kevin_cummins_2011Looking Back and Flipping Out
I experienced my first flipped classroom as a student. This was before YouTube. Actually, before most students had email. Professor Mathewson flipped his biochemistry class by assigning readings prior to each class meeting and using class meetings for interactive exercises and presentation of particularly complex processes related to the readings. The balance of time was reserved for addressing student driven questions and discussion.

I distinctly remember Dr. Mathewson describing his plans to teach science in elementary school after his nearing retirement. He was self-deprecating in his prediction of kids’ reaction to his presence. He was well over six feet tall, had a face that displayed a lifetime’s wear, and a serious demeanor. As desired, we did chuckle when he asked us to image him teaching science to 1st graders.

Professor Mathewson’s methods were novel to my cohort; some students viewed the approach negatively, without first considering why he instituted the approach. Mathewson was very serious about science education, so much so that he continued working on science education into his retirement. His pedagogy was very deliberate.

Many students realized that Mathewson expected us to engage the textbook every day. Students thought that meant we’d have to learn more material than could be covered during typical didactic lectures. Yep, they were correct. In hindsight, it is easy to see we needed to cover a lot to reach an appropriate depth and breath for a trained biologist. Mathewson probably knew that spending time lecturing on easily comprehensible material would cut into time for complex or difficult problems. During class he would lead deep discussions about specific issues that students brought up, to the benefit of the whole class. He could afford to do this because he had migrated the initial content delivery outside the classroom.

My classmates now think that Mathewson’s choices for the structure of the course optimized our work, that is, for those of us who planned on getting a solid handle on the material. For those hoping to only skim the surface, it wasn’t easy to game the system.

For the courses I have been teaching, botany and biostatistics, I have dropped a lot of material of secondary importance. This enables students to gain a deeper focus on core concepts. In general, I follow the recommendations of the American Statistical Association on what to emphasize. I also communicate with the biostatistics professors at the local universities to discuss curriculum and grading decisions. The workload is appropriate for a college course and is less than other at other universities, which cover more chapters in our textbook. However, the class moves quickly, material eventually builds on previous material, and it is very difficult to gain “points” without really having basic competence. There are no multiple choice examinations. For those reasons, students should wait to take biostatistics until they have an adequate amount of time in their schedule to study.

When I was an undergraduate, I wasn’t motivated by grades. I wasn’t planning on going to graduate school. I just had an interest in science. I read chapters that weren’t assigned and spent time in the library reading books and journal articles that weren’t required for coursework. To some extent, that helped me to immediately appreciate that Mathewson had efficiently facilitated the achievement of the goals of the course, by focusing our time on the difficult material and my time on the simple stuff.

I still spend a lot of time reviewing the scientific literature. Because of my interest in science, my parents gift me subscriptions to Science News and American Scientist on birthdays. However, my free time reading is dominated by science education literature.

Today, flipped classrooms are more common. In many courses, the initial content delivery now includes archived videos of lessons. I’ve used my own and a mix of my own and other’s videos. Coincidentally, there appears to have been a decline in the full use of textbooks as videos become increasingly utilized by my students.

The Core Repository and Class Pivot
In my biostatistics course, I select textbooks that cover a limited set of statical tools, making room to emphasize building strong conceptual frameworks. This promotes learning how to use statistical tools appropriately. It sets students up to easily learn specialized tools, as needed.

The textbook explains the concepts, then ties the concepts to the tools and examples. Throughout, the book adopts an optimum balance of constructivist structure; it is filled with question prompts where students actively engage the material. In my course, much of the classroom time is devoted to reviewing students’ responses to those prompts, in addition to spending dedicated time on the components that are particularly complex, subtle, or underemphasized in the textbook. The book is the primary vehicle for introducing much of the new material; the classroom is used for clarification and solidifying ideas.

For the last eight years I have made an effort to increase the focus of my college class time on difficult problems, hands-on activities, and collaborative exercises. Much of this was inspired by my experience as a K-6 science instructor. Bringing active learning in the classroom works well for certain subjects, but only when students are prepared. It can flop when they aren’t. Motivation and competing commitments are the major (reported) factors determining whether or not students prepare at Mesa College.

studentsworkingScience Education
As a graduate student I spent three years as a NSF Fellow with the PISCES Project. The PISCES project was a consortium project organized by science professors and professors from the Center for Research in Math and Science Education. There, we learned about the theory and realities of executing collaborative hands-on inquiry based science in K-6. The formal training set the foundation for me to have rich experiences as a classroom instructor,  as an educational technology developer, and with the program evaluation team. What I learned broadly impacts me everyday.

Some things I acquired are simple things not taught to college professors. Class management, for instance. Here’s a single example. Just migrating toward a student that is distracting the class, without looking at them, usually puts an end to the disruption without stopping the flow of the class. This was demonstrated to me in a second grade class. Works with college sophomores too. I like to constantly move around the room anyways.

Not everything we were doing in the K-6 classroom is applicable to the college population. My current research is on neurological structure and function and neurocognitive development in adolescents. Kids are not tiny adults. Brain structure changes and functions differently as we age. It should be no surprise that optimal approaches in the classroom differ between K-6 and college.

As a graduate student I took courses with one of the professors who applied many of the approaches we were applying in the K-6 classrooms. It was innovative.

We participated in many of discussions. Class meetings were lively and active. Unfortunately, there were only three class meetings where I expanded my knowledge with this professor. This was partially because the instructor openly paced the course to the least prepared students. That was coupled with the fact that many of the activities had learning objectives that could be reached much quicker with direct instruction. Actively studying the related literature imparted a greater knowledge and understanding of some concepts, which is how some of my fellow graduate students had already acquired much of the introductory content we covered in class. There wasn’t much time left over to progress beyond introductory material.

Discovery learning approaches are useful for modeling the practice of science, but it takes a lot of time to resolve a single concept, thus limiting what can be covered in a college semester, if used repeatedly. There are more class meetings in K-6 and topics are developed over many days and weeks. I try to bring a topic into the classroom on three occasions, which is very rare at the college level; It is not feasible without flipping the class.

I also structure the course so students can progress at their own rate. Each student’s curriculum is tailored for their needs and objectives.

I’m hypersensitive to the risks of jumping on educational trends before there is evidence that benefits apply to my students’ developmental stage and subject matter. I’m also constantly gauging the benefits and drawbacks of all the classroom leadership decisions. You can’t innovate without risks. When taking risks you have to be ready to adjust and change course when things don’t go as hoped. For the same reason, student buy-in is critical, because their willingness to be flexible when trying to adapt a lesson is important.

As a K-6 science teacher very little direct instruction occurred in my classrooms, at least not before students had engaged in a related activity. Didactic instruction occurred in small bites interspersed with reflective discussion or writing about activities that had just occurred. The activities were not open discovery learning, but where staged in ways to corral the students to achieve a particular learning goal. One of the “kits” I used was the 2nd grade level FOSS organisms kit. I still use parts of the kit in my botany class. As a group, second graders often do better at making connections with their own observations of the organisms around them than my college students, which is really interesting. Second graders always identify the production of waste products as a characteristic of living things, whereas college students don’t. My fresh college students often appear to stretch for the recollection of some list they memorized in high school. Second graders know dogs, cats, humans, rabbits all poop. So do my college students, but why don’t they list the production of waste products as a characteristic of living things, or at least of animals (~2/3rds of the time)? The two cohorts take different trajectories through the lessons, which is why I use only a small subset of kit activities at the college level. I use those that are developmentally appropriate as integrated parts of a college level curriculum.

The kit activities were hands-on, often collaborative, and inquiry driven. It was my responsibility to help foster connections between student-developed questions and the learning objectives requiring that I adapt, on the fly, as necessary. It doesn’t always go smoothly, but with skill, the rough spots can become teachable moments. The excitement of discovery makes the lessons that much more strong, when it does work.

My training under the PISCES faculty taught me that prior knowledge is incredibly important to address early. Students can have a harder time replacing incorrect prior knowledge than with retaining and comprehending knowledge of completely novel processes. This is one of the reasons I give many early prior assessments and formative assessments. It allows me to identify erroneous prior knowledge from the start, so students don’t have a difficult time progressing as we move through the material.

stairsInstructor Feedback and Assessment
Most of my initial assessments require students to write. Because of this I can quickly identify misconceptions. Because I often use authentic assessments, students know that the concepts and tools are important in the practice of science. We apply the tools in real applications. We often work with real data and try to answer biological questions that the initial investigators posed, as well as questions that individual students develop. By the end of the semester my A and B students can write full research reports with appropriate analyses and interpretations.

We work on issues related to the interpretation of data every week. Examples that are easily comprehended by naive students are used to highlight general concepts. Examples are a mix of contemporary, classic, and made up scenarios tailored to make a strong point. The guppy libation study is a favorite. Can you identify any problems with the interpretation or how to redesign the study to allow for improved interpretation? Many students can. This is because they know something about the system being studied. These sorts of errors can go unnoticed when researchers don’t know much about a system. That’s common in cutting edge science. Using blatant, but sophisticated, examples provides a platform for students to form strong intuitions about scientific principles.

We walk through how to apply concepts presented in the text to each of the examples. Comprehension is evaluated immediately with class discussions and embedded assessments. Transfer of the concepts is assessed at the class meeting following the introduction and discussion of the related material. We try to review answers the same class meeting. Individuals get individualized written feedback by the following class meeting.

We evaluate science and medical reporting in the general press. These are often on topics that interest students. By the end of the semester, students will create a list of questions they should be asking each time they read about any scientific study to help them evaluate the strength of the interpretations that are being reported. I facilitate the creation of this list as we introduce each new example. Through corralled student discussion, students usually determine the key issues that should be considered based on their experiences with the examples. My primary contribution is as a discussion facilitator and having selected and sequenced the introduction of materials that bring students to recognize the importance of each issue.

I use a variety of assessment modes. I try to give students various ways to structure their learning and demonstration of their understanding. As an example, some students have been assessed on their understanding of the logic of significance testing with short-answer questions, presentations, simulation modeling, and literature critiques.

In my courses, assessments are learning exercises as much as they are both formative and summative assessments. Even the “final exam” can be followed up with a (limited) second chance.

Students don’t necessarily complete all the assessments. I would never keep up with that much reviewing, commenting, and grade entry. I run my class with a badge system. Once students demonstrate sufficient competency with a topic they earn an award for that topic. If they don’t get the topic right away they keep working on the topic until they develop a sufficient working knowledge of the topic.

Class Feedback
I formally seek out class feedback on the course throughout the semester. I do that because I want the course to work out for every student, which can be challenging to optimize when students come to the class with different goals and academic histories and experiences. The feedback helps me to understand the variety of barriers that are impacting students and identify issues important to each individual.

I assign student work groups. It is an evidence-based practice for collaborative learning. One semester I had several students vehemently opposed to it. It turned out that I had several couples in the class. The benefits of adjusting to the strongly expressed desires to self-select groups outweighed the benefits of assigned groups in that particular situation. I would not have know to make an adjustment without soliciting feedback and I would have had several students operating under unnecessary strong negative affect during class. I now explain the justification for the practice at the outset of the semester. I haven’t had any negative feedback on group assignment since then. If you have curiosity about any of the classroom practices, please ask.

IMG_3889A Focus on Student Learning Outcomes
I was a teaching assistant for seven different professors during graduate school. My favorite was Boyd Collier. Another teaching assistant, Sandra DeSimone, and I would constantly exchange glances during his lectures and acknowledge that we had just witnessed an incredibly succinct, lucid, well organized and articulated description of complex statistical topics. He focused on the important global topics using specific examples as support. Sandra and I already knew the course material because we had taken the course with other professors, years before. We were the only ones in the room who could recognize the greatness of Dr. Collier’s lectures.

Students would complain to us that he was a poor professor; we had reason to believe he didn’t get great student evaluations. Yet, his students were better prepared for the lab exercises than students enrolled in the lecture for the other professor teaching the course.

The other professor’s exams required memorizing some recipes without having to understand anything (students just needed to know how to compute, not understand). Many of his students would pass the course with deep misunderstandings and a lack of statistical literacy. One of his students ended up working for a colleague of mine at the City of San Diego. This former student would turn in reports that had fundamental errors in them, until my colleague asked him to just stop doing the reports. The most striking example was when he turned in a report with means that were greater than the maximums for a set of variables. The graduate argued with my colleague the the results as presented were correct, even though a numerical impossibility was being reported. The graduate didn’t understand some basic ideas and had an inappropriate confidence in his understanding of statistics. This graduate was let down by his professor.

Students should be given the means to develop core competencies, feedback on their progress, and clearly defined expectations for success. The award system in my course is closely weaved into an adaptive and iterative learning cycle tailored to each student’s needs. It doubles, if not triples, the amount of work that I do each semester. It is important, so I do it.

In my biostatistics course, I often bring in real data before it has been analyzed by others. It can take a lot of effort to develop sources for fresh data, but it is worth it. When students utilize tools from class and make novel discoveries, the impact is lasting because it is often their first experience with real attempts at scientific advancement. On the other hand, I’ve had plenty of examples where there weren’t significant findings. This can be disappointing for students expecting all problems to resolve smoothly, which is not what happens in real research.

I get emails from former students who outline how the course has been useful in their work. My hopes are for all my students to leave the course understanding important concepts, possessing useful skills, and ready for the next steps in their endeavors. I keep working on ways to facilitate the attainment of those objectives.

Kevin CumminslabreaKevinCummins
Adjunct Professor of Biology
San Diego Mesa College
San Diego, California