The biggest lesson from the flipped classroom may not be about math

Editorial note: This post was originally published on October 7, 2013. by Casting Out Nines for the Chronicle of Higher Education and has been republished here in its entirety. Robert Talbert is a writer for The Chronicle of Education, a mathematician and educator with interests in cryptology, computer science, and STEM education. He is affiliated with the Mathematics Department at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan and a guest blogger here at Higher Ed Hero.


For the last six weeks, my colleague Marcia Frobish and I have been involved in an audacious project – to “flip” our freshman Calculus 1 class at Grand Valley State University. I started blogging about this a while back and it’s been quiet around the blog since then, mainly because I’ve been pretty busy actually, you know, planning and teaching and managing the actual course. When I say “audacious project” to describe all this, I’m not engaging in hyperbole. It’s definitely a project – there are screencasts to make, activities to write, instruction to differentiate and so on. And it’s definitely audacious because at the core of this project is a goal of nothing less than a complete reinvention of freshman calculus at the university level. So, no pressure.

What’s surprised me the most about this project so far is one thing in particular I’ve learned about the flipped classroom and student learning. I think I already knew this, but it was not in as sharp of relief as it is now, having had “boots on the ground” for six weeks.

By far the biggest difficulty the students in the course have had so far has not been with mathematical content or even with the idea of flipped instruction – it’s with time and task management. Consider the basic Guided Practice assignment that is the backbone of how I do flipped classes. These involve reading and viewing in multiple locations (in the book and on YouTube), working out exercises, then typing up responses in a Google Form and submitting it by a certain date. I look at an assignment like that and go immediately into GTD mode – if I were in the students’ place, I’d go to Nozbe and create a project, put the individual tasks in it with contexts and deadlines, and put the final deadline on my Google calendar with a reminder.

But for students? Most of them simply try to remember what they need to do, and this is a terrible idea. The brain is an excellent tool for processing information but a terrible one for storing information. Students misremember what they need to do and when, or just forget it. As a result, the #1 negative comment about the class so far from student is having to “remember several different websites” for their work – which in fact is not the case, as there’s one website that puts all the resources and assignments within three clicks of each other. But in their minds, it’s not one project but half a dozen disconnected tasks.

So one of the things that the calculus course has been about this semester is how to manage complex information – not only in mathematics but in life. We’ve had to talk about how to put yourself on a schedule to get things done on time without procrastinating. I’ve even had to talk with a few students about how to use a calendar – they had actually never put a date into a calendar before! – and about the necessity of reviewing their calendars multiple times each day. I’m beginning to think that a good co-requisite for any flipped class is a mini-workshop on GTD principles, to train students how to think in terms of projects, contexts, and tasks and to free their minds up to work well.

Of course, as long as the meme persists that procrastination in college is fun and cute, this will be an uphill battle. But herein is one way that I think the flipped classroom is audacious and even subversive: it rejects the notion that college is about just barely getting by in the nick of time, and instead it promotes a personal model of staying on top of things and getting things done. This is  a form of self-regulated learning and something university students must absolutely master at some point, sooner rather than later.

Another thing I’ve learned, and I will go into this in depth later, is that some students have legitimate pathological issues with keeping up with information. For example, if there is a student somewhere on the autism spectrum, following directions can be a serious issue. But at the same time, the flipped class puts that student in control of the stream of information for the class, so there is an interesting and complicated tradeoff that takes place with students having some form of learning disability in the flipped classroom. But as I said, more on that later.


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