Welcome to the edX blog

Posted in: MOOC Research

In his last post Brian reviewed the background for his course, his educational objectives and some initial ways he adapted the 7.00x MOOC to support the Bio 111 SPOC. Here he continues with his changes, as well as expands on what he’s learned so far.

In class activities
Flipping the class has involved a dramatic revision of my in-class activities. Instead of lecturing, the sessions are based on a series of questions targeted to parts of the material that students have found difficult in the past. In some sessions, I start with questions at the level of difficulty found on the SPOC and move to the level of difficulty found on the exams. In others, I walk them through a strategy for solving problems or through an application of the material. Throughout each session, I intersperse mini lectures (no longer than 5 minutes) as needed before, during, and after the questions. These questions and mini lectures are designed based on the assumption that the students have at least seen the relevant material before coming to class. My presentation is then adapted on-the-fly in response to student questions, difficulties, and responses to questions.

Compared to lectures that I have polished for 15 years, this feels like “working without a net”. I find myself thinking, “But I haven’t taught them X.” I have to remind myself that this is what the SPOC is for. The students’ work in class clearly shows that they are prepared without me having to give traditional lectures.

Before each session, I make a ‘template document’ with the necessary figures and questions; students receive a handout with a simplified version of this. During each session, I use a tablet PC to mark up the template; I then post the resulting pdf to the course website for the students to review. A sample session pdf is shown below.

Sample Session Clicker Questions

The goal of this session was to get students drawing molecules using the correct bonding properties of the atoms involved and then using the correct chemical abbreviations. I began with a diagnostic iClicker question that was very similar to the SPOC questions for this session. I then briefly reviewed some material on formal charge that had been covered in more detail in the SPOC and followed up with question 2a to be sure that they were able to use this new material. We then worked through a few APAIB problems where they had to draw proper molecules given a molecular formula. For part (d), students tweeted pictures of the molecules they had drawn; I posted a sample to the notes as above. I then moved on to using abbreviations of chemical formulas. We began this last section with a review problem, a review of the rules, and finally an exam-level challenge problem.

Mini-exams: an unexpected bonus
Exams in Bio 111 have always consisted of short-answer problem-solving questions. An important side effect of moving content from “in-class time” to “homework time” is the time available in class for more frequent mini exams. Instead of the typical three large hour exams, I am now able to give 10 mini exams. In these, students have 50 minutes to complete an exam that is roughly 1/3 the size of a standard hour exam. The students have been very enthusiastic about this. They find that these more “bite sized” exams are easier to study for and allow them to quickly adapt their study practices to meet the expectations of my course.

The students’ performance on these mini exams has been remarkable. The figure below compares students’ performance on the first four mini exams from Fall 2013 with that from Exam 2 from 2012 – an hour exam that covered the same material with problems of the same level of difficulty. The increase in average and dramatic change in the shape of the distribution speak for themselves.

Bar chart comparing Fall 2013 Exam 2 with Fall 2013 Exams 1-4

Results of preliminary evaluation
The course is still in progress, but several lines of evidence suggest that it is achieving the goals I listed above.

  1. Make better use of the students’ time. Logs from the SPOC show that 80-90% of the students are answering the test yourself and warm-up questions for each session. Students also voluntarily report the time spent preparing for each session. Roughly 2/3 of the students report regularly and they report an average of 2-3 hours spent preparing for each session.
  2. Make better use of the Teaching Assistants. I have been able to teach problem solving strategies in lecture as demonstrated by the students’ success on the exams.
  3. Include more hands-on labs. I have been able to add several hands-on labs to the syllabus.
  4. Include more active learning in lecture. As shown above, I have been able to employ a highly active approach to the in class sessions.

In addition, preliminary course evaluations indicate that the students prefer the flipped class model. I recently gave a mid-term evaluation that asked students whether they preferred the flipped class to their other, more traditionally taught, science classes. Although I received responses from only 1/3 of the students, those who responded overwhelmingly preferred the flipped format. The most common positive comments cited:

  • Being able to take notes on their own time. Students understand the material more when they are able to rewind/stop and go back before exams. In a lecture style course they feel rushed taking notes and miss things.
  • Students feel more prepared for class since they previewed what they would be discussing in class on the SPOC.
  • Students appreciate having instant results on the warm up questions. They know right away if they got it right or wrong.
  • They believe they are getting a deeper understanding of the content and like that more material can be covered.

So far, my experience with my course has shown that the 7.00x MOOC materials can be a very effective provider of on-line content to support a flipped freshman biology class. Students are using the materials in a way that allows a more active approach in the classroom. This has in turn allowed more hands-on wet labs in the laboratory sessions. Finally, this structure has allowed frequent low-stakes evaluations – both on the SPOC and through the mini-exams – that the students enjoy and are succeeding brilliantly at. My lab is currently conducting several research projects to measure the students’ behavior and learning outcomes in more depth.  My goal is to continue to post as we uncover more data and gain new insights. Stay tuned.

By Brian White

Note: Brian White is a professor in the Biology Department of the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He recently teamed up with Eric Lander from MIT’s Broad Institute to develop a Massively Open On-line Course (MOOC) in General Biology called “7.00x: The Secret of Life”. It uses software he developed in its problem sets, exams and more. He has adapted the 7.00x MOOC into a flipped classroom SPOC (Small Private Online Course), Bio 111 at UMass Boston. This is Part 2 in a series chronicling the process and findings from his blended learning experiment.