Monday, July 29, 2013

My flipped classroom adventure

I'm doing it. I'm flipping my classes. And I'm terrified.

Quite often, students have said they struggle to take notes in class. This past semester I noticed the problem even more, and halfway through the semester, I presented them with the option of flipping the class from that point on. Half of them voted to do so, but I felt that I needed a bigger consensus than that if I was going to change the course structure in the middle. Still, several of them wrote on their end of year evaluations that they wished we'd flipped the class.

Beyond helping my students absorb the information, I've come to understand just how much time it takes to process that information and make connections. I always prided myself on the back and forth, question and answer style of my lectures, but frankly, that just privileged certain students who were able to process the material in the moment or who were lucky enough to have a good background in history.

Even for those students, some of the higher-level questions we ask them to grapple with are just too challenging to be figured out on the spot. I'll fully admit I had to read Good Wives, Nasty Wenches and Anxious Patriarchs a few times to completely grasp the argument, so is it really fair of me to present the argument of that book in a lecture and then expect my students to be able to apply it to the readings for the week just like that?

Even before the evaluations, and the vote on flipping, my students were telling me what they needed.

A student came to my office hours once, and it took me about 5 minutes to realize he just wanted to talk through what we learned in class, rather than grades. He told me that quite often, hours after he left class, he'd put something together in his mind and want to talk about it. He came to talk to me after a lecture on the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the “problem” of the Quakers. Having gone to Catholic school, he wanted to talk through Calvinist theology with me to make sure he understood it. I'm glad he came to office hours, certainly, but I think the whole class could have benefited from that discussion. I encourage my students not to be shy with questions, and I tell them if they're confused about something, they can be sure there's someone else who is too. If that's the case, how do I make sure those questions get asked and that everyone benefits from them?

On another occasion, I got to the very end of a lecture on the Second Great Awakening, and a hand went up. “What's a revival?” I may have actually facepalmed in shame, right there. I didn't know they didn't know what I was talking about, and they didn't know that they actually did know what I was talking about, they just didn't know the term. Since I was going to give that same lecture later that day, I decided to cut it down and start the class by crowd-sourcing (with guidance) definitions for things like “denomination” and “evangelicalism.” Can I configure the class in such a way that they can say “What's a revival?” at a point where it can be more productive?

The clincher came this past semester. In the middle of a discussion of who knows what, a student put up his hand and asked a question. It was one of those questions that hit right in the sweet spot of my knowledge, and I was overwhelmed. The answer to his question was so many things: land, the crisis of masculinity, concepts of individual liberty, marginal men, cities, Mayo Greenleaf Patch! The answer was too big, and in too many dimensions, for me to articulate it as a simple reply. I think I went with “land,” but I'm also sure my students saw me short-circuit with information overload in that moment. The concepts this student was asking about were complex, and he and his classmates were grasping at them. They just needed more time and space to think. Rather than shotgunning can after can of tasty knowledge in lecture, could we decant it and let it breathe?

They've been telling me what they need to learn. Sometimes it takes a while for them to figure it out, but they're figuring it out and they're telling me. I've been trying to listen and adapt within a certain framework, but I'm not sure the framework can accommodate the kind of learning I want, and the kind of learning they are capable of.

So, I'm going to flip. But I'm pretty scared. So much of the literature out there is based on other disciplines' needs or is about learning at a secondary school level, which isn't the same as college. Moreover, many advocates of flipped learning use videotaped lectures, which I'm not keen on. I've developed a whole series of Prezis that I've written from scratch or adapted from lectures, each one full of those higher-level questions for talking about the next day during class. I've cut down on the already-minimal reading in the class so that I can feel justified in asking this extra time from my students. But will they read the Prezis? Will they take notes? Will daily conceptual discussions and in-class document analysis work? Will they give me that look (you know that look) that says “What on God's green earth are you trying to do?”

The other night, I read this piece in the Chronicle and nearly called the whole thing off. I decided I'd just go back to nice comfortable lectures. But my friend Casey talked me down, and I'm going to go through with it. I know I'm going to talk to my friends in the grad lounge about it, but I'm going to blog about it on this grad lounge too. So, vast internet (or the half dozen people who might read this), thoughts, suggestions, and bits of encouragement would be deeply appreciated.

ETA: Please do not think I'm saying that I have a deep understanding of Calvinist theology.  Rather, I have a basic knowledge and the not-so-fond memories of theologically-induced headaches.