The shift: Students turn challenging concepts into learning resources
To engage students with course concepts, Dr. Simon Bates asked them to produce their own content. In PHYS 101, students created a learning object that helped explain a concept or idea from their pre-readings. In this enhanced flipped classroom, students moved from passive consumer to active producer and course collaborator, learning—and teaching their peers—by creating course content.
For years, PHYS 101: Energy and Waves has used a flipped classroom approach. Students were asked to complete the pre-readings ahead of class time, and their level of understanding was checked through an online reading quiz.
Bates noticed that several weeks into the course, many students were still struggling with basic concepts. When he asked students how they prepared for class, he found that many students did not do the pre-readings. He was concerned that his students weren’t maximizing what they could learn during class time.
Bates wanted to come up with a way for students to deeply engage with the readings. He had previously used PeerWise, an online tool where students wrote their own assessment content by creating multiple choice questions. Bates was impressed by the results and saw the huge potential and benefit of student-produced content. He looked for a way to expand the idea of students as producers.
Introducing learning objects
Bates asked students to create original learning objects about a concept or topic in the readings which they found challenging. Students were encouraged to be creative and pick a topic that interested them. Learning objects could be clicker questions, example problems, videos, screen casts, PowerPoint slides, etc.
Creating learning objects was a way for students to learn, but it was also an opportunity to share their knowledge with their classmates. “The idea of creating learning objects comes from the [notion] that you don’t really understand something until you have to explain it to somebody else,” Bates says.
The idea was well supported by the Physics Department. As Bates describes, “There is quite a culture of innovation and trying things within that department, so they were open to the idea.”
Bates and his fellow instructors piloted the project in January 2014 in three sections of PHYS 101. Students created learning objects several times throughout the semester, on a rotating basis. Around 100 to 200 learning objects were submitted each week, and the instructors shared and used the best learning objects in their lectures and tutorials. Twenty percent of the final exam was also comprised of student written problems.
In order to create a collaborative learning community, students were asked to apply a Creative Commons license to their objects, so others could access and learn from their resources.
The teaching strategies
The revamped course was built on a flipped classroom approach. Students were assigned pre-readings, giving them exposure to content, principles, and ideas ahead of class. In order to maximize class time, students came prepared having read the content.
Students as producers
The students as producers approach enhanced the flipped classroom by asking students not only consume content, but also create their own content and collaborate in the production of knowledge. Students had creative freedom to produce a learning object that explained a challenging concept, enhancing their learning as well as their peers’.
The learning objects that students produced were also of great value to their classmates, who may have been struggling with similar ideas. Bates explains that the goal of the learning objects was to “teach yourself something about the material you don’t understand and represent it in a way that it can be used and useful to teach or help others understand the same topics.”
After introducing students to this new method of learning, Bates admits that students struggled with the task. “It’s hard to understand what you don’t know about something and why you don’t understand it,” he says. He added that he was initially concerned students would simply replicate a problem found in a textbook, rather than delving deeper into the concepts.
To ensure that students created high quality learning objects, Bates, along with other instructors and teaching assistants, supported students throughout the task. They provided guidance and helped students develop an idea to understand the concept or solve a problem.
Students ended up producing learning objects that thoroughly impressed the instructors. “Much of it was really creative,” Bates said. “We frequently saw things being submitted by students that had all the instructors thinking, ‘That’s a really neat way of doing that.’ And it made us want to use that in our lectures when explaining it to other students.”
After implementing the students as producers approach, Bates spoke about how important it is to view students as more than consumers of knowledge. “Students can be really effective collaborators and creators of learning material.”
He also saw the benefit of allowing students to be creative and choose a topic and medium they want to work with. “I think that was really important for their motivation, because it allowed them to tap into things they were interested in.”
Bates was surprised by the amount of creativity his students displayed. One student decided to do his learning object on how colour perceptions underwater change with depth. The student—who is a scuba diver—filmed underwater video footage with a GoPro camera, demonstrating how certain wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum are lost in greater depths.
“It was a really nice way of making real world connections between the problems and theory that he was doing in the physics classroom, and something that actually mattered to him outside of his life as an undergraduate student doing a physics course,” Bates said.
Bates is analyzing data from quantitative feedback from students, based on short questionnaires they filled out when submitting their learning objects. He aims to measure the benefits of creating learning objects and how they enhance student learning.
He hopes that the students as producers approach will be taken up in other courses. Bates mentioned he would be interested in seeing the method used in upper-level courses, where he thinks it could provide a big value.
“We’re missing a huge opportunity simply thinking of students as consumers of the content we [as instructors] produce or curate. They can produce their own, and they’re capable of producing really great stuff,” he said. “Students can act as really powerful agents and collaborators towards their own understanding and that of their peers as well.”
Dr. Simon Bates is the senior advisor, teaching and learning and academic director at the UBC Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology. He is also a professor of teaching in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, where he teaches the PHYS 101 course.