Daily Archives: March 28, 2013

Flipping Out: Reflections Upon Landing

Last month, I shared my plans for creating “flipped” library instruction sessions. Now, after wrapping up my last flipped session, along with several conversations with my colleauges, and the opportunity to co-facilitate a “Flipped Classroom” faculty workshop, I am still digesting and evaluating all that I have learned. However, there are a few key takeaways that are bubbling to the forefront of my mind and actively shaping the rest of my instruction this semester.

“Did you know the whole section would be about my topic?”
Or – Understanding the flipped classroom as a vehicle for active learning

As I planned my flipped sessions, I struggled with understanding how flipped instruction is related to “active learning” and/or “problem-based learning. The library instruction program at my university already places a heavy emphasis on incorporating active learning exercises into our sessions, and we regularly attempt to tie library instruction directly to the course research assignments. This means that as I worked on my flipped session, I found myself modifying some existing in-class activities to promote deeper levels of understanding, rather than starting from scratch.

In one class, I had enough time to ask first-year students to search the catalog for a book about their research topic, go into the stacks to find their book, bring the book back to class, and then debrief about the experience with their classmates. It was much more effective, and quite frankly more fun, to talk about LC Classification and Subject Headings after one student spontaneously exclaimed – “I picked TWO books about my topic because I realized THE WHOLE SHELF was about sports technology!”

After this experience, I’ve come to understand my flipped classroom as a vehicle for creating additional space for active learning in the classroom. Of course, there is no such thing as “the” flipped classroom, and other interpretations of the flipped classroom abound. For me, the providing students with a pre-class “lecture” foundation on which they can build upon with active learning in the classroom was more successful than trying to cram both tasks into the regular class time.

“Oh… those videos before class weren’t optional?”
Or – Students might not complete the pre-class work. And that’s O.K.

Of course, this ideal “flipped classroom as a vehicle for active learning” assumes students come to class prepared. And a frequent concern about the flipped classroom is: “What if students don’t complete the pre-class work?” Unfortunately, there will always be students who come to class unprepared, and considering what the consequences will be for students if they don’t complete the pre-assigned work is important. Our students are smart – they learn quickly whether preparing for class is really necessary. Designing in-class assignments which require the prior knowledge gained through the pre-class homework is one way to show students it’s worth their while to come prepared.

In practice, other “consequences” for failing to complete pre-class work may mean students must complete the pre-class materials during in-class time before they are allowed to continue to the more interesting and challenging application exercises. We know some students may still struggle through class, since exposure to the pre-class activities does not necessarily guarantee students achieved any level of mastery with the material. In my sessions, I tried to purposefully use group activities in-class to emphasize peer learning, assuming students who completed and understood the material could be models for students who did not. Additionally, students were encouraged to review pre-class video materials if needed, and to ask questions as they worked through their activities.

The short quiz I paired with my pre-class material helped me monitor how many students completed pre-class work and how well they understood the material. In each of my flipped class sessions, over 3/4 of the students completed the work before class; I considered this to be a relatively high success rate. It was also helpful to go into the in-class session knowing the bulk of the class had at least attempted the pre-class work and where the problem areas we really needed to adress might be.

“But… aren’t you going to talk first?”
Or – Students are also curious about the lack of direct lecture in class.

Students often comment in their course evaluations or session feedback that library instruction should include more time for activities and less time devoted to lecture. As a new instructor, I struggle with this for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that creating active-learning based instruction that allows students to “discover” answers to questions or build their own skills is frequently harder than falling back into the “sage on the stage” routine. Of course, there is also no guarantee that students will use class time appropriately when given the requested discussion or problem-based activities. So I was extremely interested to find out how students would respond to the lack of direct, in-class instruction in the flipped sessions.

During my first flipped class, I decided to give a “quick” review of the pre-class material before students started on their activities. Big mistake, since the “review” quickly turned into a regular lecture. However, during my second flipped class I simply asked students to come in and get started on their activity, reminding them they should work together and review the video materials or ask questions, as necessary. At first, they were confused about not starting with a lecture, however they eventually dove into the activity with success. And encouraging students to first attempt the activity allowed me to eventually review only the concepts that the majority of the class was consistently struggling with (for instance, correctly combining both “ANDs” and “ORs” in a complex database search). Overall, this session was much more enjoyable for both myself and my students, and it was one of the few times I left our session confident that class time was used to its fullest advantage.

Talking about teaching has value.

My final point of reflection is not limited to “flipped instruction,” but has grown out of conversations with my colleagues inspired by our participation in the flipped project. Given heavy instruction loads, faculty or student expectations, and other pressing projects, it’s easy to fall back into comfortable patterns of the same ol’ library session. Sometimes, simply carving out the time to talk about teaching seems like a luxury we cannot necessarily afford. Given the increasing emphasis on instruction in academic libraries, our mission to arm students with multifaceted critical information skills, and the trend toward providing evidence that our instruction adds value to the library and our parent institutions, deeper discussions about teaching and pedagogy can’t just be a luxury – they should be the reality.

I am lucky to have a job where I am encouraged to think about teaching, talk about teaching, and take calculated risks to grow as an instructor. Incorporating new pedagogical strategies like the “flipped classroom” is just one example of how this might happen.