Flipped learning skepticism: Do students want to have lectures?



This article continues a look at some of the skepticisms I’ve seen about flipped learning and the flipped classroom. Previously, we discussed whether flipped learning means having students learn everything on their own and whether students can even learn on their own in the first place.

This time I want to focus on an issue that was the third point in a good comment from a previous post about flipped learning. In that post, I was reporting about a framework for defining what flipped learning is. The authors of that framework laid out four “pillars of practice” for the flipped classroom, one of which was the creation of a learning culture — student-centered communities of inquiry instead of instructor-centered lectures. The comment on that was:

As far as creating a “learning culture”? Again, this was more possible when I worked at a 4 year school. It is possible to some extent, but in my developmental courses, I am trying to teach both content and thinking strategies. I have to teach students how to think critically before I can create a learning culture… and they fight me every step of the way. They really just want to have me tell them everything so they can study in the traditional way and get an A (or in the case of developmental, a P).

I have a great deal of sympathy with this because my first experience with running a flipped classroom was characterized by conflict. So was the second experience (same class, subsequent year). And even today I still get a nontrivial amount of pushback from students in a flipped classroom setting, usually for the same reasons.

Before I say anything else about this, I want to make two points clear:

1. Student resistance to a particular idea about course design or teaching does not mean that the idea itself is bad. It just means that students are uncomfortable and are trying to figure out what the rules are, and this manifests itself some times in conflict. The issue brought up in the comment, in other words, isn’t really a skepticism about flipped learning per se so much as a concern about getting it to work. For those who are skeptical about flipped learning because you’re convinced it will never work, keep reading:

2. Student resistance does not have to be permanent even if it’s widespread. I’ve found that students can change their minds about this, and it’s not because my students are any smarter or more mature than anybody else’s. This isn’t about intelligence or maturity but about communication.

Having said that, let’s deal with the issue: Students in a flipped classroom are rebelling because they want you to lecture to them and tell how to do everything so that they can earn a top grade in the class. Here are some responses to this issue that one could make. I would caution, though, as I wrote in this post that you should avoid getting into a public debate about your teaching choices — keep it private and one-on-one if possible, using public forums instead to present a positive message and to celebrate student successes.

First: It’s interesting that students might have complaints about a lack of lecturing, because many flipped classrooms have tons of lecture in them. For example, my flipped transition-to-proof class has 107 video lectures available for students, and more can be added on demand. Those lectures contain the exact same content as they would have if I were delivering them in class — and they’re better, because they’ve been edited. There is absolutely a lot of lecture going on in that course — just not during class meetings.

So unless you’ve specifically stuctured the class otherwise, it’s simply not the case that you are not giving direct instruction. It’s just that direct instruction in the form of a mass-transmitted lecture isn’t the focus of the class meeting any more. And why should it be? Which is harder, hearing about something or doing something? And if doing something is harder than hearing, wouldn’t students want to do their work with an instructor and a group of friends present to help, rather than hear about it with the instructor present and then be left to their own devices for the doing part? Wouldn’t it be better if you were doing the hardest part of the work when I am most likely to be able to help you?

I’ve found the above to be an effective counter to the student complaint that they are not being shown how to do things. It’s not factually true, for starters — but in fact it’s usually not even the real issue. Read on.

Second: Students want to earn a top grade in the class. Great! We’d like for them to be successul too. But of course the sticking point is the definition of “success”. As instructors, we’re looking out for students’ success in the long term. Getting an A (or “P”, etc.) in the current course is not a success if they forget everything they learned after the final exam and lack the problem-solving skills to move forward in the next class or in their careers.

We can help students understand this point by making our definition of “success” normative in the course — by way of the learning objectives we choose and the kinds of assessments we give.

I’ve written a lot about learning objectives. While the learning experience is more than just the sum total of the class’ learning objectives, it’s important to decide carefully what we are going to assess and then make those items clear to students. If you want to have a class with a stronger emphasis on process, then include process-oriented goals in your learning objectives and discuss those objectives with the students — and discuss why they are objectives. It sends a message when student see, on the list of objectives that the upcoming test is covering, a number of objectives that are higher up Bloom’s Taxonomy than just making calculations. If students don’t see any objectives, then they’ll default to what they think those objectives ought to be, which is 100% calculations just like those that were in the homework and the lecture. The instructor has the necessary job of setting the agenda.

Then, having made those learning objectives, it’s our job to give assessments that truly measure what we want to see. If you only ever assess basic rote mechanics in a math course, then the course is about rote mechanics — regardless of the instructor’s intentions. And by “assessment”, I would encourage folks to think of other ways of assessing students besides timed quizzes and tests — methods like clicker questions, Guided Practice assignments, application projects, and so on. If the only assessments we have are tests and quizzes, then students will focus on tests and quizzes and nothing else. Balance is needed if we want more.

Third: There’s an interesting thread in this kind of student reaction that combines where students have come from in their mathematical education and where they think they are headed. I said above that the lack of lecturing isn’t usually the real issue with students — mainly because there’s no factual basis for it. Instead, I think the issue is uncertainty. Students have made it to where they are, mathematically speaking, because they’ve acclimatized to the lecture model. Changing this model violates their expectations and introduces a lot of uncertainty — and conflict can be a coping mechanism.

There are a couple of things that an instructor could say to a student who is feeling this uncertainty.

If the student is in a remedial mathematics course, you can simply ask: So, you’re used to having the instructor show you what to do, and then you do it. How is this working out for you? This isn’t snark (or at least it shouldn’t be) but rather an honest question about the effectiveness of the teaching method that the student is clinging to.

If the student is in a non-remedial course, you can ask: Let’s look beyond this class for a minute and think about what you’d like to be doing five, ten years from now. How does a person who does the same things, become successful? For example, say the student is an engineering major. What does a successful engineer do, and how does she get that way? Or what about a doctor? Or a stay-at-home mom? Or an electrician? If the student doesn’t really have a clear idea about the answer to that question, it would be a good exercise to have the student go do some web research or talk to other professors to find out. And once they do have an idea, what ought to be clear is that just having someone tell you what to write on a test isn’t enough. And since we want students to be successful, operating a class in such a way isn’t enough, either.

This doesn’t necessarily eliminate students’ uncertainties or discomfort, but it at least puts it in perspective. We want students to be successful. (Do we tell this to students often enough?) And that means equipping them for what life will demand of them, which is not a laundry list of content. That’s why the class is designed the way that it is.

I want to encourage anyone in this situation not to give up hope and not to beat a hasty retreat. In fact your students, if they are acting like this, are exactly where you want them. They are primed to learn something about learning, and about the value of learning versus the value of grades. Conflict stinks, but this is a pretty exciting moment if you’re an educator.

Author Bio: Robert is a mathematician and educator with interests in cryptology, computer science, and STEM education.