Friday, February 14, 2014

Re-thinking My Teaching: A Midpoint Assessment

Guest Blogger:  David Royer

Last week, Dr. Kwame posed the question “Have you flipped your classroom?” which is a great lead-in to my blog because I am in the process of doing that for my General Biology II course, and while I have not completely flipped it, I have certainly rearranged it. It began when I attended a workshop last summer at NYU titled "Evidence-Based Teaching: Just the Facts or Thinking Like Scientists?"  Diane Ebert-May, the workshop leader, is from Michigan State where she uses active learning, inquiry-based instructional strategies to teach introductory biology to classes of 200 students. She does very little traditional lecture in her classes, instead relying on having the students work in groups to solve problems during class time after which the groups present their results, often using poster paper taped to the classroom walls, which is followed by whole class discussion. She describes what she does as teaching biology using the same methods that biologists use to conduct research so that students can develop higher-level cognitive skills and build conceptual connections within biology and across the curriculum. Another aspect of her work is to use a backward design to construct courses in which objectives, assessments and instruction are aligned. Diane conducted the workshop in the same way she does her classes – we worked in groups discussing educational issues followed by presentation of results and general discussion. 

I came away from the workshop enthused and ready to plunge into my sabbatical semester, the purpose of which was to redesign my General Biology II course in a way that promoted active learning on the part of the students and less lecture from me. My reason for applying for sabbatical was to explore alternative methods and design of instruction; over the past several years, I realized that, while I enjoyed delivering lectures, it was not producing enough positive results in student learning and problem-solving skills. From what I read during my sabbatical, it appears that many faculty are experiencing the same misgivings about the way that we teach. So I spent most of my sabbatical redesigning the way I would teach my course, and now that we are approaching the halfway point of the semester, I have some results to share: 
  1. The students are more engaged working in groups. While I still need to occasionally remind a student to put the cell phone away, the students are working well in groups and staying on task. 
  2. The students are helping each other. As I circulate through the classroom, I can hear students explaining concepts and methods to each other, and sometimes explaining it in better terms that I would use, a humbling but exciting realization. 
  3. There have been positive results in student performance. Compared to last spring when I taught the course with traditional lecture methods, the average on the first quiz was nine points higher this semester as was the average on the first exam by six points. 
  4. It is easy to fall back into old habits. One student group had a question recently that required more explanation than a short answer, and as I thought the entire class would benefit from the answer, I threw up a PowerPoint to illustrate the explanation – the result was that I lectured for 15 minutes and it felt completely comfortable like a pair of old slippers that fit perfectly after years of wear. 
  5. Some material is challenging in terms of developing meaningful group assignments. The first part of the course covers genetics at the level of organisms, and it was easy to come up with genetics problems for the student groups. Now that we are moving into molecular genetics, the material is more challenging as is coming up with group assignments. I am beginning to feel the need to lecture, but resisting it so far. 
  6. It is okay to occasionally throw in a mini-lecture (10-15 minutes) when needed. Sometimes there is a topic that requires explanation that is best delivered in lecture mode, but even then it can be interactive, forcing the students to be involved. 
  7. It takes much preparation to design good group assignments and the overall flow of the class. My biggest error so far is planning too much for each class which then requires the redesign of subsequent classes. 
  8. Most importantly, the students seem to enjoy the new design. I overheard one student say that she felt that she was learning more with this format, and the early assessment results support her statement. 
  9. I am getting to know the students better. There is more interaction with the students using the new format, and I feel that I am more aware of each student’s strengths and weaknesses compared to when I taught this course with just lectures. 
I am excited about what I am doing as well as challenged by it. I now realize that the transition to newer methods is not a one-semester job; it is ongoing, and I will probably never be completely satisfied with the methods or results, but it does feel that I am headed in the right direction. I have not completely flipped (the classroom, of course) yet, but I am pleased with the experience so far.


  1. Interesting! Congratulations, Dave!

    Here is a couple of epistemological questions, related to a couple of your comments:

    "over the past several years, I realized that, while I enjoyed delivering lectures, it was not producing enough positive results in student learning and problem-solving skills. From what I read during my sabbatical, it appears that many faculty are experiencing the same misgivings about the way that we teach."

    Do you know that the original problem has more to do with the student, the culture, teacher or teaching, or a combination?

    "Compared to last spring when I taught the course with traditional lecture methods, the average on the first quiz was nine points higher this semester as was the average on the first exam by six points."

    Do we know whether this is due primarily to your change in approach?

    Often, I wonder whether some of the students who are apparently in college primarily to have fun or a degree, and not primarily to learn or have an education, would love this so-called flipped classroom. This (even if true), in and of itself, is no reason not to flip a classroom completely or otherwise; but it provides some reason for reflection, if not caution.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Safro Kwame

    1. Dave, your new class structure sounds exciting, and it seems to be paying off if students are reporting that they are learning more. (True, as Kwame points out, you can't necessarily make a clear cause/effect claim; I guess students could just be picking up on your renewed enthusiasm, but then again scores are still higher and students are still happier so the net result is a positive one for whatever reason.) Congratulations on a sabbatical well spent!

      What I was wondering is how your homework assignments have changed. What are students doing outside of class that is different from the kinds of things you asked them to do before, if anything? Was that restructuring a major part of making this change-over to more active learning or have you focused primarily on the classroom itself?

  2. The Assignment and Student Preparation are Key Factors in 'Flipping'

    Professor David Royer's change from lecturing to student-led group activities, sharing knowledge, student-inquiry, and student presentations appear to be a success, a nine point increase signalling that the change from lecturing to group-led classroom discussions have a somewhat positive increase.

    Professor Safro Kwame appears to be interested in whether this is a spurious result emanating from the students' enthusiasm in mastering the materials and the art of using knowledge successfully in quizzes.

    Professor Linda Stine is more down-to-earth, asking questions on those inputs that are assumed away, such as the homework assignment and student preparatory assignments outside the classroom.

    I share Dave's enthusiasm and would wish it for my students in a sustaining way that Kwame would like to see, noting Linda's concern about the material inputs and the students' knowledge transformation discussion and presentation methods before and after Dave's change. In this regard, here are my comments:

    A speaker in a national television program made a point about reforming education, so that students 'learn what is necessary.' I interpreted that statement to mean 'students should learn what is necessary to pass the teacher's exam,' yes teaching to the test.

    After Ambassador Horace Dawson's speech at our 160th year celebration on February 7, 2014, our natural science Dean told me that when he first visited Dawson's home, he saw books everywhere, including on his steps leading to upstairs. Ambassador probably read more than 'what was necessary' for his success. He was a 'well-read' professional.

    The transfer, diffusion and creation of kowledge from the source through the student's cognitive learning process should be independent of 'flipping'.

    The ultimate objectives of flipping could be met by asking students to read and do various assignments that require identifying concepts and theories and applying them in analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

    The writing components in assignments go beyond the quiz and would be more challenging to students and the teacher. If a writing process is followed, it would be a major benefit if students came with their drafts prepared at home, a necessary step for productive classroom discussions. I tend to use a writing process and a bibliographic research template in order to push for a better quality senior research paper.

    On the testing component of teaching, I minimized multiple choice quizzes (about 20 percent) and maximized short answers short answer questions (80 percent), requiring the short answers to be done first in case there would be students who have a 'legal need' for extra time. The extra time would be for the 20 percent concepts, definitions, or multiple-choice quiz, putting regular students on level playing field with their peers.

    The first reaction among students who thought about the change away from quizzes as the primary assessment of student preparation for assignment and in-class testing was whether I could tell students ahead of time what the items the test would be based on. In this area I gave some specific topics that straddled entire chapters. Students responded that they over prepared for the test and wanted specificity.

    This student observation raises three questions that I pose for our readers on testing and assessment,

    1. Should students be required to read widely and tested narrowly, with choices on the topics being selected for the test?

    2. Should students read narrowly and be tested narrowly, with or without choice of topics or primarily with multiple choice quizzes?

    3. Should students read narrowly, only what is necessary to pass the teacher's one or two-hour test?

    I believe that the reading and writing assignments as homework preparation should be the starting point in any flipping change.

    Ganga Ramdas

  3. To all who commented, thank you for your questions, thoughts and ideas. First to address the questions, Safro I think the original problem has to do with everything you mention, but maybe culture is the most important issue although I cannot necessarily close the loop as to why. It is interesting to consider whether the lecture method has always been less than effective, but we are only recognizing the issue now because technology offers us the opportunity to deliver information using alternative methods. Your second question is quite valid. My data is limited, and other factors could influence the improved performance, but I believe that the content and difficulty of the testing instruments are probably quite similar from year to year after this many years teaching the same course. It could be that the group I am teaching could be more talented than usual; we all can identify both good and poor years with respect to student quality. I do have more specific data to analyze from the first part of the course, and I will have more information when the course is complete including the results of the pre/post test. And as for students here to have fun, there is not much we can do about that, but I would argue that they will absorb more knowledge when required to work actively in a group compared with sitting through a lecture which is quite easy to tune out completely.

    Linda, the homework I assign is an extension of the work they do in class - more challenging - and I encourage collaboration on the homework. One point of all of this is to encourage teamwork so that students work in the same way that scientists work. However, no teamwork on exams although I did do one quiz in groups. And yes, I am trying to develop more active learning methods - the group work is one example.

    Ganga I agree that students should be required to read widely - nearly everything I read while on sabbatical suggested that it is important for students to get into the original literature for a discipline as early as possible. I gave my students an annotated version of the paper by Watson and Crick on the structure of DNA, a one page paper that was arguably the most important publication in biology during the 20th century.

    Dave Royer