Experiments in Learning Innovations Report Flipping General Chemistry II at UMD: A Comparative Study of the Traditional Lecture and Flipped Class Formats Brian Gute and the “Flipped Chemistry” ELI team: Kris Gorman, J.D. Walker, and Paul Baepler Project Description At UMD, 20–25% of the students enrolled in General Chemistry II end the semester with D’s or F’s. With annual enrollment of approximately 450 students, that means that 90–115 students show unsatisfactory progress (not including the students who withdraw from the course). Why does this happen? In large part, the first semester course (General Chemistry I) reviews and expands on high school chemistry, so students are familiar with the material. As a result, many students do not develop good study habits and are surprised when their study strategies no longer work with the new course content in General Chemistry II (Chem2). The situation is further complicated by the fact that the material in Chem2 is conceptually and mathematically more challenging. Chem2 covers both conceptual content, fundamental chemical principles, and quantitative problem-solving based on those principles. Unfortunately, students tend to approach the course as a set of patterns to be learned and memorized, rather than a set of fundamental principles that guide our understanding of what will happen and that guide our problem-solving. And frequently, much of the emphasis in lecture is focused on examples of problem-solving strategies, since these are basic skills students need to learn, and less emphasis is placed on the conceptual material. In this approach, it is hard to get students to move away from unsuccessful attempts at pattern recognition and into a place where they connect principles with practical applications. As I pondered this situation, and my general dissatisfaction with the lecture approach, it occurred to me that the flipped class approach might be a great way to expose students to the underlying principles while encouraging them to practice applying those principles and working problems in small groups in class. It was my belief that this approach would encourage them to talk about the underlying principles with each other in class and give them more practice applying these concepts and developing their problem-solving skills. Essentially, my guiding thought was that listening to/watching/reading course content and taking notes is the easy part of class and that students are capable of doing that on their own. The hard part is applying the concepts to solve problems, and it would be better for students to practice those skills in class where the instructor and teaching assistant are available to answer questions. This way, students can struggle with more complex/challenging material in small groups where they can support each other and have “expert” resources available to help them move past sticking points, allowing us to reinforce correct approaches and intervene to fix inappropriate approaches before they become ingrained habits.
As part of the Experiments in Learning Innovation project, I taught one section of Chem2 each semester (fall and spring, 2015-26) as a traditional lecture course and a second section as a flipped course. Identical exams were used in both classes to see if there were differences in student success as a result of the changed format and attitude surveys were used to determine if student attitudes toward the course were significantly different between the two sections. What did you and your students learn? 1. Flipping takes a lot of work. There is a lot of work involved in preparing for a semester-long fully flipped class. This prep-work for this project required quite a bit of time during the preceding spring semester and summer, and still required a significant amount of work during fall semester. Completely flipping your course all at once is not for the faint of heart. 2. Flipped classes are fun. While it was a lot of work, teaching the flipped course was the most fun I have had in my eight years of teaching. Instead of lecturing to students, I spent my time talking with students and answering their questions. And it seemed like any time the work was starting to get to me, something would happen in class that would just make my day and remind me why I was putting so much work into this new class format. And flipped classes can be fun for everyone. It’s a much less formal setting, students are constantly learning from each other, catching mistakes and misconceptions early on, and they are more comfortable asking each other and me for help when they get stuck. And, stepping into the classroom 5 minutes before class to find students already talking about chemistry is one of the coolest things I’ve experienced during my teaching career. At some point during each semester my teaching assistants commented on the phenomenon and how cool it was to see the excitement in a class that’s normally so passive as a lecture course. It’s really encouraging to see how engaged the students become with the material. Below is a simple comparison of some of the attitudinal survey results related to how much (or little) the students enjoyed the course and their level of comfort with course interactions.
Figure 1. Student responses to the survey prompt, “In this class, I feel comfortable asking questions when I’m confused about something.” LS = lecture section (left), FS = flipped section (right).
Figure 1 clearly shows that students in the flipped class were far more comfortable asking questions, which was most likely aided by the fact that they could easily ask me directly (rather than in front of the whole class), though many were comfortable asking questions in front of the entire class. Even more importantly to me, Figure 2 shows that students were much more comfortable volunteering answers in the flipped class and that they were much less concerned over whether or not they knew the correct answer.
Figure 2. Student responses to the survey prompt, “It feels safe to volunteer an answer in this class, even if it’s wrong..” LS = lecture section (left), FS = flipped section (right).
3. Clear communication is critical. Of course, there were learning opportunities for all of us. One of the most important lessons that I learned was the need to clearly communicate course expectations to the students. They are much more receptive to a new style of teaching if they have a clear understanding of what to expect from the very beginning. I was not as clear as I could have been with students in the fall 2015 section, and while they were good sports, they made it evident to me that they felt I hadn’t been completely upfront with them about how class was going to work. Taking that lesson to heart, I spent more time talking to the students in the spring semester class and I believe that everyone had a much better understanding of what to expect from the class as a result and I haven’t had any pushback this semester related to the course format. 4. Less is more. By the end of the first month, it was also clear that four class periods per week with pre-class work (PCW), in-class work (ICW), and follow-up homework assignments for every day or even most days was too much for everyone to keep up with, including me. While I couldn’t change the class schedule, I did start to revise my approach to activities throughout the semester, moving to fewer, but somewhat longer pre-class assignments and in-class activities designed to span several days, reducing the number of days per week that students had required activities to complete outside of class.
5. But more is also more. A clear message from the students, one that I really wasn’t expecting, was that the 50-minute class periods were not long enough. Frequently student groups felt that they were just finally understanding concepts and getting into a groove on the in-class work when it was time to stop working and pack-up. Both semesters, students have repeatedly told me that a longer class period would be helpful. 6. Successful group work requires some upfront preparation. Group dynamics needs to be managed properly. I made some mistakes the first semester with how groups were formed and in not providing students with more guidance in setting group expectations. Giving students some choice, but creating assigned groups in a purposeful fashion this spring led to much better results. Implementing group developed social contracts for group expectations has also made a great improvement with the second semester of the course. We’re having far fewer problems with group dynamics. 7. Relax and be flexible. Nothing is ever perfect the first time, and most likely it still isn’t perfect the second time either. If you feel that your class needs to run like a well-oiled machine and that you need to be in control of everything that happens in the classroom, a flipped class isn’t for you. More importantly with the flipped format, every group is going to be different, so you need to shift gears quickly to address issues and misunderstandings as they come up. Of course, this is also one of the strengths of the approach. We deal with misunderstandings as they arise to help students better learn the material. And, it is much easier to see when students are struggling with the material. Future Directions The data from this study are encouraging, and while they may not show huge gains for all students in the flipped course, the impact on the number of students withdrawing or ending the semester with D’s or F’s is incredibly exciting (32% DFW rate in the lecture section, 16% DFW rate in the flipped section). Furthermore, the attitude surveys show that students in the flipped class leave the course with a more positive opinion of chemistry in general, and that their experience with the course is also much more positive. With continued support from my Department and the Dean of the College, I will transition to only offering flipped sections of the course in the fall of 2016 and the Department will offer both flipped and traditional sections of the course in spring 2017. Out of necessity, the flipped sections moving forward will be larger, upwards of 90 to 100 students per section. With sufficient instructional support from TAs, these sizes should be manageable. Based on the lessons learned, the sections for fall 2016 are planned for longer class periods (75 minutes) that meet less frequently (2 times per week). This is a radical shift from the amount of time allotted currently, but I hope that this reduced seat-time model will help students to feel less rushed/busy doing the out-of-class pre-work and homework, and that it will give us more time in class to really focus on practicing the course content.
Making this switch means that I will need to spend a significant amount of time reviewing and redesigning material for the course, but hopefully meeting fewer times per week will give me more time to prepare and modify course material throughout the semester.