Friday, January 30, 2015

Flipclass Resolutions in 2015
I usually avoid making resolutions in my personal life because they rarely come to fruition. However, I followed my professional resolutions last year. They really catapulted my course and held me accountable. For that reason, I offer professional resolutions for 2015 below:

1. Continue to explore differentiated learning. In particular, offer alternative ways for students to acquire and process content.

2. Investigate project based learning in an asynchronous course.

3. Similar to number 2, enhance the role of data analysis and inquiry throughout the course. Even though all labs are student-designed and data-rich, I wish to incorporate these principles during non-lab opportunities. Some ways to accomplish this task is to increase the role of inquiry through case studies, assignments, POGILs, problem sets and projects. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Baby Steps to Standards Based Grading & Differentiation

Flickr : radhika_bhagwat
Susan Reslewic, a colleague of mine, and I recently discussed making a transition to standards based grading in her course. Susan agreed that I could share the contents of her email:

Getting the feeling that standards-based-grading goes hand in hand with differentiation...I think it [standards based grading] could really support my efforts to better differentiate.  When I looked at the physics tests today (all over the map: some failing grades, some perfect scores plus), I just felt like I wish the kids who "did poorly" could say "oh, I know a and b, but not x, y and z".  It frustrates me that some kids are going to get their test back and see a score in the 70s and then go to the place of "I did poorly. I don't understand physics. I hate physics. I hate science!" I wish instead...the grade communication focused on what the kid can and cannot do (yet).  As I write this I think maybe a first step is for me to provide detailed comments on the test next to the grade.... Basically saying here's where you are excelling and here are things you need to work on."

Susan makes some of the most compelling arguments for Standards Based grading (SBG): helps teachers differentiate and lets students know what they know and don't know. 

As I read Susan's email, I was reminded how overwhelmed and excited I felt about the idea of SBG. I responded with some thoughts included below about taking baby steps to SBG. 

Transitioning to Standards Based Grading: 
If you want to try baby steps to standards based grading, the easy way is to start reorganizing your tests, quizzes and other assessments. Label each test question with the idea being tested - maybe even grouping those questions together. For example, perhaps questions 1-5 are about calculating velocity and 6-15 are about applying Newton's Three Laws. Don't report a final total percentage on the test, instead report percentages on each group of questions: 80% or 4/5 on balancing equations, 70% or 7/10 on calculating K. Then, make students retake only portions of tests and quizzes that fall below a certain percentage. For example, you may tell student "X", you "mastered" balancing equations but have to retake a quiz on calculating K. 

In addition, make the benchmark quizzes about only one idea; if they pass the quiz, then they mastered the idea. Just like the tests, students only retake failing quizzes. Of course, you will need multiple versions of comparable tests and quizzes. It may take years to build a robust question bank but perhaps start with 2 or 3 versions of each test or quiz.

Another quick thing is to label the problem set and homework questions with the specific idea being practiced. You could even identify the basic and challenge questions within each subset of questions. Certain questions can be mandatory for all and excelling students can attempt the challenge questions. Over time, you can build a library of remedial activities and other resources to help students with particular skills or topics. If they fail a part of a test or a quiz, then you can point students to specific activities and resources that target their deficiency.

These are some baby steps that will not take much tweaking to course structure. These steps should help gain some of the benefits of a SBG course but keep in mind that these are temporary fixes. Not only does it take major structural changes to implement SBG but a comparable shift in mindset must also occur. 

Friday, January 9, 2015

Flipping the Chips are Down Lab

The following article was featured in Carolina Tips in the fall of 2014, the online newsletter by Carolina Biological - a vendor that sells lab supplies and equipment to science teachers. 
For science teachers considering flipping their class, a great way to test the waters is by flipping the lab. Instead of using class time to lecture about and demonstrate steps in a lab procedure, consider creating short videos known as labcasts. Students can view these labcasts prior to the experiment. Watching the steps and seeing the equipment can help minimize confusion and provide clarification. Additionally, the use of labcasts can save precious class time for the actual experimentation and post-experimental analysis.

Teaching natural selection with the Chips Are Down lab

In the evolution unit, the Chips Are Down lab (which is a student favorite) does a wonderful job simulating natural selection. In this lab, students experience how populations change and generate a wealth of data to analyze (Fig. 1.).
Students play the role of predators and exert a selection pressure on a population of butterflies made of differently colored construction paper. The prey are placed on a multi-colored cloth background (Fig. 2); some of these butterflies naturally camouflage on the background, while others are easily spotted. The student predators take turns eating the prey by picking up the first butterfly they see. The predators eat a certain number of prey, then the game is paused to allow the prey to reproduce. Rounds of predation are followed by recovery of prey. After a few rounds, you see certain colored prey going extinct, while others increase in frequency (Fig. 1). The students witness natural selection in action and frequently cite this lab as the activity that helped them to understand this abstract concept.
The problem is the written instructions are somewhat confusing, no matter how many times they have been revised. Merely reading the steps does not clarify the procedure; students actually need to see it in action to fully understand it. In the past, I've typically done a round of predation and recovery with the entire class in order to help students visualize the steps. While this demonstration has been helpful, it is time consuming and limits the amount of class time available for repeating trials, troubleshooting, and data analysis. In addition, the post-lab discussion typically must wait until the next lesson.

Figure 1   Frequency of different colored prey after generations of predation.

Figure 2   Image of a multi-colored background. 

I've solved these problems by creating a labcast demonstrating the Chips Are Down lab. In this short video, I explain and demonstrate the procedure and address the commonly asked questions. Students are required to watch the labcast prior to the lesson. I set aside only a few minutes at the beginning of the lesson to answer questions; this time is much shorter than the demonstration and Q&A sessions of previous years. After the change, students were able to execute several rounds of predation, perform calculations, and discuss the conclusions, all within the same lesson. With the saved class time, students were even able to test and compare data generated from different backgrounds. All of these changes, made available through the labcast, only helped to improve student understanding of natural selection.
The relative ease and low cost of making videos, coupled with the potential gains of leveraging this technology, make a compelling case for flipped learning. Labcasts allow you to smoothly transition to flipped learning in your science classes. These videos can clarify lab procedures, save precious class time, and improve student learning.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Collaboration vs. Individual Accountability

Masur // Wikipedia
Recently, our department members have discussed balancing collaboration with individual accountability in flipped classes. A concern was raised that there is potential for students to become too reliant on the teacher for help. It is a fair question to raise; whenever students are allowed or asked to collaborate, there's the risk of group-think, as well as some students using group members, or in this case, the teacher to do the lion's share of thinking. 

I would be remiss if I failed to point out that the concerns about individual accountability are not uniquely tied to flipped classes. It's really a question about individual accountability wherever there is collaboration. I have a handful of students, against my desire, who choose to do most or all assignments alone. There are others on the opposite end of that spectrum and need my probing eyes to ensure that they are not allowing their group members to do the heavy lifting. 

With that being said, it's important to be mindful of individual accountability. Last year, I struggled with some students moving through activities but not having a sense of what they should've learned. I think two major changes have helped with this problem. One change is moving toward a standards based grading format and away from assignment completion has emphasized learning. There is little incentive to race through or copy assignments. Students will only have to redo assignments and/or complete remediation activities if they struggle on assessments. Perhaps I shouldn't broadcast that I don't even see some assignments (like notes, problem sets or practice quizzes) unless there is an issue. Copying work from problem sets won't improve student grades at all, especially since answer keys are published. Their grades are solely based on what they demonstrated on summative assessments - not how many solutions they may have copied. The second change is the hot seat discussion. Before taking a quiz, students have to demonstrate learning on an individual basis. If I detect issues, then I can intervene. Again, there's little incentive to move on without understanding the content because the hot seat tends to, but not always, reveal issues. 

Some other ideas that come to mind: 
  1. mandate some of the assignments as individual only.
  2. set aside time each period or week as individual work time.
  3. mandate one-on-one check-in conversations with the teacher.
  4. encourage students, through journals and other reflective activities, to be mindful of how they complete assignments and their contribution to groups.
  5. in group activities, assign roles and make use of jigsaw activities. 
  6. cap group size to pairs (or triplets) depending on the workload.
  7. collect data (eg Google form) from students about group dynamics and intervene when appropriate.
Interestingly, I've heard rumblings of groups being dissatisfied with some of their members on the current project on Genetic Disorders. In this project, students are arranged in pairs with individual roles; it will be obvious which person didn't hold their weight. Perhaps since the focus in this case is  completing the assignment/artifact, rather than demonstrating learning, some students don't feel the crunch of individual accountability. 

I'm unsure if it's possible to eliminate any chance that students will rely too heavily on others. There are adults who take advantage of group members. At the very least, if we're diligent, we can minimize that chance and de-incentivize relying on others.