Flipping the chemistry classroom series: part 4 (the classroom)

Now I don’t presume to think you and I think alike. However, as a teacher, I can’t think of a more rewarding experience than when I am witness to the “light bulb moment”. You know the light bulb. Sure you do. When a student “gets a concept” — actually gets it. As teachers, we learn to pick up on this — to distinguish between when they say they get it and when they actually, truly come to grasp a particular concept. These are the moments we work for. That’s our bread and butter. And I love butter.

Unfortunately, in classes with 30-plus students, especially in our heavily content-driven courses in the sciences, we rarely have time in class to witness this. The traditional Socratic lecture approach rarely provides us the opportunity to work with our students one-on-one and witness the light bulb first-hand. My old motto was that if I could reach one student each day, I had accomplished something. Eventually that was not enough. I wanted, needed, to spend more of my time on the other side of the desk. I needed to bear witness to more light bulbs.

To those of you who have read my previous articles (thank you), you know I’ve said this all along — teaching using videos along — YouTube or otherwise — isn’t going to cut it. When we started using the flipped learning method several years ago, we were under the mistaken impression that asking the students to watch YouTube videos would be enough to see vast improvement in their understanding and performance. We developed websites, checklists, activities and collaborative online documents — hours upon hours of work — and saw very little to show us that this method “worked” significantly better than our traditional classrooms. It got to the point, sometime in our second year, where we hit a dead end and almost scrapped the whole thing. Except...well, we really enjoyed what using videos allowed us to do — spend the majority of our time on the other side of desk, interacting and working with our students. We had one option left, the one that this whole “flipped-learning” thing hinged upon — mastery.

The idea of mastery is not new. But for those of you not familiar — or needing a refresher — the gist is this: students must progress through one concept before moving onto the next, and must show evidence at each step before they can move on. In our classroom, we call these “checkpoints”, which the students follow as part of a “checklist”. Our checklists are divided into topic sections, listing the video(s) to be watched, optional reading that can be done, the application (textbook) questions that are to be completed, “I can” statements (a.k.a. learning goals) so students can evaluate their own understanding of these concepts and finally the checkpoint required to complete that topic section. These checkpoints are worksheets that contain a series of questions — or activities — that we feel best reflect the skills required to complete this topic section.

The process for the students is this: the students complete the required work for each section (as outlined on their checklist) and when completed, they approach the teacher to obtain their checkpoint. We may ask probing questions to see if they have the understanding necessary to complete the checkpoint, making sure to check their notes and homework questions — and ensuring they have corrected them against posted solutions — before they get a crack at the completing the checkpoint. We then review each checkpoint with the student, and they move on to the next section, repeating the process until the course material is complete. Summative unit tests are given to the whole class on a pre-determined date, so that the students have an idea of when these checklists must be completed.

You read that right. We meet each student for each unit, several times. Granted, it is a lot of work. A good deal of class time is spent working individually with students and at times there are line-ups. The process can be chaotic, especially at the beginning of the year, but the students adapt quickly and it becomes far more efficient as the semester progresses; it becomes a well-oiled machine in the final few months.

The work has been worth it, as this flipped-mastery model has been a game-changer for us. Students come to feel a sense of empowerment, taking some control over how and when they learn. It also puts us teachers in the trenches, working directly, one-on-one, with more students. Now in my eleventh year of teaching, I am coming to realize more and more that content is secondary; relationship building is key. The more our students learn to trust us, the more they are willing to try, fail and learn. This can only happen if we have the time to build those relationships, provide constant and constructive feedback and foster a positive, engaging, learning environment. Videos alone aren’t going to do that. However, they do allow us a little more time to brighten up our room with a few more light bulbs.

In my fifth — and final — article, I will sum up our findings and outline our plans for the future.