Flipped classrooms at Duke: Physics 142 Spring 2015

What does a “flipped classroom” look like? If you peek into Physics 142, you see over 100 students seated at the ends of rows in an auditorium-style classroom; many are talking, some consult calculators or notepads. Here and there, a student writes on a three foot rectangular dry-erase board with a marker. Four Duke faculty are talking with groups of students, and moving between student groups. The projector displays a question about a radio station broadcasting in Sacramento, asking students to predict locations where the radio broadcast waves would be blocked by skyscrapers.

Physics classroom

Dr. Daniel Gauthier, Robert C. Richardson Professor of Physics and Physics Department Chair, steps to the front of the class and asks students to hold up their dry-erase boards so that he can see them. He scans the group answers on the boards, then asks them to rotate their boards so that all students can see all the group answers. Dr. Gauthier then talks through the problem, giving hints on how to think about the problem, where common mistakes could occur, and how variations of this problem could be used for an exam question. He then projects the next problem, and students begin working.

How was the course designed to prepare students to solve problems in class? In the previous class, Dr. Gauthier began class with a brief lecture about diffraction using projected images from the text and some video to show the results of experiments. Most students were following along with the slides on their own computers. After about 12 minutes, students were given a conceptual problem. As soon as the problem was presented, students began talking with each other about the problem and all four instructors encouraged the student teams. After a few minutes, Dr. Gauthier asked for a show of hands for the team answers. As almost all students selected the correct answer, he moved on to the next question for a total of five increasingly difficult questions.

A co-instructor, Dr. Socolar, Professor of Physics, then amused and intrigued the students by shining a green laser pointer through a single hair, diffracting the light waves into a pattern on the front wall of the classroom. Dr. Gauthier built on this demonstration with a brief (four minute) lecture, followed by another conceptual question for the teams. Student teams answered the question correctly.

Students were then directed to take a readiness assessment online. Each student accessed an assessment via Learning Catalytics (packaged with the Physics text), most via laptops, a few with tablets. Students were given a warning at two minutes, and then directed to switch to the team assessment. For the team assessment, the questions are the same as the individual assessment, but teams can chose answers until they are correct, although their score is decremented for each wrong answer. Immediately, students began discussing and answering the questions in their teams, comparing and discussing ideas.

As student teams completed their team assessments, they were reminded about homework problems and activities in their discussion sections. Students left the class accompanied by well-wishes and conversations with the other instructors.

These course activities, including online pre-class assignments of readings and videos, short lectures and practice problems in class, and the readiness assessment process (individual and then team assessments) prepared students to solve more difficult problems with the help of their teammates in class. This “flipped” course structure contrasts with the traditional model of lecturing on concepts during class time and assigning problems applying these concepts as homework for students to struggle with and complete outside of class.

Why was Physics 142 flipped?

Dr. Gauthier began using active learning in a higher level class; while teaching this class, he found that students were still struggling with concepts and procedures that he had thought they mastered in the lower level classes. He realized that current course structures, where students worked on problems outside of class, did not provide the students with help when they needed it, and did not facilitate feedback to faculty about where student problems were. He decided to incorporate active learning into Physics 142 with the help of other Physics faculty.

He explained to the students on the first day of class that active learning results in good student outcomes because the students are active and continuously engaged with the material; they will retain the material better; fewer students drop out; and it’s much more exciting for him to be in the classroom. He believes that all students can be successful, as indicated in this image from the first day of class:Slide with words everyone can be successful in this course

How is the flipped classroom organized?

seating mapStudents are assigned to teams of six that stay together through the semester, with assigned seats in classroom. Before the beginning of the unit, students are assigned readings, videos and a pre-class assignment. In class, the instructor helps with difficulties in the pre-class assignment, and students work together before taking a readiness assurance quiz – first individually, then as a team. Students then work as teams on increasingly challenging problems, with some instructor explanation as needed.

All students can succeed in this course. Each component of the course counts towards a grade, and the grading scale is fixed. Students are graded on pre-class assignments, individual readiness assessments, team readiness assessments, quizzes in the discussion sections, laboratories, homework, two midterms, a final and may earn bonus points for team participation. The syllabus (PDF) contains a complete description.

Who are the instructors for Physics 142?

What is working well?

Dr. Gauthier reflects:

As the semester progresses, I see the expected behavior for most of the teams: a highly interactive team that is able to jump into difficult problems. In most cases, the room is noisy when students are working on problems, which is exciting and what I want to foster. However, there are some groups who do not interact and work on problems as individuals. Collectively, we have tried some mild interventions to stop this behavior, but only with limited success. At other universities using a team approach (but not necessarily the full-blown Team-Based Learning), the faculty insist that students take on different team roles (brain stormer, recorder, picture drawer, time keeper, etc.), but I have not yet been willing to give this a try because I fear Duke Students will resent this micromanaged structure.

In addition to Team-Based Learning, I use an on-line homework system for both the pre-class assignment as well as the homework at the end of the learning unit. While some students appear to be taking these tasks seriously, I find that some student work with a tutor or another teammate to complete the assignment. In these situations, they tend to be “told” the answer after little effort on their part, rather than struggling with the problem initially. This robs them of the “ah hah” moment that is the core of learning a topic. I am not sure whether the on-line homework system or Team-Based Learning makes this problem more pronounced than traditional teaching methods, but it is important to be aware that this issue needs to be addressed somehow in the future.

One issue that has arisen this semester is that we find that attendance in Help Room fell about 1/3 into the semester in comparison to our experience with traditional courses. Is this because students are finding help from their teammates and feel that Help Room will not help beyond what they find elsewhere? If so, this might be seen as a success of Team-Based Learning. Or are there other factors at play?

I have received a few very positive emails from students – a typical comment is that they were very doubtful about TBL at the beginning of the semester, but then found that the approach very much helped them in their learning.

Attendance is considerably higher than in previous lecture-based classes, up around 80-90%, so clearly students find coming to class valuable.

While visiting the class, I envied the students. When I took a year of college physics, the instructors lectured on the basic material, and for homework, students were assigned problems which applied the basic material. Similar problems appeared on the test. I did not realize at the time that, for me, there was little connection between physics concepts and the problems we were assigned. I struggled with the problems before a test, without the benefit of the instructor and with only occasional help from classmates. It often seemed that solving a problem correctly was more luck than logic. I was envious when Dr. Gauthier worked through a problem, explaining the concepts and the thought processes, especially immediately after the students had the opportunity to try it themselves first.

More about flipped courses at Duke

Statistics 101 taught by Dr. Mine Çetinkaya-Rundel

Graduate Math Camp in Political Science organized by Dr. David Siege

Food in the Jewish Tradition taught by Dr. Laura Lieber

The Politics of Public Policy taught by Dr. Nick Carnes

Restoration Ecology: Theory and Applications taught by Dr. Rebecca Vidra

Honors Chemistry taught by Dr. Stephen Craig

1 thought on “Flipped classrooms at Duke: Physics 142 Spring 2015

  1. Craig Roberts

    Great in-depth post, Andrea. I especially appreciated the map of the lecture hall.

    Dan, thanks for sharing your thoughts on both the low engagement teams and whether teams meet ouside of class. I’ve often wondered to what extent these meetings occur and whether this improves outcomes.

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