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2016 July 8

Flipped Learning

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 23:39
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In A call for flipped learning experiences – Casting Out Nines, Robert Talbert has asked for help finding examples of flipped learning outside math and statistics:

Flipped Learning is a pedagogical approach in which first contact with new concepts moves from the group learning space to the individual learning space in the form of structured activity, and the resulting group space is transformed into a dynamic, interactive learning environment where the educator guides students as they apply concepts and engage creatively in the subject matter.

If you teach a face-to-face in-seat class (not online) then “group space” = “in class” and “individual space” = “outside of class”. (This definition is a recent modification of mine, based on the one at and I may have more to say about it in another post.)

What I’d like to hear from you, is

  • The reasons why you chose to use flipped learning in your class;
  • What students in your class do during the “group space” and the “individual space”; and
  • Any evidence of effectiveness of flipped learning you may have, including anecdotal (student comments, etc.)

Also: I especially would like to hear from people not in mathematics or statistics. Back in November I tweeted out a request very similar to this and got several responses, only one of which was from someone outside of math or statistics. I know that flipped learning is used in a variety of disciplines and I want to showcase that variety as much as I can.

I have not done a lot of “flipped learning” in the most commonly used sense of preparing video lectures that students watch on their own. I did add one video (voiced and acted by my son) on using oscilloscopes to the Applied Electronics course this spring, but that isn’t really “flipped learning”, because the intent is not for the students to watch the video before class, but to watch it in the lab and step through the process of setting up the oscilloscope while running the video.

In general, I don’t find videos a good way to help students learn new concepts—they are too slow and too passive, even worse than lectures, where students can at least ask questions.  Videos are useful for certain limited tasks (such as demonstrating how to use a tool, as long as students can follow along and use the tool at the same time), and I do plan to make a few more this summer for training students in using other lab tools (different model of oscilloscope, function generators, power supplies, multimeters, maybe calipers and micrometers).  The key here is that the students are expected to use the tool as they watch the video—the video is a substitute for me standing beside them guiding them (which is still a better approach, but is hard to scale up—a 13-minute video for setting up the oscilloscope would take me 2.6 hours to do with a class of 24 students, working with a pair of students at a time—with 66 students, it would take over 14 hours of my time).

I do use “flipped learning” in my classes is in a more old-school way: I require students to read the textbook, and often even do homework before I lecture on the subject in class.  (See, for example, my early blog post on live-action math.)

My value as a teacher is enhanced if the students have made some attempt to understand the material before class, so that their questions can be more focussed on the things that confused them. I can then spend time in class on the boundary between what they understand and what they don’t understand, maximizing the learning, rather than on covering stuff that they could have learned in the same amount of time on their own, or on stuff that they don’t understand even after my explanation.  (When students don’t ask enough questions in class, I tend to err on the side of giving them stuff beyond what they understand, rather than re-iterating basics, so questions are super-important to keeping my lectures at the right level.)

To use a textbook for “flipped learning”, it needs to be very well matched to the course—either the course is designed around the book, or the book is designed around the course.  For my applied electronics course, I wanted the course to center around the labs, which need to be carefully ordered to build up design and debugging skills, so I ended up writing my own book.

Students are motivated to read the book, because each chapter provides just-in-time material they need to solve the design problems they are facing in the lab.  Students need to learn something new for each lab, adding it to the material they have already learned.  The old material is used over and over, so that students aren’t tempted into cram-and-forget learning.

Requiring students to read how to do something and work problems on the new concepts before being given a carefully worked example helps them learn how to learn from written references—a skill that all engineers need to develop, but that students often have not developed (particularly not in lower-division biology, chemistry, and physics courses, which tend to spoon-feed them just what they need for the problem at hand, encouraging cram-and-forget strategies) .

Getting explanations and corrections after students have struggled with a new concept helps the explanation sink in—they aren’t just memorizing a meaningless series of steps, but seeing how to get around barriers that they’ve been struggling to bypass. Having to demonstrate a working design and write a design report on it further deepens the learning.  Students have to not only learn the material, but use it and explain how they have used it.

So the electronics course uses some flipped learning, but it would probably work just about as well with no flipped learning.  The key to the course is having design tasks that students are motivated to complete, and that require them to use, demonstrate, and describe the concepts they are learning, and using the same set of concepts over and over in different concepts, until they seem second nature. Having students struggle with some material on their own before lecture makes the lecture time a bit more efficient, but the effect is probably pretty small.

2015 May 13

Checking on my pedagogy

Filed under: Circuits course,Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 08:40
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Mark Guzdial just posted some of his pedagogical advice for teaching beginning programmers in How to Teach Computer Science with Media Computation | Computing Education Blog.  I decided to check how much of this I follow in my applied electronics course, which is aimed at a similar level of student (college students with no previous exposure to the content, and perhaps a belief that the material is not relevant or over their heads).

Over the last 10 years, we have learned some of the approaches that work best for teaching Media Computation.

  • Let the students be creative. The most successful Media Computation classes use open-ended assignments that let the students choose what media they use. For example, a collage assignment might specify the use of particular filters and compositions, but allow for the student to choose exactly what pictures are used. These assignments often lead to the students putting in a lot more time to get just the look that they wanted, and that extra time can lead to improved learning.

I’ve not allowed students much room for creativity in the course.  Of the 20 3-hour lab sessions, only one is a “tinkering” lab that allows students to explore several different things.  It may be the most fun of the quarter, and I should look into more ways to let students play with electronics design.

  • Let the students share what they produce. Students can produce some beautiful pictures, sounds, and movies using Media Computation. Those products are more motivating for the students when they get to share them with others. Some schools provide online spaces where students can post and share their products. Other schools have even printed student work and held an art gallery.

I’ve not had the students share their work.  This is difficult to do with the small electronics projects they do—unlike media computation, there isn’t an art by-product of the design process.  The electronics, being hardware and often on breadboards, is much harder to share than software, and the output is generally not easy for average students to appreciate. (EKG traces, though interesting, are not really art-gallery material.)

  • Code live in front of the class. The best part of the teacher actually typing in code in front of the class is that nobody can code for long in front of an audience and not make a mistake. When the teacher makes a mistake and fixes it, the students see (a) that errors are expected and (b) there is a process for fixing them. Coding live when you are producing images and sounds is fun, and can lead to unexpected results and the opportunity to explore, “How did that happen?”

I have always coded live in my classes.  All my lectures are extemporaneous improv performances with audience participation.  I certainly show debugging when doing gnuplot scripting live!  For the electronics design, it is a little harder to show debugging, as most of the problems that occur are difficult to debug at the lectern (I don’t usually carry oscilloscopes and voltmeters around with me, though I have taken out my Swiss Army knife to reseat a loose wire in a screw terminal).  Design errors are also hard to show how to debug—introducing fake errors in a design just confuses students, rather than clarifying the debugging process.  Real errors don’t get caught until the circuits are actually built, which takes more time than is available in a 70-minute lecture.

  • Pair programming leads to better learning and retention. The research results on pair programming are tremendous. Classes that use pair programming have better retention results, and the students learn more.

I have students work in pairs for every lab, and I force them to change partners every week.  This frequent partner changing prevents the common problem of one student carrying another through the course, and allows me to deconvolve performance into individual grades (which I have to issue at the end of the quarter). I do see evidence that students working in pairs do a better job on doing the designs than students working alone, though a big part of that may be just that max(a,b) is better than average(a,b)—that is, that the pair does as well as the better of the two students.

  • Peer instruction is great. Not only does peer instruction lead to better learning and retention outcomes, but it also gives the teacher better feedback on what the students are learning and what they are struggling with. We strongly encourage the use of peer instruction in computing classes.

The students do help each other learn in lab—particularly in the afternoon section.  As long as I’m around enough that they check confusing points with me, rather than propagating wrong ideas, the peer instruction works well.  I think that the afternoon lab section has been better about checking with me when they are confused.  A lot of the morning section still seems caught in “answer-getting”, asking their friends for the “answer” rather than for help with the method—that sort of sharing interferes with learning, rather than aiding in learning.

  • Worked examples help with learning creativity. Most computer science classes do not provide anywhere near enough worked-out examples for students to learn from. Students like to learn from examples. One of the benefits of Media Computation is that we provide a lot of examples (we’ve never tried to count the number of for and if statements in the book!), and it’s easy to produce more of them. In class, we do an activity where we hand out example programs, then show a particular effect. We ask pairs or groups of students to figure out which program generated that effect. The students talk about code, and study a bunch of examples.

I’ve not developed a good set of worked examples. Part of the problem is that I have trouble coming up with good design exercises, and I’ve ended up using almost all I’ve come with as assignments, leaving very little for use as worked examples.  I see this as the biggest hole in my book and in my course, and I hope to try to fill it in a bit over the summer.

Another problem with worked examples is that I’m using this course to try to “descaffold” the students, who have been getting far too much fill-in-the-blank sort of labs and homework.  I’m trying to get them from having their hands held for everything to being able to solve many-step design problems in only 10 weeks, which is probably an impossible task. I just wish that other teachers would do less scaffolding, so that the students were used to doing some problem solving and not just rote procedure following.

So I need to come up with worked examples that give students an idea how to solve multi-step problems (subdividing a system into parts, calculating sensitivity of sensors, working out needed gain by working from input and output constraints, … ) without solving the specific problems that they will address for them.


2013 October 3

Was I too harsh?

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 19:03
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Yesterday in my grad course, I responded rather tartly to a student question, and have been going back and forth in my mind ever since whether I was too harsh.

At the beginning of every class I ask for questions from the students, and I take all sorts of questions.  One, very appropriate question at the beginning of class yesterday was how to hand in the first assignment on Friday.  I explained the procedure I wanted followed (paper copies of the program that I could mark up, with the file name for the programs on the paper, so that I could copy and test the programs).

About five to ten minutes later, a student who was late for class asked exactly the same question.  Not wanting to repeat myself, and not wanting to encourage students to arrive late, I replied something like “If you had been here on time, you would have heard the answer to that question. Ask someone in the class to explain it to you, and try to arrive on time next time.” Note: I don’t remember which student it was who was late—I have a terrible memory for faces and I’ve not learned any of the names yet in the class—I think that there were 3 students who were late that day.

While this response probably had the desirable effect of encouraging the student to attempt to be prompt, I’m afraid it might also have squelched the student’s (or, worse, the students’) willingness to ask questions in future.  I rely very heavily on student questions to guide what I say in the grad course and what details I cover, so reducing student questioning could be a serious problem.  I did get several pertinent questions later in the period, so I know I did not make everyone afraid of asking questions, but I’m a bit worried that I’ll only get questions from the most confident students in the class, rather than all of them.

I’m wondering whether I should do a general apology to the class for my response to that question at the beginning of tomorrow’s class, explaining that I really do want to encourage questions, or whether I should let it slide and just take questions as normal without remarking on it.  Note: Wed was only the third meeting of the class, so students are not necessarily settled in to a routine yet—what I do could still affect student behavior. Also, I don’t need to be loved by my students, but I do need to be fair, and to be seen as being fair, so that students will respect my judgements of their work, even when my assessment is not as favorable as they are used to getting.

I’d appreciate suggestions from my readers.

2013 August 27

Classroom observation

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 09:35
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Bowman Dickson, who teaches math at a school in Saudi Arabia, wrote in a blog post (Observations from Observing: Methods) about a mutual observation scheme set up at his school:

For the whole year, she came to my class once a week, I went to her class once a week and then we met once a week to debrief. Sure, she tells me she learned a lot, but this was also the best professional development possible for me too. I learned so much over the course of the year and engaged in so many excellent conversations about teaching—I grew so much from a commitment of a little over an hour a week.

It makes me realize that I should have been doing this all along with a colleague, apart from the whole school appraisal process. Though it seems so easy, and I of course exchanged the common “I’d love to come visit your class” with so many colleagues, it never happened before. I think the thing that made it work with us was a structured commitment, and the formation of a habit in our schedules (it didn’t feel like something ON TOP of everything else, it was part of what I did every week).

I’ve learned a lot about teaching by sitting in on other professors’ classes, particularly faculty in disciplines different from my own. I didn’t do this primarily as professional observation, as Bowman did, but in order to learn the material the professors were teaching.

In addition to re-experiencing what it was like to be a student (a useful correction to arrogance that more faculty need every few years), I also observed teaching techniques.  How did the teacher structure the material? How was student attention maintained?  What information did the teacher get as feedback and how did they use it?  How long did teachers wait for student responses? …  I didn’t generally share my observations with the teacher (the pushback I got the one time I tried convinced me not to try again—and that was from an excellent professor who was doing a great job with one minor failing, that his exams were memorization tests of trivial factoids, not of understanding the content of the text or his lectures).

I would love to have a regular exchange observation with a teacher whose work I respected or with a colleague who really was interested in improving teaching (and not just in sucking up to a senior faculty member to improve chances of tenure).  But most of the faculty I know see teaching as a decidedly secondary part of their job—a necessary condition for being a professor, which allows them to do the research they love.  If they have a spare hour in the week, which few do, it is not likely to be spent trying to improve their teaching. It is more likely to be spent trying to catch up on the research literature or desperately writing yet another grant proposal, in the hopes that they’ll be able to fund their research group for another year.

That’s not to say that my colleagues are bad teachers—some of them are excellent teachers, some are good with the potential for being excellent, and only a rare few are poor teachers.  In some cases the excellence is tied to their research—they are brilliant people with a deep knowledge of their subject, which enables them to separate out the crucial concepts from the piles of papers and books, and present them clearly and coherently to students.  Many of them are also driven by perfectionism—they are not happy with doing a crummy job of anything, even something they see as a secondary part of their mission.  They spend a lot of time designing, preparing for, and teaching their classes, but often very little thinking about the methods they use for teaching.

I think that many of us (excellent, bad, or in between) could be better teachers if we had some time set aside for comparing, discussing, experimenting with, and just thinking about pedagogy.  But where will that time come from, in a system that is increasingly focused on how much money the faculty can bring to the University?

2013 March 31

Self-taught teacher

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:54
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I recently got some praise on the AP Bio teachers’ forum for answering some statistical questions, which embarrassed me a little.  I always feel like an imposter when I help anyone with statistics.  Despite having a B.S. and M.S. in math, and a Ph.D. in computer science, I learned statistics rather late in life—my first course in it was a graduate stochastic processes course in 1999, when I was 44, and my second was a Bayesian statistics course in 2001.  Other than those two courses, I’m pretty much self-taught in statistics and have to rely heavily on Wikipedia and other on-line sources.

I occasionally answer biology questions on the forum also, though my biology has an even shakier foundation: one freshman bio course, one junior-level biochem class (without the prerequisite general and o. chem), one graduate protein structure class—again, I have to rely heavily on things I’ve heard from colleagues or seen on the internet.  I feel like a real imposter answering bio questions on the AP Bio teachers’ forum, since everyone else on the forum has had far more courses in biology than I ever will. I doubt that I have the knowledge to teach even an 8th-grade life science course, much less an AP bio course.

While I’m always willing to share what I know, I frequently have gaps in my understanding that I’m not even aware of.

Of course, I’ve gotten used to teaching things I’ve had to teach myself—several of the courses I’ve created have been in subjects where I had had no formal instruction:

  • applied circuits for bioengineers (2013)
  • technical writing (1987–1999)
  • digital typography course (1996–1998). Just this month I met an alumnus of that course, who got into graphical design, then web design and programming as a result of that course—he regrets that he did not take any other computer courses in college.
  • bicycle transportation engineering (1997)
  • bioinformatics: models and algorithms (our core grad bioinformatics course, 1998–present)
  • protein structure prediction (1996–2011)
  • banana slug genomics (2010, 2011)
  • how to be a grad student (1990–present)
  • resource-efficient programming (2004)

Other courses I’ve created after only one prior course:

  • VLSI design (1982–2000)
  • digital synthesis of music (1989 and 1991)

For that matter, my first faculty position was a joint appointment between an EE and a CS department, teaching mainly EE courses, based on having a CS PhD and having taken 3 EE courses (digital logic, microprocessors, and VLSI design).

Of course, I’ve also taught several courses designed by others, often with little prior training in the field.  I find that more difficult than teaching a course that I’ve designed myself, even if it takes me six months or more to teach myself the material before designing a course (as with the circuits course).

Because so much of what I’ve taught is material that I’ve had to teach myself, I tend to take a different approach to teaching than many other faculty.  I see my role as trying to provide guidance for students to learn the material faster than I did, with less time chasing down blind alleys, not to just dump some pre-digested knowledge into their heads for them to memorize and regurgitate. I don’t teach them as I’ve been taught, but as how I wish I had been taught.  I tend to pose them problems to guide their learning, rather than giving them information, then expecting them to repeat it back to me. (I’m self-taught in pedagogy also, but that is normal for university faculty.)

I want them to learn skills (not facts) that can serve them as a basis for further learning—for example, in the circuits course, I wanted the students to be able to design and build simple amplifier circuits and to be able to write design reports.  I didn’t care so much whether they could work book problems as that they acquired the mental attitudes of engineers—that they could design and build things, that data sheets are worth consulting, that precise and accurate recording of what was designed and measured is essential, that often you have to check things for yourself (not blindly trusting the data sheets or simple models), that consistency and sanity checks are an important part of any problem solving, that breaking a problem into subproblems is an essential element of design in any engineering field, and so forth.  (I think they got some of that, but it takes more than 10 weeks for the attitudes to really become part of their worldview.)

I think that the flattery on the AP Bio teachers’ forum was to soften me up to mentor a bright high school student that the teacher knew.  I’m willing to serve as a mentor for smart and motivated kids interested in bioinformatics, but not in other branches of biology—I just don’t know enough in those fields to guide anyone.  Even in bioinformatics, I don’t find it easy to guide students below a certain level of training—I have a few programming projects I could use student help on, but I don’t have many ideas for students who aren’t already expert programmers.

I have one pending request from a high school student wanting to do computational protein work in my lab this summer—something I don’t really do any more.  I have no idea what to tell her—10 years ago, I had an active lab that I could have worked her into, but with the repeated failure of grant requests and my subsequent disillusionment with the whole grant rat race, I no longer have a lab. I’m now working more as a consultant on other people’s research (helping out with statistics, signal processing, genome assembly, and other things I’m self-taught in) and putting most of my time into teaching and creating new courses.

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