Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Flipping Lectures

(Reflections on a life in science: #9b teaching at a university)

This is the second instalment of my end-of-career reflection on undergraduate teaching and learning – or, rather, on a few of the ‘experiments’ I undertook in that context.

Final year projects are often regarded as the highlight of a student’s time with us and I was fortunate in having a leading role in defining their ethos. They offer the scope for genuinely open-ended high-level research, albeit necessarily time-limited and confined to areas in which there’s a suitable academic guide. Although still applicable to the minority of students, it has always encouraged me to see how many of them achieve enough work of a high enough standard to find its way into co-authored research journal papers. For the four-year masters-level degree programme, wherein the project constituted half of the final year and was therefore a ‘big deal’, a particular innovation was the introduction of ‘role play’ into their summative talk. I set the whole thing up as though it was a research conference: abstract booklet, tight timetable … and the pièce de la résistance: bringing someone in to film the whole thing and then using the footage to provide feedback. From its inception, this conference model had the effect of encouraging students to raise their game. One of the most common student feedback comments established that this was simultaneously the scariest and also the most exhilarating part of the whole exercise. Even now, a decade or so later and after successive generations of our external examiners have praised the practice, my old department remains almost unique in offering the experience.

Getting a pat on the back is usually fun, and my one-and-only entry into the Faculty awards process yielded sufficient prize money to purchase the camcorder, microphones and other kit needed to consolidate the longer-term use of video-recording as a teaching and learning tool. However, whilst I gladly left all that kit behind me when I retired, I made sure to bring home the mugs presented to me in the annual awards made on the basis of student nominations.
In some senses however, the role-play idea only really took flight in the context of the group projects undertaken by our three-year BSc students. Groups of six or so students would each settle on a topic to work on and then elect a Project Manager who would ‘pitch’ the idea to me – in my role as CEO you understand. Once we’d agreed the overall scope of the work they would define their objectives in writing, including work allocation frameworks, a rational Gantt Chart and so on. From that point onward I would interact only with the Managers (- unless something went horrendously wrong, which was exceptionally rare); progress was monitored via the minutes from their weekly meetings. Key to embedding this role play was to convey the idea that the group succeeded, or didn’t, as a group: at assessment, marks were given to the group rather than to the individual (- again, with rarely-invoked safeguards). Furthermore, peer assessment played a part; for instance, a group’s presentation at the end of the whole thing – also recorded for feedback by the way, subject to all the appropriate ethical permissions – was evaluated by the other groups. There was an unmistakable ‘buzz’ to these group projects. A fairly natural development became possible about three years ago when an admirable colleague (George Dobre) secured pump-priming funds from the Institute of Physics to create links between our students and industry and other external organisations. The whole group project concept is now set within joint work with a variety of places ranging from the aerospace industry to the NHS and local museums.

The group projects also provide me with my final example, which deals with the matter of teachers learning from their students. A group had decided to work around the topic of science in movies, and they expanded on this by designing a demonstration experiment projectile motion to illustrate one particularly poor bit of ‘Hollywood physics’. They trialed their experiment in a local school and with their first-year peers, and got some very positive feedback. I was so taken with what they achieved that I began to incorporate and develop the use of movie clips, snippets from newspapers etc. in my own teaching in order to try to spark discussion and analytical appraisal. Within a year I was extolling its virtues at teaching conferences. Somehow, a journalist in the USA heard about it and wanted to incorporate the idea in an article he was writing. Thankfully, the student group’s project manager was still around, by then as a postgraduate research student, and we jointly participated in a 45-minute ’phone interview with the journalist. The story made the front cover of the magazine, which was nice – but the bigger story remains centred on the long-term contribution made by my students on the way I presented physics to their succeeding generations. Such fun.
Science News was, and I believe still is, an American science magazine published by the Society of Science and the Public. The group project manager whose team kicked this whole thing off contributed hugely to the interview; she is now a lecturer in physics herself (here).
My innovative swansong was a move away from the more conventional lecture, which was an experiment unnervingly described as ‘brave’ by several colleagues. Having made audio recordings of my lectures for several years so that students could download them for revision (and perhaps for other good-natured purposes - see YouTube clip here) it was a natural step to volunteer to join the small team spending a year testing out the proposed new system for video-recording lectures. The trial went well; it was relatively easy for the lecturer to use once we’d ironed out the bugs, and my students loved it. Interestingly, the fear that students would simply not attend lectures, in favour of simply watching online, never materialised: evidently, the ‘live show’ is still worth getting up for. With a couple of years of video-recorded lectures in the digital bank, a tempting new experiment became feasible: FLIPped lectures. This is an approach which, in essence, has students study the next bit of the syllabus at their convenience in advance of the timetabled ‘lecture’ slot, and then use the face-to-face time they have with the lecturer to explore aspects they couldn’t fully understand, work through related problem-solving exercises and so on. My students had been asking for more supported/guided problem-solving work for quite a while, but the traditional timetable simply couldn’t accommodate extra sessions; FLIPping the lectures not only made this possible, but re-enforced the value of personal study and of studying alongside friends. There was additional support via small-group Peer Mentoring sessions (here) for those who wished to avail themselves of it. This was a scheme I introduced into the department a few years earlier within which, after some training, more experienced students held learning support drop-in sessions for their early-years peers. As for any novel approach, and arguably especially for a scheme that dropped altogether the teaching philosophy endemic to most of their education hitherto, there were a few sceptical students. However, on the whole the feedback was overwhelmingly positive; this was underlined by the end-of-year results: for the first time, as far as I can recall, absolutely no-one failed the FLIPped module. I’m delighted to say that a handful of my ex-colleagues are taking this approach forward within their own teaching; it’s good to know that there is a positive legacy.
This screenshot from my university’s e-learning web pages reveals a further legacy in that a few minutes from one of my own lecture recordings is still used to demonstrate the software to aspiring lecturers; quite flattering really.
I have studiously stayed away from any attempt at a review or appraisal of the more generic aspects of teaching and learning developments during my career: it’s a huge topic and would need far more space than is practicable this pair of blog posts. It is perhaps sufficient to note that I began teaching using a very conventional ‘chalk & talk’ approach – almost unaltered since before I was a student in the early ’70s – within which the technology was limited to the occasional use of an overhead projector. Students took handwritten notes; there were almost no handouts and neither were copies of the notes or other support material available on the internet (which simply wasn’t available then, any more than PCs were). However, as I pointed out in the first instalment of this two-part reflection, as ICT capability and capacity developed so it became possible to explore and exploit its potential, and by the time I retired video-enabled FLIPped approaches could readily be realised – along with a fast-emerging use of smartphones and …

Earlier posts in this series:
1) The Girt Pike – beginnings and transitions.
2) Do Labels Last a Lifetime? – people and other influences.
3) Nomadic Research: random walk or purposeful journey? – a timeline in research.
4) Tools of the Trade – instruments and gadgets.
5) Suitcase Science: travelling in hope – tales from a travelling scientist.
6) Why so many? – gender balance in the research team
7) Committees: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly – making things work: discussion, consensus and decision?
8) Large-scale Facilities for Small-scale Science – the big ‘toys’ I’ve helped to build and to nurture
9a) Experiments in Teaching and Learning – teaching at a university (part 1)

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