Flipping the chemistry classroom series: Part 5

I am not a fan of pedagogical zealotry. I feel that those touting the next educational “breakthrough” as the only way to teach have something to sell. If you have read through my articles over the past few months, please don’t mistake my enthusiasm for extremism. When we set out on this process three years ago, I’m not sure we really knew where we were going...hopefully to a more engaging classroom, but we were genuinely unsure of how that might look, and whether or not it would actually lead to better — and hopefully lasting — understanding of the material.

We sat down recently and tried to take stock of how this process has evolved, and what (if anything) we have accomplished. On a whim, we took a look at the final exam results over the past 6 – 7 semesters for both grade 11 and grade 12 chemistry classes. Why just the final? They have not changed over the past 10+ years, and we felt they could provide some evidence as to how well the students are retaining information over the course of the semester. I’ve shared the results below. Note that the “traditional” approach is before we flipped anything, the “flipped” approach was our first iteration — using videos to present content, while the “flipped-mastery” approach I have discussed at length in my previous articles involving checklists and progressive checkpoints.

Table 1: Exam results for “Traditional”, Flipped and Flipped-mastery

# of students 164 149 179
# with >80% 42 54 126
% with >80% 25.6 36.2 70.4

I will admit that this is hardly a controlled experiment, and we as teachers are acutely aware that comparing classes can be tricky as the composition of a class will change from semester to semester, so I will stop short of calling these results conclusive or definitive. But they are intriguing.

So...what (if anything), does this information provide us? Anecdotally, we have found that this approach was much more engaging and fostered a more positive environment in the classroom. We felt the level of apathy decrease, and began to see student ownership of their learning and accountability improve. I think that, out of anything gained, this evolution of the classroom dynamic was truly the biggest improvement we saw. On that alone, I am sufficiently motivated to keep developing this method of teaching.

As for the numbers, they are impressive, but not unexpected, especially when we look at the process. Recall that in this method, students guide themselves through checklists and progress through checkpoints, ideally illustrating mastery of a concept before moving on to the next one. I kept data — in this case the course median — for those students who regularly followed this process over the course of the past semester. The results for doing these checkpoints tells the story:

Table 2: Performance of students based on checklist and checkpoint completion

  Checkpoint/Checklist completion
Rarely/Never Sometimes Always
% of students 20.8 16.9 62.3
Group median (%) 66 74 88

We are excited with the results, but more than that, we are excited that we have a place to move forward from, a foundation — believe me when I say that was not always the case. We are hoping that this method affords us the opportunity to engage our students in more problem-solving and inquiry-based approaches — to focus on skills, not just knowledge. I know that seems pretty vague, but like the start of this flipped-learning journey, our road forward so far is paved only with good intentions, not concrete plans. However, we have shown the courage to try, and that has to count for something. Conclusion? Following the mastery process — doing the work, having it corrected, and clarifying misunderstandings before the test — leads to success. (I hope you were sitting for that one.) While I believe this could conceivably be accomplished in a “traditional” classroom, I think many would be hard-pressed to find the time to do it with the same type of efficacy. The flipped approach affords us the time in class to improve this comprehension, while at the same time encouraging students to take a little more ownership in the learning process.

As I finish up this series, I want to state that this was not intended to be a commentary or critique on any method of teaching currently being practiced. If you are seeing similar results, comprehension and engagement in your classes, kudos. However, I’m not going to let you off the hook that easily. I would say that while we are first and foremost educators, we are scientists at heart. I would argue that all good teachers are.

When we reflect on our teaching practice, often we’ll see an opportunity for improvement. So we try something new, fail — sometimes spectacularly — look at our results, tweak, and try again. It is the scientific method. We need to recognize that in this day and age, many factors have accelerated the need for us to take a good hard look at how we are teaching our students. We need to strive to be better, more effective, more engaging teachers who develop lifelong learners with the skills necessary to succeed beyond our walls. Is the flipped-mastery model the answer? Who knows? But for us, it’s a start.