theoretical physics from Perm State University (one of the top Russian research universities) I joined the physics department at Perm Polytechnic Institute (one of the top Russian technical universities) as an assistant professor. At first, I was teaching introductory labs. The next year I started to teach a general physics course.
The first thing I did 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 did not know what I did, and that it called “flipping”, 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 how deep was students’ understanding of the fundamental concepts would correlate with the level they mastered a skill of solving problems (the level difficulty of the problems they solve within certain topics).
To learn how to solve problems one has to have an extensive experience of solving problems (same as to learn how to swim, or to 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.
To learn how to solve problems one has to be taught how to solve problems.
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 of 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 planned several review lectures to cover large portions of the content including problem solving examples (they would take about 25 % of the total lecture time). I planned laboratory exercises. The rest of the lecture hours and all discussion hours I designated 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. Then I increased this number by a fifth (or 20 %) to account for any unforeseen events. The final calculation (total time on problem solving divided by the time per a problem) gave me the number I was looking for, 160, the number of problems I needed to assign for one semester to each student to solve.
Then I read all the problems in the book (that took quite some time) 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 full 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 meeting 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 (for each student I kept track of the progress). If I had a suspicion a student did not do the work or did not grasp 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.
N.B. When I started using this approach in small college, on the first day a girl told me that 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. I remember when the first time she was walking to me with her notebook to show her work; her posture and gestures told me “here, you made me do it, but I told you it would not work”, she was convinced that her solution was wrong. But it wasn’t! It was correct! You cannot imagine how exited she was when I told her she was absolutely correct! You could see the change from “Whatever, it’s all just the waste of time” to “I don’t believe it, I can do this!”
At Perm Polytechnic Institute 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 middle school classes, and later a college (yeas, I was very busing teaching at all possible levels). Before beginning each new course, 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; after I moved to the U.S. I was teaching mostly traditionally, but with the elements of my Russian approach, and also have had mostly positive student feedback).
Gradually I shifted from teaching to research on teaching. Only years later I have learned the name of 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). However, as many other adjuncts, I usually stick to an old fashion lecture-lab-discussion format (with some appropriate modifications), which also works fine it you do it right (the official name for this type of teaching is “Direct Instructions”: http://www.nifdi.org/)
Based on my successful experience, I say 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, the recipe will work.
Saying this, I also want to share my doubts about making students watching short videos instead of making them reading a textbook (I mean, before lectures).
There is a common concern that kids do not read enough, and that that leads to various negative results.
Watching “Much 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, you know what, just watch the movie, it is even easier”.
I do not believe this approach would lead to better students’ outcomes.
But it does make a teacher’s life simpler.
So, this “video approach” is not about students, it is about a teacher. And when a teacher uses it, he or she knows why he or she wants to use it.
In order to make this approach to lead to better students’ outcomes, a teacher needs to keep in mind that it will not happen because of the videos, but because it would make a teacher work harder for using those videos in a class (otherwise it would be just an imitation – mimicking – of activities which look a lot like a new kind of teaching, a.k.a. innovation, but in the end would be just a fog to cover … thirst for fame? wish to look like others? fear to be fired? a race to a promotion?).
During my following years I have developed many additional instruments for teaching physics and helping teachers to teach better, such as:
Dr. Valentin Voroshilov