Flipped From Passive to Active Learner

Instructional Design

I recently attended a talk, “The Promise and Perils of the Flipped Classroom” by Jennifer Ebbeler, associate professor of classics at UT Austin . She discussed the challenges and successes of flipping her large enrollment (400+ students) course.  She raised familiar discussion points about the flipped classroom model, but the point that stood out the most to me was the student reaction. Ebbeler experienced resistance among students, so much so that she re-designed her experiment to better scaffold the students to the flipped model.

It made me realize that those of us (instructional designers, education technologists) who advocate trying more active learning pedagogical approaches and experimental methods tend to assume that the biggest roadblock is often the faculty. It is a lot more work with little institutional incentive to experiment with one’s teaching. But the students can be equally resistant to more constructivist models of instruction. And with good reason. It is a lot more work for them, too.

I’ve had similar experiences while teaching. In an online capstone course I taught most recently, I designed a final project option with a high degree of flexibility that I thought would be appropriate for the mostly adult learners in the course, but not a single student selected to design their own project. They all opted for the traditional research paper, despite the required number of sources and pages. It was easier for them to comply with stated paper requirements than to construct a project idea on their own.

The student’s readiness to use technology effectively, to produce knowledge, and to be held more accountable for their own learning is an oft-overlooked constraint. But I took away a few key points from Ebbeler’s that were good reminders of best practices:

  • Scaffold the experience. Ebbeler’s approach is a great one: she begins the semester with more traditional lectures (35 minutes or so), and then slowly asks students to engage with materials outside of class, and introduces more active learning activities in class. With the right guiding questions and regular accountability, students come to class more prepared to contribute and engage. By the end of the semester, the students are leading the discussion, without fully realizing the transformation that took place.
  • Provide feedback often. There are many ways to give feedback, and all of it helps to guide the student to develop the meta-cognititve skills to navigate their education. Low-stakes, objective questions (reading quizzes, clicker questions) give automated feedback that scales easily and provides regular checks for students. Modeling is another way to provide feedback. Take opportunities to model critical questions and valuable feedback for students.
  • Provide enough structure for success. With projects, create interval opportunities to give feedback and ensure students are on track. Two misconceptions among students regarding creative projects is that they’re easier (they’re not), and that they can procrastinate just as they might for a structured paper assignment (they can’t). So have students submit a thesis or proposal for review, and a design plan, to make sure they are putting in thought and effort throughout the process.

It is a journey for students to transition from passive to active learner, and it’s important for education technologists and instructional designers to be cognizant of how difficult that journey can be. But for those of us who put in the extra work to create meaningful learning opportunities for students, it is worth it to increase student agency and ownership.