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An attempt to articulate what’s missing

September 2, 2011

A lot of hard work and good ideas have gone into creating the flipped class I’m teaching. I do think there’s a good base to work from, but yet still I’m finding it hard to be at ease with it. So here’s where I’m at with the flipped class curriculum I’ve been asked to teach after week one.

First, a list of wants:

(1) I want the computer exercises that students are asked to work on to

(a) be at an appropriate level for what the students know and are able to do, taking into the account that they are working in groups and there is a diversity of knowledge, experiences, and backgrounds.

(b) match what the students have been asked read to before coming to class

(c) be understandable (at level of writing) and not filled with unnecessary wordiness

This week, they failed at a, b, and c. Many of the exercises were not within students grasp. Sometimes because they were outside what I would expect them to be able to do. Sometimes because they really couldn’t have been expected to take such things from the reading. Sometimes becomes the writing of problems was cumbersome, wordy, or confusing. Sometimes all of it.

(2) I want the problems I am asked to model to be an example that touches upon key concepts, not just be an example of how they might approach their problems to come.

This week, the problem failed to do this. I know that merely going through a problem, even as clearly as possible, would do nothing to help students understand the concepts of average speed and average velocity, and the difference between the two. In the class I observed, the example problem didn’t seem to help anyone on their problems anyway (and it was presented nicely, clearly and was also well broken down), so I’m left wondering why we do them.  In my class, we did a little more work to build an intuition around the concepts, but I felt strangled by the example problem.

(3) I want the concepts and skills that are touched upon in the computer exercises to be somewhat  relatable to the example problem I model.

This week failed at this as well. The computer problems had students interpreting strobe diagrams, x vs t graphs, velocity vs. time graphs, and connecting those to written descriptions. The example problem was pretty much straight plug and chug to calculate average speed and average velocity. While all were in the topic of kinematics, they neither called upon the same concepts nor the same representations. It felt to me and students we were just being pulled along to do widely different thing, much of which we didn’t understand or understand their relationship.

(4) I want the problems students work on their whiteboards to be the jumping board for a good board meeting.

This week failed this criteria as well. All the problems were mostly just random variations. There are basically 4 questions randomly assigned  across eight groups. The problems, as far as I can see, have random numbers that lead students to have to do slightly varied procedural moves (perhaps calculating t from x and v or x from t and v in order to calculate an average velocity for a whole trip). Students have no reason to be interested in each others’ problems, because the problems are not built to do so. I’d prefer that every group either do same problem (for which there might be different approaches we can compare and contrast); or that there be 2 carefully picked problems that draw out some important skill, distinction, or concept between them.

I made the best I could from the se of questions, helping students to note certain subtleties within or across problems. But I want the problems and the problem set to drive interesting puzzles and conversations from the student end, and not need me to swoop in to notice interesting things. I believe that careful choices can make this more likely to happen (although I know there are no guarantees).

Second, What’s missing?

I know I’m picky. I know I have high expectations. But I’m trying to articulate what’s missing. I mean everything sounds good, right? Students working on conceptual problems with feedback from a computer. Students working on problems collaboratively on a whiteboard. Students discussing solutions with each other. Yet, there’s something missing. I think it’s

(1) An understanding of where students are at coming into the course (maybe the demographics have changed). Whatever the reason, the curriculum fails to meet them where they are, on day one.

(2) An understanding of how pick problems and sets of problems that help build both important procedural skills and conceptual, and that are likely to squeeze some learning out of problem solving (not just be problem solving).

(3) A coherence across the class activities that are an the appropriate grain size.

Last, what I might do

I’m somewhat torn about what to do. At some level, I’m responsible for doing much of the same things as other sections; but I have a hard time doing things that I know are just washing over students. I’m wondering how much tweeking I can do around the edges without undermining the course structure and without driving myself crazy prepping each week.

I do think that I might be able to (1) tweek the example problems so that they are more connected to exercises, (2) get students interactively engaged with my example problem so it isn’t just a lecture washing over them, and (3) be more selective about which problems I will allow student groups to work on, so that more connections can be made during discussion.

Anyway, that’s my plan as of today: Connect the pieces, engage the students, trim the fat.

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