Won’t students skip my class if my lectures are available online?
This is a question that comes up often in the world of higher education, where class attendance is usually not compulsory. One fine day early Fall of 2012, I took this question with me on my walk from my office in the University of Texas at Austin tower to one of the largest auditoriums on campus.
I was visiting Stealth Flipper’s class, a large enrollment (n=400) Humanities course for non majors, called Introduction to Ancient Rome. Stealth put all pre-recorded lectures online for students and required them to watch three to four, 20 minute lectures per week. In class, Stealth used several innovative strategies, such as mini lectures, clicker questions, guided large class discussion, and Peer Instruction.
Within the first few minutes of arriving, as I had to jockey for a seat, the answer to my question seemed pretty clear. I wrote the following statement in my notebook: “Yes! Students will attend even when the lectures are online!” and I took the above snapshot as proof.
Now, as I think back on this, I ask myself – “So what? Is attendance really a measure of how well a course is going?”
Stealth had not always taught a flipped class. Indeed, she originally taught Intro to Ancient Rome more traditionally – by assigning readings, lecturing, and “trying to push the class to think deeply about the complexities of the content,” she says on her blog, Teaching without Pants.
Stealth emphasizes that she liked teaching a large class and “even enjoyed lecturing.” That said, she also felt that something just did not sit quite right with her and the traditional approach: “I hated the feeling that I was in cahoots with my students–I’d make the class entertaining and not too demanding and they’d humor me by cramming a bunch of facts (from a study guide I handed out) and then purging them on the midterms. I knew they weren’t really learning, but didn’t know what else to do. I also realized that I was going to become bored very quickly with giving the same lectures every fall.”
So, when Stealth learned lecture capture via Echo360 was available in her classroom, she decided to try to flip her class. I have been eagerly following Stealth’s flip quest for almost a year. Through a ton of trial and error, she’s come up with two game changing tips that I think everyone considering flipping their classroom should know.
1. Don’t tell students you are “flipping” or “experimenting”
In the first implementation of her flip, Stealth used the word “flip” to describe her class to her students. Everything in the literature says to spend time upfront describing exactly what you are doing as a means of meeting the inherent student resistance that will come when you try flipping for the first time.
“I told the students that they were in a ‘flipped’ class and tried to make them partners in creating the learning environment” she says.
When I heard about what happened next, it caught me like a deer in headlights. I was stunned and had no idea how to help.
Students in Stealth’s class started a Facebook Page with a thread titled “I hate the flipped class.” This thread was not only active, it had quite a bit of disturbing content. Apparently, students did not complain about the content or the teacher but their dissatisfaction with the “flipped class” was vocal and aggressive. Comments included plans to blast the class in the end of course evaluations and that students were not paying to go to a top university to watch their teacher on a video or to talk to their peers in class.
Such student resistance can be a huge turn off for instructors who are spending an inordinate amount of care, time, energy, and emotion toward creating a better learning experience for their students. Albeit small, an uprising of vocal, angry, dissenting students can be enough to send some teachers packing their flipped-class suitcases back to the land of lecture for good. I’ve seen it happen myself, at Harvard, and heard about it elsewhere.
Not so for Stealth Flipper, my new hero.
In several conversations over the past year, Stealth told me that in reading between the lines, she felt students actually had some valid concerns. Instead of chalking it up to the flip class itself and abandoning ship, she sifted through their comments, took them seriously and listened carefully.
Through this exercise she got an idea that would change the trajectory of her flip and her teaching.
She discovered that her students seemed to be latching onto the word “flip.” She made several tweaks to her flip approach, but the most interesting to me is that the following semester she did not decide to give up on the flip class. Rather, she decided to give up on using the word flip. “I haven’t used the word flipped or flip once in the course or in talking with my students,” she recently told me–hence the moniker, Stealth Flipper.
According to Stealth, this tweak has worked brilliantly. “Student resistance hasn’t just lessened, it has entirely disappeared,” she says. Students now come to her office and report how much they enjoy how she teaches, whereas in the fall, they would come in and complain about their “flip class.”
So, she must have just made the class easier, and that’s why they liked better, right? On the contrary, she made it harder and added many more formal assessments.
2. Don’t teach in new ways and assess in old ways, add frequent low stakes assessments
The other tip that changed the flipped game for Stealth was her approach to assessment. In her first implementation, she used the same approach to assessment that she had in her traditional class. Students had three midterm exams and a final exam. In her second implementation, however, she added nine weekly quizzes plus a portfolio project in addition to three midterms. She administered the quizzes with Scantrons.
Nine weekly quizzes? WHAT? Certainly this would cause a revolt?
It seems not. Students have indicated that the quizzes have motivated them to change their approach to learning – ie. not cram before the midterm. This is also reflected in their viewing patterns. Figure 1 shows Stealth’s students’ lecture-video viewing patterns for both semesters in the week before the second midterm. Observe that in the first implementation (Fall 2012) there was a huge spike in views in the week before the exam, which was not the case for the students in the stealth flip class (Spring 2013)…they were watching all along.
Engagement and less student resistance is not the only outcome that Stealth is realizing through these two tweaks. She has also observed a gain in the average on the first two midterms, as demonstrated in Figure 2. One thing to note is that the exam in the stealth flipped class was significantly harder than Fall 2012 exam.
As Stealth says, “there’s such a difference in the spring class. I think these two points are important because they counter a couple of orthodoxies–that you should tell students they are in a flipped class to encourage buy in; and that you can’t do low stakes assessment in a large intro class because the logistics are too messy. ” For a more detailed version of how she runs class based on these two ideas click here.
In closing, my original question about whether students will attend class if I put all my lectures online seems trivial. Who cares? The real question is will they learn to learn better and will they show greater success in so doing. It seems with these two key yet simple tweaks, they just might.