Sunday, May 22, 2016

Flipped Classrooms: Student Evaluations and Cui Bono?

An article by Kevin Werbach, "Flip-Flop: The Realities of Blended Teaching", came across my twitter feed. Now that I'm back from sabbatical, I've been meaning to write a series of posts on my flipped Biological Anthropology class. I wrote about my first attempts here. Last year, I used a specifications grading system (based on the Linda Nilson book), which is essentially a mastery grading scheme.

Like Werbach, I found my student evaluations went down after flipping the classroom, despite overwhelmingly positive unsolicited feedback from students. I haven't pulled out the evaluations and looked at the exact distribution of scores, but I can guess what I would find: a bimodal distribution in which the average score for the higher curve went up, but the average score for the lower curve dropped dramatically.

There were two things I wanted to accomplish by flipping the classroom and using specifications grading: 1) to improve overall comprehension of major concepts in Biological Anthropology; and 2) decrease the 15% failure rate for the class. The new system definitely accomplished goal #1; the students shows far greater mastery of the concepts, both during mid-semester evaluations and during the cumulative final. This translated into higher grades, as well, not because I changed my standards but because the students earned them.

Previous classes had a grade distribution more or less like this:
15% As, 30% Bs, 25% Cs, 15% Ds, 15% Fs.

This past year, the grade distribution looked more like:
25% As, 35% Bs, 25% Cs, 0 Ds, 15% Fs.

Students who had struggled to get Cs and Ds were earning Bs and Cs. It was glorious. But...that 15% of the class still failed. And to the extent that I got complaints from students about the grading system or flipped classroom, it was from the students getting Fs (and to some extent Cs). Almost every complaint could be boiled down to a variation on the following: "I've gotten Ds in my other classes without having to show up, read, finish assignments, or study. I'm frustrated that you require me to learn the basic material in order to pass the class." To be honest, though, I didn't get many complaints, because those F students were the ones who hardly ever showed up to class.

I don't want to mischaracterize my students. They are the opposite of entitled. I find them responsible, engaged, and mature. They face a number of barriers to success, including personal illness, family obligations, long work hours, disabilities, or under-preparedness for college. And, yes, some of them are just not doing the work. (I asked one young lady where her missing lab partner could be found. She said, "Oh, he just plays video games and gets high all day." OK. Good to know.) The systemic barriers many students face can be mitigated by specifications grading, but they can't be eliminated entirely.*

I discussed the problem of active learning and student motivation in another post, where I suggested faculty who rely on student evaluations for promotion/tenure/better jobs might want to avoid flipped classrooms because unmotivated students will ding your evaluations for forcing them to engage in the classroom. After my Biological Anthropology experience, I stand by that. I'm convinced that at least 75% of my students had a better educational experience as a result of the flipped classroom and specifications grading system: they learned more, were more engaged, and were more interested in the subject. But that remaining 15-25% were not reachable, not because I didn't try, but because they either faced systemic barriers that prevented success, or because they didn't want to be reached.

I've been forced to conclude that flipped classrooms are an advantage to higher-achieving students and that they can greatly benefit middle-level students who struggle with concepts but are willing and able to engage in the classroom. As a professor, however, it's often the "ones who got away" who haunt me. I originally flipped my classroom with those students in mind. Ironically, while the experience didn't help them, it helped me learn to let go, to realize I have done everything I can to provide students opportunities for success. At some point, I've reached the end of what I can do within the classroom.
* This is a topic for another blog post, and because we're a small school I don't want to go into details, but I did look carefully at the grades of non-traditional students, students of color, students whose first language was not English, student parents, and students with registered disabilities. None of the students who fell into one or more of those categories failed the class, and their grade improvement was similar to that of the class as a whole.

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