Friday, October 4, 2013

Giving my Students what they Need: Week 4 reflections

During this week, students took their first Moodle quiz. They also had two videos, a lab challenge and two problem sets.

I'm not sure if this comment is a success story in the normal sense of the phrase, but rather it's an interesting share. My #edwin this week is a quick anecdotal. I own a love bird who chirps all day. In some videos, he is happily chirping in the background. I do what I can to minimize the distraction but some students noticed the sound. It made for an interesting discussion with a few students after class. We exchanged bird stories and had a few laughs about their seemingly notorious way of making the most noise when you need quiet. Perhaps the bird chirps were less of a distraction and just another way to help me connect with a few students. I'm just a little bit more human to those students who exchanged bird stories with me. 

I can feel students, who were once resistant, are starting to buy in to the flipped class. A parent emailed to let me know her student has done an 180 degree turnaround on the flipped model. 

So far three students have taken advantage of the opportunity to work ahead. They are almost a week ahead. I'll be interested to see how, or if, they continue this trend. One benefit for me is that I'll have at least some students ahead to point out issues. One student informed me of an incorrectly phrased question on a problem set. I was able to make the change before any other student saw it. This will force me to set up materials and learning cycles at an appropriate pace. (Getting fruit fly cultures, which require ample time before shipment, will be an organizational challenge for me.) I'm even thinking that students who are ahead could help me set up labs; they will learn new laboratory skills and I will get much needed help. This could be a great situation. 

The wonderful thing about my class is that I'm gaining real insights into the thinking of my students, especially through their questions. I'm taken aback by how many questions I get in a period. I wonder how students got their questions answered in the traditional model; there just isn't enough class time in that model. I bet there are just more questions now because I've made myself available for them. But what about the other questions? Did students call a classmate, talk to their parents or a tutor? Were these people able to help them without doing the thinking for them? Did my former students copy someone's work? I'm happy to answer these questions. I'm even more ecstatic that I can redirect questions to help my students think through their confusion. Usually my first response to a student's question is another question. It must be frustrating when you're used to someone giving you what you want as soon as you want it. My approach is to give you only what you need, not necessarily what you want. Whether it's asking a question to remind you of a step you skipped, what improvements can you make, or what was your motivation, it's important that my students are doing the hard work of thinking. 

The flipped model allowed me to provide one on one feedback to every student after this week's quiz. For each student who performed under the set benchmark, I had a conference with them to look over their incorrect answers. They resolved each problem in front of me after our check-in. I was able to see patterns in mistakes. I saw students who skipped steps, did not study vocabulary, did not use scrap paper, did not read the entire problem and took short cuts. I gave stern but, hopefully, encouraging feedback. After reworking each problem, I made them explain what they did incorrectly. We even had time for take home messages - where they identified what caused their unsatisfactory score. This is where students admitted to rushing, skipping steps, etc. I'm sure there are teachers who conference with their students after assessments to discuss errors. The english teachers at my school are excellent about meeting with students to look over their papers; there's hardly a period where I don't the English teachers in a case conference with a student in a random crevice or classroom. The difference here is that I was able to use class time to conduct my case conferences without falling behind in the curriculum or giving busy work to students. And more importantly, for most students, the quiz scores rose significantly after the conferences. The flipped model opened up class time to make this happen.

The other beautiful thing that happened was the video form responses proved to be helpful to me in a practical, not just theoretical, way this week. The students watched a video on chi squares, which I knew would be difficult. Next to protein synthesis, it is always the lesson that gives me the most anxiety before doing it. This is a difficult concept, especially for 8th graders. The lower than normal video ranking (2.4 compared to 2.75 out of 3) is clearly an indication. However, I see this as a success story because I wrote down all of the student names who indicated confusion and we spent the first few minutes in a small tutorial group going over chi squares. I knew going into this process that some students would struggle with some of the video lessons - this is why I use class time to provide remediation, tutoring, etc. The part unseen is the majority of students who understood the concept from the video and can now move on, without being slowed down by their peers. In my opinion, this is exactly what should happen in all classes: students getting what they need!

During the first day of post quiz conferences, I made a list of students and called them to me when I was ready for them. I was stationary that day, so I probably didn't do a great job managing subtle behaviors like students working too slowly. Perhaps I'll be more strategic about which problems I go over. Next time I should jot down notes about each kid and prioritize which problems to discuss during the conferences. I worry that these conferences can start to become a time drain. I also need to stress that students should be more strategic about when they take their quiz, only take it when they are ready. I don't want to spend time in a post quiz conference with a student who just didn't study. The other students need my guidance; it shouldn't be wasted in that capacity.

A large number of my students are not updating their tracking sheets. I sent an email to them explaining changes to policies in order to encourage them to update tracking sheets. 
Excerpt below:
I'm seeing a lot of red on the tracking sheets, even the simple inheritance one which most people have finished. Starting tomorrow, I won't allow quiz taking until your tracking sheets are filled in. You also won't pass a check-in without showing me your tracking sheet. Please update. 
Quick explanation: this is really important to me because I need to know where you are in the learning cycle. If you are behind, I need to figure out a way to help you. If you are ahead, then I need ample warning to set up and order lab supplies, make photocopies, etc. You might be ready for the next step but not have any materials. So please, I implore you to update those tracking sheets.

In a related note, I believe that I've identified a student who has not been watching videos. I won't get into how I know for fear of spreading a way to game the system. The take home message is that I designed my accountability systems, like mandatory check-in and tracking sheets for a reason. I need to hold myself accountable for relying on these designed systems. My attitude moving forward is that the steps of the learning cycles are designed in such a way that students either need to demonstrate they don't need the step or that they have completed the steps. I will need to do a better job holding all students accountable for this. Most students are doing quite well with completing the learning activities. I just don't want any student falling in between the cracks. 

Now that students are starting to get the hang of asynchronous learning, I do want to build in time for full class activities, like peer instruction, jigsaws and Socratic seminars. I want to harness the power of rich discussions, especially when confronting ethical considerations of the science they are learning in class. Even if I have to supplement these discussions with online forums, I will carve out some time to start these talks during class time.