Flipped Classes Part 3: Do's and Don'ts of Getting Student Buy-In

 The first time I heard about the idea of flipped classes, I thought they were incredibly stupid. "But then they're not teaching you!" I said. Obviously, my perspective on this has changed. I now often reflect on why I started out with that perception, and I can almost surely point it to how it was described to me.

At the time, I was an undergraduate student working in the on-campus tutoring center. The department was piloting a flipped version of one of the courses for which we get many students in the tutoring center. One of the students who was in this class was in the center one night asking for help. She described the course as the students having to teach themselves from the videos and then they just do homework during class. Looking back, I doubt this was actually the instructor's plan nor was it probably the way it was explained to students. However, this was how that particular student understood it and explained it to me.

I tell you this story to illustrate how absolutely vital it is to get student buy-in from the start. If they don't understand what the format is and why it's beneficial to them, then the whole semester is going to be an uphill battle. To help you avoid this, here are a few Do's and Don'ts for getting student buy-in.

Don't tell students it's an "experiment"

Students don't want to feel that they're being experimented on for something as important as their education. They want to know that they are being taught in a way that is going to support their learning. This is especially vital for service courses and doubly-especially vital for courses with a high prevalence of math-phobic students.

If this is your first time teaching a flipped class or it's the first implementation of a flip for that particular class, you should be honest with students about that. They should be giving you feedback along the way to help you continue to improve the course. Just be clear that even with that new-ness, the model is well-established and based on a ton of research that shows how effective it is. In fact, you could even share that research with them. Most students won't go read it. But knowing that it's there helps put students' minds at ease that this model of learning has been carefully studied. 

Do give clear and consistent expectations

Even though you haven't assigned more total work to students, because you read Part 1 and Part 2 where I repeatedly emphasized this, there are still more different kinds of work and therefore there is more for students to keep track of. Flipped classes can feel very chaotic to students at first. Consistent schedules and clear communication about expectations can go a long way towards helping students fall into a rhythm so they can just focus on the learning.

I usually add in some sort of extra-detailed schedule, and my ideal setup is to email students regular updates on what they need to be doing and when. After many semesters of tweaking it, I think I've found my favorite setup this semester. Every Sunday morning, I send my students an agenda for the week. I usually add a couple of important announcements to the top (things like "Exam 2 is on Wednesday" or "The first Tuesday assignment is due this week"). After the brief announcements, I list each day that week and then what they must/should/can do on that day. The "must do" is always just class meetings and homework that is due that day. On the "should do" list, I include office hours and homework that is due soon but not on that day. The "can do" list contains things that are upcoming but not immediately due, so this is mostly for the days when a student wants to get ahead. I have reason to believe students are really using these lists, so I think it's working so far. It doesn't take much extra time for me, and if I was really on top of things, I could even schedule them all out at the beginning of the semester! I will definitely be continuing this in future semesters.

Don't spend the first day reading the syllabus to them

The first day of class sets the tone. Remember: actions speak louder than words. If you spend the first day of class telling students about how they are going to have to do things during class, then they will still get the message that you will be doing a lot of the talking. The students need to be doing something active on the first day. It can be related to the course content, it could be about the syllabus, policies, or course website, or it could just be for fun. As long as it gets students engaged, it will send a more clear message about what class days will look like. 

I've done lots of different things in different classes. I like the idea of a syllabus scavenger hunt, but I haven't actually implemented this myself. Maybe in a future semester! I try to do some getting-to-know-you activities for students to get to know each other and for me to get to know them. There are some lovely Desmos check-in slides that I used this semester and enjoyed. In classes like calculus that are jam-packed with material, I try to do a review activity on the first day to ease students in before we start on actual new material on day 2. It really depends on the class, so try out different activities!

Do consider some instructor-led direct instruction (i.e. lecture)

This may sound counter-intuitive coming from the person that's just spent two and a half posts telling you about getting students to do activities during class, but in terms of student buy-in, a little bit of lecture can go a long way. Students feel more comfortable when they are shown what to do. It can also help get over the "we're teaching ourselves" hurdle if they see you teaching them (or rather, what their prototypical image of teaching is) live in the classroom.

And when I say a little, I do mean it. Consider just going over one example live as a class. Then, give them three similar problems to try that incorporate new elements, so students have to think beyond the example. Think of it as part of the scaffolding. Which practice problems you choose and the order you put them in all matter. They should be designed so that students build their knowledge from one problem to the next. Doing an example all together as a class can just be the first part of that scaffolding to lay the foundation for the learning they will build by doing the practice problems.

Don't overload students with work

I've said it before and I'll say it again: flipping a class is not as simple as adding more assignments for before class. You must be aware of student time when designing your flip. In fact, by moving around the time you ask of students, you'll be decreasing the amount of homework that students have to complete after class. Even though they still have pre-class assignments and they have to actually do work during class, this change in the amount of homework can build so much buy-in from students.

I recently flipped calculus 2 a few times. In both cases, the total homework (pre-class activities and after-class homework combined) was not far from the standard homework load, but it was certainly still less. However, because we did so many practice problems during class, students were getting more total practice. They noticed this! I've gotten so many comments from students in these classes that they greatly appreciated having fewer assigned problems outside of class and also that they could see how the extra in-class practice directly helped them learn more and do better on exams. If you show students that you value their time, they are much more willing to try new in-class activities and do the pre-class work to come to class prepared.

Do give them more work than they can finish during class (but don't require that it get finished)

See my teaching philosophy: everyone can learn mathematics, just not on the same day or in the same way. Students will work at different paces, and that's not a bad thing. It's just a thing. We want students to be engaged throughout the entire class time, even those that work more quickly than others. In fact, I believe that we lose a lot of really great budding mathematicians because we fail to keep them engaged when we implement one-pace-fits-all teaching methods. 

The second part of that is vitally important: students need to know that they are absolutely not expected to get through everything. Without this component, you'll just stress out the students who don't work as fast as their fastest classmates. I remember in high school, I had a friend that was in many of the same classes as me. One of us was always the first one in the class done with exams and activities, while the other was always the last one in the class done. We were often the highest two grades in the class. (Side note: we were lab partners in freshman biology. I'm sure our teacher was always amused at our dynamic, given our very different working paces and styles). I tell this story to point out that the slower-working student is not necessarily the student who doesn't understand. They're just the student that works slower. And mathematics is not a contest of speed (or, well, it shouldn't be).

Do normalize confusion and mistakes

Part of the goal of having students do work during class is having them go through the messy and often frustrating process of doing and learning mathematics. However, if students constantly feel that they are failing, then you are going to lose engagement. Students need to understand that making mistakes is part of the process and we do not expect them to understand everything right away. 

I've found that lots of students have this perception that they should be able to do the homework without a lot of help or confusion. And if they have trouble with it, then something has gone wrong. Some respond by deciding they haven't been taught this, while others respond by getting discouraged and thinking something is wrong with them. Both are situations to avoid. I've been combatting this by being very explicit about the fact that homework is about practice. When students are working on homework - and also when they are doing in-class problems - they are still in the middle of the learning process. If we expected them to just know it right after watching a video or reading the notes or attending a lecture, then we wouldn't go through the work of assigning problems. We would just hand them the exam. Saying this out loud seems to help it click for students. Though, this perception is deep-rooted, so it can take a lot of repetition to really help it sink in.

I should note here that you are also going to make mistakes, and so have I. Flipping a course for the first time can be daunting, and it takes practice to find the system that works for you and your students. In part 4, I'll show you some actual lecture notes of mine that I am actually turning into a flipped lesson and I'll give lots of very concrete and practical tips along the way!


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