I’d like to start with a note I received from Hannah, a bright, first-generation college student:
"Dr. Sathy, words cannot express my gratitude for you during my time at Carolina. Believe it or not, when I walked into your classroom second semester sophomore year I was defeated and didn’t believe in myself. You changed that! With your help, I started believing that I could achieve the things that I wanted to achieve. You helped make Carolina home."
You may be wondering how that can happen when Hannah was one in a sea of hundreds of students in my intro to statistics class. I’ll tell you: I changed something that felt broken — my class. When I speak to faculty across the country about curricular change and inclusive classrooms, I describe my former teaching as both feeling like a fish swimming upstream and a fish out of water. It was difficult and didn’t seem to leverage my strengths of connecting with students. Hannah was in my class after the “fix.” What was the fix? I assumed that my students weren’t the problem. I wondered if I was the problem, and if I couldn’t do more to reach more students.
That fix turned out to be a flipped classroom. More recently, I’ve shied away from calling it a flipped classroom, and I never call it the flipped classroom to students (although some students recognize it as such). In a flipped classroom, first exposure to the material occurs prior to class either through videos or readings, and class time is used to wrestle more deeply with the material in the presence of the instructional team (instructors with the support of teaching assistants or undergraduate learning assistants). For those of us who teach statistics, it’s not difficult to envision problems or data sets our students can engage with during class time — such as test questions that typically stump a class or challenging aspects of homework assignments.
The problem with calling it a flipped classroom is that there are poorly designed, poorly executed, or — in some cases — both poorly designed and poorly executed flipped classrooms. Students may stereotype the class as such once they see key characteristics, and colleagues may summarily dismiss flipped classrooms as just another teaching fad that will soon lose favor. What I call it now is a “high-structure active learning classroom.”
Most of us are familiar with active learning. Simply put, active learning emphasizes activities that allow students to engage in constructing knowledge. The activities can vary, but the goal is to engage in higher-order Bloom’s level thinking. The research on the effectiveness of active learning is robust and stretches back over 30 years (Brame, 2016). In a recent meta-analysis, researchers found that active learning in STEM courses increased examination performances by half a letter grade and that failure rates decreased 55 percent over traditional lecturing (Freeman et al., 2014). In fact, the researchers liken ignoring the research on active learning to educational malpractice.
The term “high structure” is borrowed from Scott Freeman’s work (Haak et al., 2011). A course design is highly structured when it requires students to prepare for class sessions, uses class time to focus on active learning exercises (usually through classroom response systems or random-call) and complete frequent low-risk assessments. Haak and colleagues found that when compared to low-structure (i.e., lecture intensive courses with no active learning) and moderate-structure designs (i.e., some classroom response system use and weekly practice), high structure improves learning gains for all students, but more interestingly, achievement gaps are reduced for underrepresented students. Research indicates that increasing structure helps level the playing field (Eddy & Hogan, 2014), and for many of us engaged in efforts to retain a diverse pool of science-interested students and broaden participation in the sciences, this research suggests an approach within an instructor’s control to help promote equity.
One can certainly envision a flipped classroom without high structure or active learning, but it’s difficult to have high-structure active learning that isn’t a flipped classroom. In my statistics class, I recorded my “lecture” content in short segments with a screencasting tool called Camtasia. While there are many excellent statistics textbooks and videos online, because I was focused on evaluating the impacts of my redesign, I chose to only vary the delivery mode of the lecture but keep the content fixed. Students were quizzed on their preparation and class time was used to create authentic opportunities for my students to analyze data. They had a chance to discover what I love about statistics: that data have a story to tell and you are its voice.
When I stopped using most of the class time hearing myself speak, rather to hear my students speak, many things changed. When I started teaching this way, my students were not only learning more, they took more ownership of their learning compared to the pre-redesigned class. Students also reported higher levels of motivation to study statistics and were more interested in statistics. Students who were self-proclaimed as “not a math person” began to question their long-held ideas. Students like Hannah found success in my class that extended beyond my class. She is not the only one in the sea of students who felt this way. Even now, students contact me long after the class to discuss how the course changed their views and approach to the topic.
Interestingly, it wasn’t only their mindset that changed. Mine did too. I was teaching students how to approach difficult subject matter, by breaking it down, modeling, practicing and ultimately empowering them to successfully navigate the waters of their own learning. But I, too, was navigating. I learned that my mindset mattered. Most importantly, I learned that the fish who struggle aren’t to blame, but rather the water. Yes, it is daunting to think of the initial time and effort that comes with designing a high structure active learning classroom. But, it’s empowering to know that as instructors we can change what we do in the classroom to benefit all students.
About the author
Viji Sathy is an award-winning teaching professor in the department of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill teaching the very classes she credits for charting her own professional career in quantitative psychology: statistics and research methods. Sathy is also the program evaluator of the Chancellor’s Science Scholars, a program aimed at increasing representation of underrepresented students in STEM PhDs. She is engaged in numerous activities on campus using data-driven techniques to promote student success. She speaks around the country about flipped classrooms, and with Kelly Hogan, PhD, about inclusive classrooms in an effort to broaden participation in the sciences. She was born in India but grew up in a small town in North Carolina and is a proud recipient of public education (K-PhD) in North Carolina.
Brame, C. (2016). Active learning. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved [March 21, 2018] from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/active-learning/.
Eddy, S.L. & Hogan K. (2014). Getting under the hood: How and for whom does increasing course structure work? CBE — Life Sciences Education, 13, 453–468. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.14-03-0050.
Freeman, S., Eddy, S.L., McDonough, M., Smith, M.K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M.P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), 111 (23) 8410-8415. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1319030111. Retrieved [March 21, 2018] from http://www.pnas.org/content/111/23/8410.
Haak, D.C., HilleRisLambers, J., Pitre, E., & Freeman, S. (2011). Increased structure and active learning reduce the achievement gap in introductory biology. Science, 332, 1213–1216. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1204820.