by Scott Sell, Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering; Program Coordinator in Biomedical Engineering
For a long time I had wanted to “flip” one of my classes. It was a pedagogy that I was intrigued by, where students are exposed to a significant amount of content prior to class through reading, exercises and videos and then use the class time for supplemental instruction, and was something that I had dabbled in a couple of times with typically poor results. Then, in the 2018-2019 academic year I had the opportunity to participate in the Reinert Center’s Innovative Teaching Fellowship and with the help of their instructional developers I jumped in with both feet. I wanted to share my experiences in modifying and delivering this course as we head towards uncertain teaching and learning scenarios for the Fall of 2020.
The course I changed was a senior level advanced elective in Biomedical Engineering, BME 4650 Quantitative Physiology II. It was the second part of a two semester sequence of physiology taught for engineers. The course is a combination of physiology content and calculations taught through the lens of engineering and medical technology development. My primary motivation was based upon student comments: historically they emphasized wanting to have more time to go over problems in the classroom. However, I was reluctant to give up class time where I would cover the physiology content to spend more time working through problem sets. As the instructor, I had seen that the engineering majors I taught typically had the ability to crunch through and solve problems on their own, with some guidance, but had a harder time grasping some of the complex physiology material independently. I thought that the flip-hybrid might be a good solution. It would move a large chunk of the technical content out of the classroom and allow more time for working problems and an opportunity to more effectively reinforce key content.
Comments that I commonly hear from faculty when talking about active learning strategies, or “flipping” a classroom are that it is not possible to do with STEM courses, or technical content-heavy courses, etc. etc. etc. because of the specific outcomes that they must achieve. I’m not a believer of that. I think that some of those courses can be best served by “flipping” or through active learning. My course, BME 4650 Quantitative Physiology II, was a senior level elective in Biomedical Engineering and as such was provided outcomes that must be achieved by our accreditation body. Our ABET (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) evaluation plan called for the achievement of seven specific outcomes (Table 1) for my course. While anecdotal, I feel that many of these outcomes were easier to achieve using a flipped-hybrid teaching approach.
Table 1. Learning Outcomes for BME 4650
|ABET Student Learning Outcomes|
|An ability to design and conduct experiments, as well as to analyze and interpret data;|
|An ability to identify, formulate, and solve engineering problems;|
|An ability to communicate effectively;|
|A recognition of the need for, and an ability to engage in life-long learning;|
|An ability to use the techniques, skills, and modern engineering tools necessary for engineering practice;|
|An understanding of biology and physiology, and the capability to apply advanced mathematics (including differential equations and statistics), science, and engineering to solve the problems at the interface of engineering and biology;|
|An ability to make measurements on and interpret data from living systems, addressing the problems associated with the interaction between living and non-living materials and systems|
As previously stated, this course contains a lot of technical material; both physiological process understanding and calculations and problem sets are essential to the coursework. We work primarily from the textbook, “Quantitative Human Physiology” by Joseph Feher, which is a fantastic resource but somewhat dense for undergraduate engineering students. Again, our engineering students can usually find their way through the problem sets pretty well on their own, but have a hard time deciphering the way that the physiological processes work without some instruction. My plan was to provide video lecture material on the physiology content and then to reinforce that in the classroom through activities and problem sets (Figure 1). Students would meet in class with me once a week and have several hours of video, quizzes, reading, and preliminary problem solving outside of our scheduled class time. This would allow more time in-class to work problems (which the students wanted) and allow me to focus on reinforcing some of the complicated physiology content (which the students needed).
Figure 1. The course plan for the first few weeks of my hybrid BME 4650 course. Each week students had video content and quizzes to do at home, followed by reinforcement activities and problem solving in class.
At Home Instruction (Videos / Quizzes):
Each week students had a series of videos they were required to watch. I tried to keep videos to 10-15 minutes a piece in length, even though they may have 3-6 of them to watch. These videos were followed by required quizzes through Blackboard. The quizzes were a small part of final grade (10%), but a big part of their learning. It ensured that they watched the videos and helped them to identify the key content and material. Somewhat surprisingly, they were very invested in the quizzes. They came to class asking “Why is this wrong?”, “I don’t understand this question” “You screwed this up. Here is what I think is the right answer”.
Did they all watch all the videos? Definitely not, but most of the students quickly realized that it was necessary for them to be successful and learn anything in the course. Some felt this in their grade (even though the quizzes were a small part of it) and others felt it when they were placed in a group work situation and had no idea what was going on. The video lectures were the primary way of them seeing this new information. I was not going to spend in-class time going through that material again. In-class time was for reinforcing the concepts, not introducing or reviewing.
In Class Instruction (Reinforcement Activities / Problem Sets):
My favorite part of the flipped-hybrid model was developing the content for the in class instruction (it was definitely NOT recording video lectures). I really felt like an educator then, not just a lecturer. I was creating active learning modules that were driving home and reinforcing material that they had already seen, not just reciting information from a textbook or PowerPoint slide. The students had already seen and been exposed to the week’s material and were ready to see it in action. That was fun. Each week I had some sort of active learning experience (group work, lab, data collection, etc.) as well as some problems to work through. Much of this was scripted, but I also included time to go over sticking points from the video material. Based upon previous years, I had a pretty good idea where these sticking points would be, but the students always enjoyed being able to bring things up and discuss them in class.
Anecdotally, I think it went really well and helped student learning. I haven’t compared data and scores from years pre-flip to post-flip, but student comments from the past two years have been very positive. They almost all uniformly enjoy this style of learning and felt that they learned better this way. An interesting thing to point out is that the first segment of this course, BME 4600 Quantitative Physiology I, which is a pre-requisite to this hybrid-flipped course, I teach in a traditional style. Nearly all of my course evaluations the past two years say they would prefer if I taught both segments in the hybrid-flipped format.
Some lessons that I learned while flipping that might be of value to someone considering undertaking such a redesign to a course:
While initially terrified, I found that I really enjoyed the flipped classroom approach. I had tried this in small doses a couple of times prior to this experience and it didn’t go well. Basically I didn’t know what I was doing and just did everything wrong. I recorded huge, long videos. I didn’t reinforce that content appropriately in class. I caved when students complained and reverted to their “preferred” (i.e. comfortable) lecture style. I found that being open with the students is important. Tell them why you are teaching in this format, but then stick with it. Don’t cave. It’s important and valuable to listen to their input and critiques as you navigate this process, but don’t just scrap it or bounce back and forth.
I didn’t have to be perfect in my video lectures. I spent a lot of time making videos (which is part of the reason I was initially terrified), and a lot of time editing videos. I wanted my video lecture to be perfect. No awkward pauses, or ummmms, or stumbling over my words. I found that unless I made a total fool out of myself the students didn’t care about perfection. They were trying to learn material, not pick apart my speaking skills. Also, I’m not perfect and eloquent in the classroom, so why should they expect that in my video lectures? Regardless, some editing is always necessary, and Camtasia and its video editing saved days of my life.
Somewhat surprisingly, I found that the students really didn’t want more problem solving time in class. They all commented that they were OK with the problem sets and wanted more activities. I think that students originally stated that they wanted more problem sets worked in class to help them feel like they really understood the material (i.e. “If I can solve this problem then I must know the material”). When they realized that the reinforcement activities were really what was driving home the content that is what they asked for more of.
Most of the students felt they were more prepared when they came to class. They had a general working understanding of the concepts and weren’t blank slates when they came to class. Because of this there were very few complaints about workload outside of class. They liked the freedom to learn on their own time at their own pace. Students admitted to listening to my lectures while at the gym or in the car. They could speed lectures up, or slow them down, or rewind them to parts they didn’t understand.