“I tried Peer Instruction and it didn’t work.”
Over the years, I’ve run into many different accounts of experiments in innovative teaching and flipped classrooms, not just Peer Instruction, gone awry. I have heard many refrains about clickers, “I tried clickers and it was a disaster.” About flipped learning with videos, “I tried it but my students didn’t watch the videos.” And even about the student engagement all-star, project-based learning: “I gave it a shot but my students perform better when I lecture.”
Of course, there are sundry reasons why one venture toward innovative teaching succeeds and another stumbles. I don’t claim to have the one answer or a lock on the perfect explanation. In this 3-part series, I will offer possibilities to consider if your teaching improvement efforts have come up shorter than you expected starting with reason #1 why I think flipped classrooms fail.
Reason #1 Not targeting students’ attention
One big measure of success in a flipped classroom is how well students perform on high stakes assessments. I believe one reason flipped classrooms fail in this way has to do with neglecting to adequately target students’ attention to the things they need to perform well on those high stakes assessments before they take them [Authors note: Added for clarification on 2/11/16].
People only learn and retain what they pay attention to and think about. If students aren’t performing well on assessments, one question to ask yourself is, “what are they paying attention to when they are preparing for those assessments?” The critical follow up to that is, “how am I directing students to hit the target…or the things I want them to learn and to be able to do?”
These targets are known as learning outcomes or goals. Many of us list learning outcomes on our syllabi and consider them when we write assessments. If we have time, we think about them when we select content and design lessons or assignments. Yet, generally, we direct students’ attention to content by telling them what to read (or watch), assigning related homework, talking about it during class, and then revisiting the topic only once through a test question or essay assignment.
The most powerful way to direct students’ attention is through that last strategy – assessment. However, that is the most infrequent thing we do – test students. And when we do test students, most of us do so only to measure learning, not to drive it.
Test-based learning, also known retrieval practice, is better way to direct students’ attention to the bulls eye. Retrieval is the act of trying to call something to mind and then successfully doing so.
Let’s try it: I am going to give you a retrieval cue and then you will call that information to mind.
What was the name of your first grade teacher?
Mine was Mrs. Brown. The act of successfully pulling that information from my mind is retrieval. The mental work to generate your teacher’s name is qualitatively different from reading the name on a piece of paper or looking it up on the Internet. And the exercise of retrieving content in an effort to learn it is called retrieval practice.
The trick to helping students’ learn, retain what they learn for the long-term, and even apply what they learn in novel contexts is to ask them questions that require retrieval of the key concepts that constitute your learning outcomes. You can do this in a variety ways – in quizzes, flashcards, clickers or other classroom response systems, immediate feedback assessment scratch offs, one minute papers, or any of the 50 Classroom Assessment Techniques by Angelo and Cross.
Warning: When designing retrieval questions, don’t get lured into asking things you don’t really care if your students remember or not. These are items around or outside the black ring of the dartboard, not totally unrelated but not critical. Sometimes we like to check to see if students have done their reading and we use verbatim questions as a stick, or to see if we can catch them not doing their work. Verbatim questions are ok, but only if they guide students to things you want them to learn.
For example, if we have assigned Pride and Prejudice as a reading we might ask students to identify Collins’ profession to determine if they did the work. He is in the clergy and you would have to read the text or watch the movie to get that and probably pay a little bit of attention. But his profession is tangential to the key themes of the novel. Successful retrieval is powerful, so be careful not to misdirect attention with unimportant verbatim questions.
I have to admit that it is demoralizing and painful to put intensive time and effort (always at the expense of other things that need your attention) into teaching improvement only to find no difference in how your students perform or experience your courses. Many students and teachers I talk to about student success suggest that aligning preferred learning styles is the answer.
Forget designing instruction based on students’ learning styles, an approach that has all but been debunked by the cognitive science research community. One reason flipped classrooms fail is because we don’t direct students’ attention effectively. If students don’t think about or pay attention to the right things, they won’t learn the right things. Direct their attention carefully and purposefully to get the pay off you are looking for.
Parts 2 and 3 of this series will explore additional pitfalls that may explain why some flipped classrooms fail despite our best intentions.