Instructor: Dr. Adrienne Williams
Course: Introductory Biology
Table of Contents:
In Fall 2012, Dr. Adrienne Williams taught a small experimental flipped section of a majors introductory biology course (approximately 75 students) to match a large, active-learning lecture of the same course (approximately 400 students) at UC Irvine. The class met every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and had 25 in-class meetings. This was the first time that Williams taught the course, but she had helped develop the materials, train the TAs, and had done experimental research in the class for the past seven years. The flipped class was taught without the aid of graduate student TAs, but with three undergraduate “tutors,” who helped with the grading of some of the assessments. At the end of the class, students across the two sections were compared based on the results of a post-class survey and assessment performance.
The student experience in this flipped classroom was composed of five main components: students would: 1) watch an online lecture before class 2) fill out a corresponding video outline distributed by the professor 3) take a 5-minute quiz on the video lecture before class 4) print out a lecture outline and bring both outlines to lecture and 5) participate in in-class learning activities coordinated by the instructor. While Williams is currently in the process of creating a MOOC on the Coursera platform; she flipped her Fall 2012 class with UC Irvine’s internal LMS: Electronic Education Environment or “EEE”.
Applications, extensions, just-in-time teaching, group work
Williams noted that “students in biology are good at memorizing but bad at higher level learning,” and therefore wanted to use out-of-class time for memorization and repeated practice, and in-class time to practice more difficult concepts. Similarly, she stated, “My main goal is for students to learn problem-solving in biology, not memorizing of biological facts. I flipped so I can spend time problem-solving with my students.” The video lectures that Williams created were 8-10 minutes in length (sample lecture video here); three videos were released per week, one corresponding to each lecture. Supplementary videos were also created as needed, such as this video addressing a highly-missed quiz question on osmosis.
In addition to watching these lecture videos, students were expected to fill out a corresponding video outline that featured the key concepts of the lecture video (sample available here). Williams explains that this exercise required students to memorize the information that they wrote down from the lecture videos. After watching the lecture and completing the outline, students were presented with a basic quiz. According to Williams, “The goal of the online quiz was to motivate students to watch the video, take notes, and learn at least the basics of the material. We also wanted to emphasize that there is a difference between "the basics" and the higher level of understanding that would be required on the exam.” To deter cheating, Williams wrote 15-20 questions for each lecture video and randomly assigned five to each student (example quiz screenshot available here). Students were then expected to print a second, “lecture” outline and bring it and the basics outline to the subsequent lecture. Williams reports that she also tried to use Piazza to initiate discussions around various questions outside of class. However, this virtual space eventually became an FAQ for the course because “students were tired and reluctant to answer extra questions.”
Williams reports that 85% of her class time was spent engaging students in active learning exercises, and that the remainder was spent giving more traditional micro-lectures. To ensure that students stayed focused and emphasized drawing in their notes, Williams banned laptops from class time, a move that students were surprisingly amenable to. Williams explained that coming up with in-class activities was the most difficult art of the course, and that she was “... jealous of Chemistry and Physics classes because students can do problem sets. Biology doesn’t have this because it’s all about stories and experiments. This makes it a lot more difficult to fill this time effectively.”
The primary active-learning activity Williams employed was presenting students with old exam questions. This process involved presenting students with a question and allowing them to choose an answer with clickers. After presenting the results, Williams would ask the students to “argue with their neighbors about the results” before asking them to click in again. If a majority of students were still getting the incorrect answer, she would discuss each of the options and ask students to explain why each was right or wrong. Since these questions were more advanced than what students had learned in the previous lecture, these exercises could be considered extension activities.
Williams also used application activities in which she would walk students through a research article relevant to the course material. She concedes that these activities were still given in a lecture format, but that they were now talking about more interesting applications including “interesting drugs, classic research, new research, etc.” that helped them practice skills such as reading figures and developing hypotheses. Students also participated in an index card writing assignment in which they answered a question relevant to the classroom discussion:
These cards were graded for effort by her undergraduate aides.
Students also watched various demonstrations, such as “how different motor proteins work in the cell.” Students also occasionally participated in competition in which students would have to go to the board and work out various problems. Group work was also occasionally assigned, and often involved students filling in various diagrams or tables such as those featured below:
About 80% of the students’ final grade came from proctored exams. Students received a modest amount of points for going to discussions, participation, completing the basic quizzes (students got points for each question they got correct, and the lowest three scores were dropped). Williams reports that consolidating students’ grades required multiple steps, but could be completed in less than an hour a week.
Williams reiterated the difficulty associated with flipping a Biology course when compared to other science courses such as Physics or Chemistry. In regards to the use of UCI’s internal LMS, Williams reports that she’s “really comfortable with our LMS so I’m not feeling the urge to switch to something better.”
Online quizzes were characterized as critical for encouraging learning before class. Williams reported liking the “variations” feature in the Coursera platform more than her own EEE platform, but she would be hesitant to move all of the questions to a new platform just to take advantage of this.
Williams reports that her flipped course was more fun to teach than a traditional course, and that it seemed to generate a lot more student interest: “students were awake, asking questions, and much more engaged. If I were asked to teach again, I would prefer to teach it flipped.”
According to their internal analysis of performance across the large lecture and small flipped course, Williams reports “We found a small but significant improvement in exam performance between students in the small, flipped course and a subset of the large, active learning class that was matched for SAT score, AP Biology score, % female and % STEM major. Students in the experimental class performed about 8% higher on the midterm and final than the active learning students. When each class was divided into half by SAT score, the lower-SAT group in the flipped group improved 13.5% from midterm to final, and the lower-SAT group in the active learning lecture improved only 6.1%.” The survey questions revealed that students in the flipped class spent slightly less time studying than for those in the large lecture, and that those in the flipped class spent about 1-1.5 hours prep for each class.
Williams reported that one of main challenges of her flipped course was to “remind students of the skeleton that all the concepts hang on.” In other words, Williams thought she could do a better job at unifying the “story” in a lecture rather than presenting them as disparate concepts. As Williams reports “Our first class periods were a collection of activities and old exam questions. They were grouped by topic, but we tended to just go from activity to activity, boom boom boom. After the mid-quarter feedback evaluations, we realized that even though students had done the note taking and quizzes, they still found it difficult to just leap into the first hard exam question.” To address this, she plans on “think(ing) about Bloom's Levels as we work through the material. We start with more mid-level activities - filling in tables, comparing two different elements of the cell. Students use their notes and get re-familiarized with all the material. We do not re-teach the material, but we are more careful to ramp up out of knowledge and do some comprehension before the more difficult analysis and evaluation work.
Her main piece of advice for professors planning to flip a new bio class is that they teach it first. She believe that teaching the course in a traditional setting first is necessary to better understand how the concepts fit together and how best they should be presented to students. Knowing common misconceptions is important to planning the in-class activities.
Williams reports that students really liked the video (which are just her voice overlain on a screen capture), the outlines, and the more active in-class activities. Students reported that they knew exactly what they needed to do to succeed in the class, and knew exactly what exam questions would be like.
Williams reported that students often weren’t able to answer the extension questions that she posed in class. She believes that this was due to the difficulty of the questions. Frankly, Williams considers this a strength of the flipped format. Students tend to feel that they fully understand the material after sitting through a lecture. It isn’t until they start to practice applying the information that they realize how difficult the concepts are.