Like most of cohort 1, my second year as a VIPEr Fellow did not go as expected, in that both of my semester options for completing the second half of the project ended up being moved partly or fully online by the pandemic. As a result, I was unable to complete the planned activities for year 2, but my experience as a fellow in year 1 completely changed how I taught my Principles of Chemistry II course (general chemistry with a foundational inorganic focus) this past spring.
In the end, I ended up making my course more focused on active engagement with students than I likely would have had everything been “normal.” I usually teach Principles of Chemistry II in a sloped fixed-seating lecture hall that is not conducive to collaborative group work. The first-year students in the course had also historically been wary of group activities, with many preferring to just listen to a lecture. However, with the move to Zoom, the physical confines of the classroom were no longer relevant. In addition, after a year and a half of online courses, students were craving interaction with their peers and instructors, even in the virtual environment.
Free from these restrictions as well as my own hesitations and concerns about how changes in the course would be received, I was able to fully “flip” my course. I pre-recorded lectures for viewing in advance of class and then changed the synchronous virtual sessions to a much more student-focused experience. Each synchronous session would begin with about 10 minutes of me answering student questions, followed by 20-30 minutes of work in small groups on a scaffolded activity, and then we would wrap up and discuss the activity for the remaining time. Occasionally, the activity or the discussion would carry over into a second class period. Questions about the activity led to great discussion around concepts that students found challenging and enabled me to provide additional explanation along with practical “tips and tricks” to the whole class, rather than just those who came to ask about a particular topic in office hours. Some of the activities were also intentionally designed around particular problem-solving approaches that I normally introduce to help students who are struggling. My goal with this was to make the class more equitable, by making sure that students had equal access to all available tools, regardless of whether they sought assistance.
To engage the whole class rather than just those students who were willing to speak up (which was not very many), I used a trick learned from VIPEr’s own Shirley Lin. When asking students to report out their answers to the activity, I would count down from three to zero and students would then type their answers in the chat. Sometimes students would also comment on each other’s answers or their own after seeing the responses. This chat feature is actually one of the few things from virtual teaching that I would love to be able to bring into the classroom moving forward to lower the barrier to participation. In this course, which averages 60 students who are mostly first-years and also non-majors, it can be challenging to get people to volunteer answers. I’m not a big fan of having students get their phones out to use app-based response tools, so I’ll have to look into other options in the future. Luckily, this semester I’m teaching our advanced inorganic course—which has about 20 students—and we had such an animated discussion about bonding after the first in-class activity that I was unable to actually get to my planned lecture.
The transition to a flipped classroom wasn’t perfect and it definitely wasn’t easy (it was exhausting in the pandemic environment), but it was totally worth it. One big challenge was that the course is at 8:50 am (our earliest course slot), so student attendance at synchronous sessions dropped off after the middle of the semester. Students commented in their course evaluations that they really benefitted from the structure of the course and the in-class activities, but that the activities weren’t as good when not many students participated. (I agree.) A lot of the workload this round was recording of videos and writing all the activities, so that will hopefully make things easier in future iterations. I also added one or two learning goals to the beginning slide of each pre-recorded lecture so students knew what they should expect to get out of it. Moving forward, I plan to keep the flipped structure in the in-person setting as well, though I’ve been rotated out of the introductory course after teaching it for five years to make room a more junior colleague. One thing that will be interesting to see is if future generations of students remain willing to watch pre-lecture videos as we (hopefully) get further from the fully online experience. I’ll be thrilled to get far enough from the pandemic to find out.
Throughout the semester and the past few years, the VIPEr community has been enormously supportive. I’d highly recommend checking out the VIPErPit if you haven’t, because even just passively reading about other people’s courses and experiences has helped me feel connected to the community in a challenging time.