“For many of these flipped or inverted classrooms, it’s about a blend of material,” says Simon Bates, UBC’s Senior Advisor for Teaching and Learning and Academic Director for the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology.
Bates teaches Physics 101, a non-major course designed to focus on everyday observable phenomena, which has evolved over the past couple of years to offer this kind of experience for students. He is co-teaching a section of the course this semester with Assistant Professor Alison Lister.
Pre-class readings and reading quizzes, worksheets that have been specially designed to engage students in class, clickers and smart pens, which have a built-in camera and microphone and allow instructors to record mini-lectures on the processes behind solving equations, are some of the methods and tools that the instructors are using in the class.
A new feature that Bates introduced to the course this semester is PeerWise, a tool that helps students create their own multiple choice questions drawing from class material. “The idea behind it is that in order to come up with a good question you must really understand the content and the concept very deeply,” said Georg Rieger, an instructor and coordinator for the course. A few of these questions have been used on the midterm exams.
The Department of Physics and Astronomy has worked closely with the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (CWSEI) to implement and research the effects of using these methods in their courses. Rieger is the CWSEI director for the department.
One instructional technique that the course has imported from its use in the Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences department is the use of two-stage midterm exams. In these, students work on the exam individually for the first hour and then form small groups to discuss the questions collaboratively for the remaining half hour. Eighty-five percent of their grade comes from the individual exam and the rest comes from the group work.
“The engagement and the discussions are phenomenal,” Rieger said of observing his students take the exams. “If you observe the intensity, it is really high. This is, from my point of view, really peer discussion at its best.”
Rieger also said that after implementing the exams in his course last summer, students seemed to learn to trust each other more and were more engaged in class activities.
Since 2011, instructors have been working on integrating most of these methods into Physics 101, which has 790 students this semester. “This is now all one big package that, I think in combination, helps to use peer instruction so that the students learn from each other to really get good at problem solving,” said Rieger, who has taught the course during the summer term since 2004.
Bates said that his role in the course is more of a facilitator between activities and that he offers explanations when warranted, but he doesn’t deliver traditional lectures. In one class, for example, he estimated that he would stand at the front of the class explaining concepts or “lecturing” for about one-third of the time. “You’re the continuity announcer, rather than the program,” he said.
Rieger estimates that about half of the physics faculty use methods like these in their courses and that the number will continue to grow.
“It’s a lot of fun teaching this way, thinking about teaching this way, thinking about designing the next activity that would engage the students, rather than wordsmithing your PowerPoint slides,” Rieger said. “And I think we’re probably reaching more students this way.”