Student Resistance to Flipped Classrooms

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“We want lecture!”

Faculty who try out  flipped classroom techniques will undoubtably face this response from students.  In February 2012, conversation on education list-serves about student resistance was stimulated in response to a Chronicle article titled, “How ‘Flipping’ the Classroom Can Improve the Traditional Lecture”.

One reason students resist flipped class methods, including those which use Peer Instruction (PI), is that by the time they arrive in our classrooms, most of them have spent nearly 15 years in a schooling system that trains students in and rewards them for performance on simplistic, mostly low-level learning activities that bulk their procedural muscles through memorization and plug and chug.  Students are not used to more difficult, relevant activities that require them to take responsibility for their own learning. Such activities include those that bulk their more heuristic muscles through practice with  knowledge transfer, experimentation/creative problem solving and autonomy and persistence.

When I disrupt the expectation of an Easy A among my students (i.e. that they will be able excel without deep conceptual understanding or by making any authentic meaning), it always creates some dissonance for them, and they resist, often vocally, demanding more lecture or rote problem solving at the board. Many want to be told the answer or more accurately, only the answers that are going to be tested. This is not simply a bad student attitude–but a result of an educational system that has not evolved quickly enough to match the needs of a knowledge-based generation.

Students don’t always recognize the value of interactive teaching until they have left the university. Alumni often write to us commenting that they didn’t appreciate PI or realize how much they were learning with PI when they were actually enrolled in the course, but having moved into the real world, eventually they see how key PI was to their development of subject matter understanding.

How do we help our students see the importance of developing the conceptual understanding that PI or other flipped methods promote?

Two common recommendations for stemming off student resistance before it starts include 1) explaining new techniques on your syllabus, including a rationale for why you are using them in your class and 2) having conversations with students at the start and throughout the semester about how they are learning.

In our classes, we also often show aggregated data that helps students see the kinds of behaviors that correlate with better performance on their exams.

Another tip is to develop your own understanding of why students resist innovative pedagogies. Check out Brookfield’s sources of student resistance and Felder’s publications on addressing student resistance to interactive teaching.

The truth, however, is that there will always be students who resist. In one of our recent PI courses, students complained loudly about not having the opportunity to watch Eric work out problems on the board. Because we care about our students’ needs, we purchased some screencasting software and made videos available online of Eric working out homework problems. Take a guess of how many students actually viewed these problems in the poll below.

In the comments section, let us know what kinds of student resistance you observe when using flipped class techniques. And more importantly, tell us how you try to address it.

This post was originally published 3/2/2012, edited and added to on 10/16/2012. 

15 Comments

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  1. Marc Séguin

    So, how many students actually viewed the online videos of Eric working out homework problems ? (I took the poll but didn’t find where the actual answer was.)

  2. Anne Gardner

    I’m responsible for an engineering mechanics class for Civil Engineering students. From my experience it takes about 3 semesters for students to ‘accept’ a change in the organisation of a subject/course. I have had more success with changes when I explain:
    + why I designed the learning activity/assessment the way I did
    + what learning opportunities the activity provides
    + how students can evaluate their learning from the activity
    + how it is going to help them see the world differently.

    For the first time in twenty years teaching, this semester my class gave me a box of chocolates in the last lecture.

  3. lainemarsh

    I have undertaken to transform my introductory linguistics course – a course that was always feared and dreaded by all but the most untrepid students in my teacher education program. The flip has taken on a life of its own and I have seen amazing embrace of peer to peer – spontaneous moving around the room, using break time to check on a question with someone who “got it”, and I am the last resource. Here is my take on resistance: this works best with the top group who love to research and analyze and the bottom, who need the scaffolding that only recent mastery as with peers can provide. Resisters are the ones in the middle – not struggling, not really engaged either – we need to look at inspiring them to join us. It is a risk-taking behavior we are looking for here – I call my course FUNdamentals of Linguistics to lower their defenses and pull them in. Thoughts? (my first post, so I don’t know the style here too well yet) Laine

  4. I teach university mathematics and use PI in pretty much every class I teach to some extent. The range of reactions has been interesting. The #1 source of resistance comes from students who are in courses that are traditionally thought of as computational — especially Calculus 1 and 2 — and the main complaint is that I don’t do enough examples at the board.

    I think this comes from the socialization aspect that’s been mentioned above. Calculus 1-2 overlaps considerably with AP Calculus, which most of the students I teach have taken (but didn’t get sufficient credit on the AP exam to test out), and unfortunately that course is not always taught using sound pedagogy but rather in a “teach to the test” and “cookbook” manner. Students whose grades suggest they survived calculus by learning and playing by the rules of a game are understandably threatened by a different approach.

    For me, the solution has been a nearly-constant PR campaign. Every time there’s a clicker question, I point out the benefits of doing things this way versus plain lecture. I sometimes refer to the clicker questions as “enhanced examples” to highlight the fact that we ARE doing examples, but it’s better this way because students get to play with them before I debrief them. And I also tell students every other day that I cannot make neurons grow in their brains and so for every one example I do on the board, they have to do three. This does not win over the hardest-core dissenters who want lecture simply so they can relax in class. But then again, not even lecture does that.

    See also this post called “Resistance to the inverted classroom can show up anywhere” at my blog: http://bit.ly/wXkp9Z

  5. Lorena Barba

    I taught an introductory engineering class last semester where I used peer instruction in a very limited fashion. Let’s say “I dabbled in peer instruction”, but the course was still 2/3 lecturing, with some questions-based teaching (à la Socratic teaching), and some PI. In the student evaluations, one student was very critical; the verbatim comment was “Peer teaching was also highly ineffective and a waste of time.” This sentence came after “The material was too easy … ” followed by some more criticism about the lack of hard math in the course. This was an introductory engineering class that was by design not supposed to require any previous knowledge in math or physics (and the majority of other students were satisfied).

    My thinking is that this must have been one of the top two students in the class, one of those gifted students that would have thrived in the lecture format [*], at the same time as the majority of his/her classmates flounder. For this student, the lecture-based approach provides a competitive advantage over others. S/he does not care much or may not be aware that other students in the class are learning more deeply in this format, and is annoyed that s/he has to pitch in and teach classmates.

    The only idea that I have so far is trying to identify these top students early on and, if practical, give them additional things to work on, perhaps some additional responsibility in the class in regards to creating a collaborative environment. That runs the risk of other students feeling that you are showing preferences, so it may be hard to do in practice.

    [*] See http://goo.gl/6yrRV (link to Google books)
    “… research is showing that didactic exposition of abstract ideas and lines of reasoning (however engaging and lucid we might try to make them) to passive listeners yields pathetically thin results in learning and understanding except in the very small percentage of students who are specially gifted in the field

  6. Steve Palfrey

    I polled my AP Physics C class last week about whether they prefer my lecturing to them vs their working in small groups to discuss and figure things out for themselves. (They aren’t just answering clicker questions; they are also working on various kinds of worksheets aimed at developing and applying new concepts). Interestingly, some of the students who have demonstrated the strongest understanding said they prefer my lecturing. In addition, although the class was fairly equally divided in terms of preference, almost all of the female students preferred group work. Intellectually, they all seem to understand the benefits of group work.

    For a class of HS seniors who are inclined to slack, PI, and group work in general, provides at least 45 minutes a day when they engage in the material. For some of these students, a lecture could be an opportunity to sit back and relax.

    • Julie Schell

      How much do you think they are learning from lecture versus interactive activity?

      • Steve Palfrey

        Unfortunately, I don’t have any real data, just perceptions. The gifted students seem to be able to learn a great deal from lectures. They are able to assimilate and apply new concepts quickly, and some of them have remarkable memories and can reproduce on their own what I have done for the class (lectures for them may be very efficient). However, my observation in teaching HS physics is that during lectures many students don’t really assimilate the material (some just take notes), even though a fair number can answer questions I pose at the time. I perceive that most students do learn more from interaction activities for two reasons: they actually engage with the material; and they are forced to verbalize their understanding.

  7. Magdalen Normandeau

    I have often been puzzled about the disconnect between what we are told when we attend workshops about Millennial students and what I see in my classes of introductory physics for health and life science students at the University of New Brunswick. In an essay about Millennials, Christy Price states that the #1 characteristic which Millennial respondents desire in an ideal learning environment is that it be interactive and participatory (based on a qualitative analysis of narratives by more than 100 Millennial students). However, in my intro physics classes, students have always been very unhappy with the active classroom environment. A colleague who is an award-winning teacher also has the same problem so I am not the sole cause of my students’ attitude. In addition, at a TIPERs workshop at the AAPT in 2010, Dave Maloney warned that if one wants or needs to be popular, “don’t do this.”

    What is the source of this apparent contradiction?
    Is there something different about people who take introductory physics relative to the general population?
    Can the disconnect be traced back to the fact that a large fraction of the students in an intro physics class are not there by choice? (they may have chosen to do a science or engineering degree but few of them would take physics if they didn’t have a degree requirement)
    Is there something about physics and the learning of physics that causes physics courses to be excluded from the general desire for interaction and participation?
    Are our interpretations of “interactive” and “participatory” at odds with the students’ interpretations of these terms? If so, is that true in all disciplines or only in science or only in physics?

    This puzzles me and I would greatly welcome any insights anyone can provide!

    (might I suggest that people indicate their discipline when responding to this thread so that we can perhaps tease out some patterns?)

    • Kathy Shan

      I teach sections of both the intro physics for life-sciences/pre-med students and the one for physics and engineering students at the University of Toledo and I’ve found that my engineering and physics students mostly accept (and some seem to really like) the PI and other interactive things I make them do during class, but my bio students really hate it.

      I don’t have any hard data on this (it would make an interesting study, though), but my perception is that it probably does have a lot to do with the fact that for the bio students, physics is a required course, but they wouldn’t take it on their own–they are only there to fulfill a requirement. Also, particularly for my pre-med/pre-pharmacy students, they are under a lot of stress about their grades and getting into professional programs that have pretty high GPA requirements, and Physics 1 and 2 are 5 hour classes each, so getting a B in either or both of those will cause their GPA to drop dramatically. And PI and other activities that require interaction and actual, active learning are not what they are used to. They really feel like I am changing the rules of the game unfairly–they have learned to excel by memorizing and regurgitating facts and solving very simple and straightforward problems. That I expect them to make assumptions and explain their thinking and work collaboratively and teach each other (and that I don’t always even give out answers, particularly on tutorials where the reasoning and learning *how* to think through a problem is more important than getting the *right* answer) is very jarring for them and they don’t think it is fair.

      The thing I hear from my bio students the most is that they “need an A” and they seem willing to do whatever it takes to get one–including cheating, if they feel it is necessary (and they don’t even seem to think of it as cheating, simply as gaining a competitive edge over their classmates). Using PI and expecting students to be able to understand physics concepts and show their understanding by explaining their reasoning instead of using the standard plug and chug problems on class work/homework/exams really makes it a more difficult class for them and they really aren’t all that interested in learning physics to begin with–they are only there because they are required to be there.

      Of course, it doesn’t help that I am the only person in the department who uses PI and tutorials and, while I’ve gotten a lot of support and encouragement from the department chair to do so, I haven’t been able to convince any of the others to do it in their own classes. So my students will see their peers in the other class doing things the traditional, “easier” way and they get really upset about it.

  8. rswiv

    Thanks for the post. I am facing such resistance have no great insights or solutions.

    But could I also ask for suggestions on questions one might ask students to answer in a course evaluation that would get them to think about (and recognize) the learning that has occurred? I’m thinking of something like, “Are you now noticeably more able to use economics concepts than you were after your last economics course?”

  9. Bill Goffe

    Particularly in large sections, students seem socialized into being passive recipients of knowledge. One way I approach to PI is to tell students that every day that they get to practice with questions similar to what they’ll see on exams. I also show them the data from “Improved Learning in a Large-Enrollment Physics Class” http://www.cwsei.ubc.ca/SEI_research/index.html on how students using PI lean more. Sometimes I even mention the following: when I’ve lead teaching workshops, I sometimes ask instructors when they really learned the material they teach. Almost without fail, they say, “When I first taught it.” Thus, I’m setting up an environment like how their instructors learned the material. Finally, it seems important to me that you want to establish a classroom environment early in the semester where PI is integral.

  10. winghead

    I don’t think there is resistance at all. From my experience, it is clear that students enjoy the challenge of solving conceptually interesting and analytically challenging problems, especially when they can legitimately rely on each other. When this happens regularly, the classroom functions as a learning community which values self-reliance, justification, cooperative assistance, shared experience…a lot of traits that ultimately are successful in most walks of life.

  11. Matthew Davis

    I have been using active learning and peer instruction in a first year physics class for five years now. Every year I have invested more effort in explaining the reasoning behind why we teach the course in this manner, and provide evidence that the learning outcomes are greatly improved. Perhaps the experience I have gained has increased my confidence and changed my manner to some extent – I feel less need to justify myself, but have more of an expectation that they will be accept my logic and evidence. I believe that students are quite perceptive when it comes to things like this. The last couple of years have met with very little resistance – perhaps they just don’t let me know about it!

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