Trial and Error: Flipping the Flipped-Classroom Model

Instructors want their 750-student anatomy course to be more personal and engaging. Experiments include facilitating active learning in an online context.

February 6, 2019
 
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Trial and Error is a recurring feature from “Inside Digital Learning” that examines the successes and struggles of technology initiatives on campuses and in classrooms. Have ideas for future columns? Send them to [email protected]. And be sure to comment below the story with thoughts and ideas for this institution.​​

The Institution: University of Connecticut in Storrs, Conn.

The Problem: John Redden, assistant professor in residence, and Kristen Kimball, lecturer, co-teach an anatomy and physiology course that regularly enrolls 750 students each semester. Until 2016, standard procedure was to break the class into two groups, one for each instructor. Naturally, the pair struggled to cultivate anything approaching productive, stimulating personal relationships with individual students.

The Goal: Redden and Kimball wanted students to be able to engage each other in smaller groups and to experience course contents in more dynamic, engaging ways. They also wanted to find ways to reduce their daunting workloads and focus on helping students learn.

The Experiments: A semester schedule revamp prompted rethinking instructional design.

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  • Spring 2017: The class was divided in two, then separated into “breakout groups” meeting for active learning exercises at the same time in smaller classrooms. Sessions were led by students who had taken the class in previous semesters.
  • Fall 2017: Small groups met simultaneously in different parts of a single large classroom.
  • Spring 2018 and beyond: Students gathered in small classrooms to complete active learning activities face-to-face and also completed online active learning activities like guided drawing and discussion board prompts. Redden and Kimball call this model a "backflip," because it's the reverse of traditional flipped instruction, which places active learning in the physical classroom. Former students also led optional activity sessions outside of normal class time.
  • Fall 2018: Same as last year, with some course content offered via Top Hat.
  • Spring 2019: Redden and Kimball are experimenting with live-streaming purely online sessions.

The Challenges: Early experiments led to logistical headaches. Placing students into groups took time, as did ensuring that students remembered which group they were in, where they were supposed to go and how they could make up class sessions they missed.

Training as many as 50 former students for their roles as course assistant ended up feeling like “having two more classes almost every week,” Kimball said. “It was fun and interesting, but it was very hard to do.”

Creating physical materials for hundreds of students remained burdensome and costly even when sessions were broken up.

The Successes: Test scores have improved modestly, and student feedback on the changes has been “overwhelmingly positive,” Redden said. He places considerable value on students’ enjoyment of the course, which could lead to stronger retention of long-term memory and more interest in further pursuing the subject.

One of Redden’s ideas led to a new teaching approach he calls “collaborative testing.” Students first take their exams in the conventional way. Once they’ve been graded, they retake the exam with the opportunity to discuss the questions with their peers on the online platform. Students gain a deeper understanding of the exam’s contents, and they get more comfortable collaborating. Ten percent of their grade comes from the results of their second attempt.

Redden and Kimball are excited to expand the definition of “active learning,” which in their eyes isn’t synonymous with face-to-face education. “It’s more about sharing ideas versus this one-way presentation of information that’s coming just from the instructor,” Redden said.

Next Steps: Redden and Kimball want to create a completely virtual section that participates online with the face-to-face class. They've piloted it this semester with some students at the university's regional campuses.

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