Biology Below The Gnat Line

Biy'allogy - (n) the scientific discipline otherwise known as biology, as taught below the Gnat Line. This blog is for educators who teach science in the deep south, where social and political conservatism reign supreme and "evolution" is a cuss word.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Flipping Out

It seemed like I'd tried everything to engage my students and get them to learn the material. Biology is difficult. Nobody denies that. But I thought if I could just get them interested, if I could inspire them, if I could engage them, they could master the subject. I'm inspiring! At the very least, I'm pretty to look at, right?

I showed video clips in class and uploaded the links to Vista (later D2L) - they never watched them. I tried assigning homework that involved computer simulations to increase their ability to apply the concepts to real world situations - they didn't finish it because, "[my] directions were too confusing." I let them set things on fire in lab to demonstrate energy transformations - apparently they had no idea why I did this, despite the clearly printed objectives on the lab sheets. I used i-clickers to "close the loop" during lecture and reading quizzes to force them to prepare for class - these were moderately successful efforts but seemed to slow things down.

To be honest, I spent most of my time lecturing. I enjoy lecturing, and I consider myself an engaging and entertaining speaker. For 75 minutes twice a week (or 50 minutes three times a week) I stood in front of a group of bored, sleepy, frustrated or otherwise disinterested adults and tried to prove to them that biology is cool. Biology is AWESOME, you guys! Biology, is LIFE. I could talk about Biology all day because it's so dynamic and interesting! If they would just listen, take better notes, study harder, I was sure that I could get them through the material in the time allotted. I resorted to verbal tricks, "I'm going to say this again because it's important and might be on a test, hint hint!" It rarely worked. In a good semester, only half of my students failed. It was time to try something new.

Last year, I transitioned to fully “flipped” courses in BIOL 2611 (Microbiology) and BIOL 1108 (Introductory Biology II). This resulted in:

  • increased overall student success rates (proportion of students getting a C or better)
  • increased student productivity (% completed assignments)
  • increased concept comprehension (exam scores)
  • increased critical thinking skills (case studies)
  • increased student engagement (think-pair-share exercises)
  • facilitated the adoption of successful study skills (preparatory quiz scores)
  • exceeded benchmark for combined SLOs (final project scores)

At its most basic, flipped classrooms rely on tech-savvy students to watch an instructional video on their own time, at their own pace, and be prepared to participate in an activity during class. The activity should be designed to facilitate and reinforce student learning objectives. The following graphic provides a summary of the use of flipped classrooms in secondary education.

Flipped Classroom

Created by Knewton and Column Five Media

The technology required for flipping the classroom is no longer new (e.g. Khan Academy was created in 2006), and unlike their professors, most undergraduate students are "digital natives" who had computers in their kindergarten rooms, speak a language specifically designed for use on a mobile device, have their own blogs or Facebook or YouTube or Twitter feeds, and diagnose their medical maladies on Google before visiting the doctor. They don't want to sit and listen to me. It's boring. And while I don't indulge my students in their every whim, there is definitely value in meeting them where they are. And where they are is online.

There is no right way to do this - you will integrate new technologies and new programs into your teaching as you learn about them. I use D2L as an interactive platform because it's what EGSC uses. I use Khan Academy videos, YouTube videos, and record my own videos using Windows Media Capture, Camtasia, and Screencast-o-matic. I use case studies and worksheets provided by the textbook, and some from the NCCST or my own library. I design laboratory activities that reinforce the classroom activities and are applicable to the discipline (e.g. how to diagnose a staph infection in microbiology).

What I do NOT do is upload 75 minute videos of me, lecturing. Who wants to watch that?? Short videos are viewed more often, and videos that can be viewed on a mobile device are even more popular. Also, keep in mind that the textbook is often dense and hard for most students to read. If the reading assignment is difficult, the video is that much more important. Your auditory learners will be relying heavily on the video for information they cannot get from the textbook.

Sal Khan discusses a type of flipped classroom in his March 2011 Ted Talk

When creating classroom activities, consider your learning objectives and what kinds of students you may have in the room. As I mentioned, auditory learners have to hear or say something rather than read or write it. For this reason, oral presentations or discussions work well for them. Some students are tactile learners, and they must DO something. Experiments, games and building activities are most beneficial for these students. Typically, those who learn by reading or writing have always done best in academia, but recent changes in the K-12 curriculum reward memorization and filling in bubbles, rather than comprehension and analysis.

Some of the benefits of flipping the classroom have been unexpected. I am able to spend more time helping students navigate the experience of learning itself. I talk about learning styles and study techniques. We share stories and experiences related to the material. We create assignments together, we evaluate results together, and it feels much more collaborative. What right did I have to think I knew the best way to learn the material? What qualified me to know how fast or slow everyone should learn? My students know I'm not just on their side, but at their side. And it's better this way.

Lest you think I've gone soft in my old age, I still have fairly high expectations. Many of my students students go to nursing school, pharmacy school, or dental programs. We have begun to offer a B.S. in Biology with a rigorous curriculum, and those that transfer to other schools to finish their degree must make me proud and reflect my high standards. We don't hold hands and sing Kumbayah; this is biology class! But it's not your mama's biology class.

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