By Robert Talbert, PhD
The flipped learning model of instruction has begun to make the transition from an educational buzzword to a normative practice among many university instructors, and with good reason. Flipped learning provides many benefits for both faculty and students. However, instructors who use flipped learning soon find out that a significant amount of work is sometimes necessary to win students over to this way of conducting class. Even when the benefits of flipped learning are made clear to students, some of them will still resist. And to be fair, many instructors fail to listen to what students are really saying.
Most student “complaints” about flipped learning conceal important questions about teaching and learning that are brought to the surface because of the flipped environment. Here are three common issues raised by students and the conversation-starters they afford.
Student comment: “I wish you would just teach the class.”
Conversation-starter: Why do we have classes?
This issue is often raised once it becomes clear that class time will focus on assimilating information, not transmitting it. For many students, the only kind of instruction they have ever known is the in-class lecture, so it is quite natural for them to conflate “teaching” and “lecturing”. Hence, students are perhaps justifiably unsettled to see their teacher not “teaching”.
When students raise this concern, it is an opportunity to have a conversation about why classes meet — or for that matter, why they exist —in the first place. When students want the professor to “just teach”, the professor can pose the following: We can either have lecture on basic information in class, and then you will be responsible for the harder parts yourselves outside of class; or we can make the basic information available for you prior to class, and spend our class time making sense of the harder parts. There is not enough class time for both. Which setup will help you learn better?
Student comment: “I learn best through listening to a lecture.”
Conversation-starter: How does one learn?
Students who have made it through secondary schooling believe that since lecturing “worked” in the sense that they made it to college under a lecture-centric system, lecture is the most effective means of teaching — in fact, the only means of teaching that “works”. (Indeed, many university instructors believe the same thing.)
I respond to this with a question: What are the three most important things you have ever learned? Here are my three: speaking my native language, feeding myself, and going to the bathroom. When the student comes up with his or her list, I follow up: How did you learn those things? The answer is always that it’s a mixture of a bit of direct instruction (which is largely ignored), along with a lot of trial and error and peer pressure. No student has ever responded that they learned these things only by listening to a lecture. No student ever will!
If a person has demonstrated repeatedly that he can learn important things in his life without lecture, on what basis does one say that they learn best through lecture? Maybe the ability to learn on one’s own is more deeply connected to one’s humanity than we suspect. Which brings up the last issue:
Student comment: I shouldn’t have to teach myself the subject.
Conversation-starter: Why are we here?
In the flipped classroom, students are expected to gain fluency with basic ideas in preparation for class time, rather than as the result of class time. It is easy for a student to see this as self-teaching and respond negatively. A variant of this is, “I’m paying you to teach me!” At its core, this is not an issue about who is paying whom, but about the purpose of higher education.
We might approach the student simply by asking: What is the purpose of college? Why are you here? Among the more noble answers include career preparation, personal growth, and obtaining life experiences. What do these good things have in common? I am convinced that each student’s reasons for being in college will intersect at the notion oflearning how to learn. Career success, meaningful growth, and formative experiences all involve acquiring the ability and the taste for learning new things, independently and throughout one’s lifespan. Why not start that process now?
It’s easy to be defensive when, as an instructor, students voice seemingly belligerent opposition to the flipped classroom. But if we listen closely, we’ll hear those complaints as invitations to important conversations that can shape student learning for the better.
Dr. Robert Talbert is an associate professor in the mathematics department at Grand Valley State University.