Category Archives: teaching tips

Backward Design Institute

This week is jmUDESIGN, a week-long course redesign institute for faculty. The institute is based on the principles of backward course design, primarily influenced by the work of Dee Fink. I went through this institute 2 years ago, and this is now my second time as a group facilitator. It’s a valuable program that has been very influential in my career development as a faculty member.

The essence of backward design is to start with your Big Ideas or Beautiful Questions (BI/BQ) and work backward toward designing your course structure. From BI/BQ, the next step is to define significant Learning Outcomes (LOs). These should go beyond just understanding concepts, but should be crafted to explain what you want your students to do with what they learn. The theme for this part of the institute is the 5-Year Dream, which encourages you to reflect on what they should do and know 5 years after your course is over. How do you want your students to change because of your course?

Next, we move to crafting both formative and summative assessments that are aligned with your LOs. At that point, we examine our pedagogical choices and practices to ensure that our classrooms are properly aligned to our goals.

Backward design is a fascinating concept to me because it is exactly what we should do when designing courses, but don’t. The week is exhausting, thought-provoking, inspirational, and a lot of fun. Even though this is my third time through the process, I am still learning and developing even deeper understanding of who I am as a teacher and what I want for my students. Over the next couple of posts, I’ll highlight a couple of interesting ideas that I am taking away from this week.


Flipping tip – The role of source material

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that my experience this semester was unique. I converted my Computer Organization course to a flipped classroom using Team-Based Learning (TBL), while also taking a Physics class that was taught in a flipped style. As such, I got to experience both sides of the flipped classroom model at the same time. (Confession: They do it better, but hopefully just because they’ve had more practice.)

This was the first time I taught Computer Organization as a TBL course. To help students prepare for each module, I gave reading assignments along with a guide of questions to discuss beforehand. The discussion never quite emerged to be as interactive as I would have liked, but the students did complete the readings and were in a good position to start the modules. Overall, I am quite pleased with the results and feel confident that those who completed the course took a lot from it. However, my Physics experience tells me that there I still made their lives a lot harder than may have been necessary.

In the Physics class, we were assigned 3-5 videos to watch before every class, each video ranging from 3 to 12 minutes (5-6 was typically). Generally, the total time commitment was less than 20 minutes. The videos were critical to the success of the class. They brought the equations to life, illustrating the manifestation of the concepts rather than just the calculations. (Granted, not all videos were created equal. Some videos, particularly those that were 10-minute mathematical derivations, were less enlightening.)

There were times where I used videos in my course, to great success and relief from the students. Yes, they’re a lot of work (I estimate 8 hours for each 15 minutes of video). But you can get a lot of reuse out of them, particularly if they’re not closely bound to a particular programming language or architecture. I plan on reusing some of these for my Operating Systems course this fall and for some other courses.

But I can hear the collective voice of faculty everywhere: What about the textbook? Why can’t they just read that? Shouldn’t it be a learning objective that they develop their skills reading technical sources?

Absolutely. I very much believe that they need to learn how to read source material. However, I don’t think this can be accomplished by edict. Rather, I believe we need to make this skill a more explicit learning objective and provide scaffolding to support it. Videos can serve that role. They should not be perceived as a replacement for the textbook. Rather, the emphasis should be that videos illustrate main concepts while the text provides the details.

It’s incredibly tempting to think that reading guides can serve this role. Provide them with a list of questions that they need to answer as they read, possibly with some hints about what major points to think about. The problem with reading guides is that they are using the same language as the text: words and concepts the students don’t yet understand. And frankly, my view is this: If the students aren’t reading the textbook, are they really going to read your guide in a meaningful way?

I’m going to audaciously suggest that we in the active learning community underestimate the importance of source material supports. When flipping the classroom, we focus on changing our in-class activities, homework, and projects. That is, we put all of our work into refining the things that we and our students will do. We do not put nearly enough thought into what resources our students will use.

So, if you are thinking about flipping your course, you need to re-evaluate your relationship with textbooks and other source material. You will probably find that you need to provide additional support in the form of videos. Yes, they’re a LOT of work. But they really help the students progress. And it’s okay if they suck. I’ve produced some pretty bad videos in the past, and the students still loved them.

Flipping tip: Respect students and team dynamics

“This is physics by intimidation.”

That Monday had started like many others, with most students a little groggy and not quite fully alert. I could offer my own rationalization, such as how I was up until 2 AM the night before working on my own classes. But that’s beside the point: our students are often exhausted from balancing commitments. So we were all in the same boat, a little bit too tired to process details about (as I recall) inelastic collisions.

As we did every day, we formed our teams of 4 to start working on the day’s problems. Our team was often quiet, as we read the problems and thought for a bit before discussing how to tackle them. Somehow, our silence seemed to strike a nerve with the instructor that day, and he decided to tower over our table and drill us on the questions.

We all answered the first one, quite confidently. Instead of any acknowledgement, he immediately demanded the answer to the next one. Our answer was slightly more hesitant, but came out nonetheless. No break. What’s the third answer. We just lost one student responding. What’s the fourth. Now we’re down to two half-hearted attempts. The fifth. Mumbles. The sixth. Then came the gut punch:

“This is physics by intimidation. Now. What is the answer to the next question?”

I had been uncertain about our response on the fifth, so I looked down to re-read it and try to clarify it in my mind. As I was deliberating, I heard fingers snapping. “Hey. Buddy. What is your answer on [the sixth question]?”

“Actually, I haven’t looked at that one yet, because I’m still trying to make sense of [some detail about the fifth question].”

“Fine. You go ahead and work at your own pace. You can do whatever you want.”

[Editorial note: I really wish there was an obvious font for expressing condescension. I guess italics will have to suffice.]

I was dismissed. A figurative wave of the hand to exclude me from his tutorial. But my teammates weren’t. For the next 20 minutes (yes, I kept watching the time), he stood by the side of our table, occasionally interjecting comments about how wrong an answer was.

As a student, I was infuriated. Our group had a quality working dynamic. We weren’t exuberant in our discussions, and we probably spent a lot more time in quiet reflection than anyone else in the class. But that was our dynamic, and it had been working. Instead of letting it work, his intervention disrupted it and ejected me from that day’s discussions.

As a faculty member and education researcher, I was embarrassed. I cannot think of any sound pedagogical reason to berate a team this way. I can give him a small benefit of doubt and state that he may have legitimately thought we were not working. As I said, our preferred modus operandus did not exhibit the outward activity that many flipped classroom groups do. Regardless, there were many, many superior ways to address such a concern.

In the end, I felt (and still feel) that this particular instructor does not respect students. He routinely makes comments that make students wince. I have no doubt that he believes it to be wit. But that doesn’t matter when you’re an instructor. Your students’ perceptions of your classroom IS the reality of your classroom.

So how do you avoid this? I have a few tips/observations:

  1. In a flipped classroom, you are handing over responsibility. When students are forming their teams, allow them to establish the standard process of working and respect it.
  2. Offer guidance, not intimidation. Instead of demanding answers, ask more questions: “What information do you need to get started with this problem?” “What is unclear about the instructions here?”
  3. Trust and respect your students. If you don’t, do not be surprised when they fail to trust or respect you.

I wish I could say that this was a freak occurrence and everything returned to normal after that, but I can’t. Two students missed the next class, having not missed a day previously (we were more than half-way through the semester). Within two weeks, one of them disappeared and never returned. Another one made it to class every 3 or 4 days.

Ultimately, our group–which had previously been quite successful and enjoyable–never functioned again. As it turns out, intimidation is an easy way to destroy students’ motivation. In a flipped classroom, that is the death knell of learning.


Flipping tip: process matters

This semester, I converted one of my courses to Team-Based Learning (TBL). I’ve dabbled with TBL (or parts of it) in previous semesters, but this was the first time I’d tried it in this class. If you’re not familiar with TBL, the first thing to note is that TBL does NOT just mean using teams in class. It’s a specific process as follows:

  1. The course is broken up into 5-7 modules that each take about 2-3 weeks.
  2. Each module starts with a Readiness Assurance Process (RAP) that requires pre-reading and holds the students accountable for it on the first day. To assist in this, I give out a reading guide that includes key questions for them to consider. The rest of the module is spent on in-class application activities.
  3. Students are assigned to persistent, diverse teams for the entire semester.

The  RAP includes an individual test (iRAT), team test (tRAT), and clarifying instruction. What I’ve found from this semester’s experience is just how critical the RAP is to the success of the module and the course as a whole. While module 1 went decently (it’s always expected to be a transition), module 2 was a disaster. No one had done the readings ahead of time, so they weren’t prepared to use the concepts on activities. The blame for this falls solely at my feet. I didn’t adequately explain the process.

So I took a mid-semester break and showed them this flow chart:

TBL Process

I also gave them these pieces of advice for completing the readings:

  • Start by reading all questions, get a feel for terms
  • Skim the reading assignment to identify where to find information
  • Try to answer SOME questions on a scrap of paper
  • Read the assignment in a bit more detail, checking answers
  • Propose an answer to a single question
  • Monitor others’ responses and verify their responses
  • Ask follow-up questions for questions you doubt

To me, these seemed like no-brainers. CS textbooks are, in general, awful. They are dry, boring material. They have mistakes or opinions masquerading as facts. They are not necessarily written with scaffolding and conceptual reinforcement in mind. And yet, many students had been approaching them as novels, reading the chapter from beginning to end.

Since giving out these tips and explaining the process in detail, the turn-around has been dramatic. In fact, the midterm grades for this group far exceeded those of previous years. But for that to happen, they must understand the process. Just putting it on the syllabus and hoping for the best won’t work.

From this observation, I’ve come up with an idea to try in future semesters: Have a module 0 that serves as an introduction to the course. Include a custom 2-page reading assignment with multiple pages and clearly marked terms and sections. At the start of the second page, include a statement such as the following:

If you read the first page in its entirety, you should reconsider how you approach reading assignments. If you would check the reading guide, you’ll notice that none of the material from the first page is mentioned in the questions.

If you are considering a flipped classroom model, it is critical that you work early in the semester to train your students to follow the process. If you don’t, you will experience disastrous modules and/or courses.