A Case for Better Course Design

A Case for Better Course Design thumbnail

Campus Technology published an article last week about a biomed course that saw mixed results from flipped instruction. The full article is open access (CC-BY 4.0) and available to read. I’ve read and annotated the original article and I’m going to distill a couple of points from bot the published report and the CT article.

The Report

The authors state right up front that there “were no statistically significant differences in examination scores or students’ assessment of the course between 2015 (traditional) and 2016 (flipped).” Campus Technology (and other publications) often latch on to the grade implications rather than qualitative student feedback on the efficacy of flipping. To the researchers’ credits, they do recognize higher retention and application as reported by students on self-reported feedback surveys.

The biggest red flag for me was in the definition of flipping. As Robert Talbert regularly points out, many research articles limit flipping to “video at home, discussion in class.” The article elaborated on the at home experience in the methods section. From the article,

Students were introduced to new material each week by completing assigned readings from textbooks and journal articles, then by watching recorded lectures given by faculty experts at MSPH on one of 10 core epidemiology topics. Next, students completed short online graded assessments of their understanding of the new concepts presented in these media based on the Just-in-Time Teaching (JiTT) pedagogy…

Students were also able to submit questions to instructors prior to the in-person meeting that would be addressed at the start of the session. The article also makes note that doctoral students and instructors would monitor questions via email or office hours in between in-person meetings.

So, students watched a lecture (no discussion on the format, length, or content of the lecture), read some articles, and then began to apply material in preparation for the lecture. More on this later.

Students reported confidence in their learning and ability to apply materials with a slight increase in the flipped (84.1%) vs traditional (80.6%) cohorts (non-statistically significant, however).

Campus Technology’s Interpretation

The opening sentence proclaims:

A study at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health found that in a health science course following the flipped classroom model, there was no statistically significant differences in test scores or students’ assessments of their course, compared to a traditional lecture course.

They do not note that the study took place over two years (two different groups of students) but did report positive impacts due to freedom to watch lectures when they wanted to (improved flexibility). CT also included an insightful quote from one of the authors about the lack of time to process information in a traditional setting after a lecture (discussion was immediately after lecture in the traditional design) but that flipping doesn’t allow for “[direct engagement] with the lecturers”

The Bigger Picture

The research study and the ensuing report highlight two things for me:

  1. Grades are often the motivating factor when flipped classrooms are studied which limits discussion of student impact and,
  2. the perceived importance of course design is negligible when studies are conducted or reported.

Students reported a higher satisfaction with the class due to flexibility and because they felt more confidence in the material. Time to process information is important and they were better able to contribute to discussions after having time to think through the lecture. But, all the CT article focused on was the grade. It isn’t a secret that few practitioners (K-12 or higher ed) actually read the reports unless they’re actively planning their own study. There is a responsibility for news outlets and blogs to include gains beyond the final exam score.

How did students grow beyond the test? What improvements did instructors see in the cohort? These are important factors that should be included in followup interviews if not in the research report itself. The research did have the six instructors full out surveys, but they were not reported in the results with student feedback.

Secondly, course design is critical if we want to improve student performance. Several of the citations were quite old (early to mid 2000’s) and were in a similar vein, looking at student exam scores rather than course design and teaching methodology (granted, several of the cited articles were paywalled so I couldn’t do a full evaluation of each).

If we simply bottle courses and reverse the time of interaction, why would we have an expectation of student improvement on exams? This article shows that the course is consistent, if nothing else, with no change in student exam performance. How would it have changed if students had explored material before the lecture, as in Ramsey Musallam’s or Dan Meyer’s work? How would students have benefitted from interactive items at the beginning of the discussion period rather than a rehash of the lecture from the instructor?

While the research makes some interesting points, it is far from conclusive in its results on the efficacy of flipping. The authors make conciliations at the end, but we need to continue to push the discussion away from a particular technology solution and start by analyzing our instruction methods as the real turning point in student learning.

Featured image is Lecture Hall, Chairs flickr photo by Dustpuppy72 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

Planning a Flipped Unit Part 4

Now it’s down to the What of your unit. Standards have been identified and selected, themes established, and your main mechanism for assessment has been designed to check what students know and can do at the conclusion of the unit.

The center of the Golden Circle isn’t the most important. It’s the component that fits within each of the larger rings. The What of your lessons should drive students toward successful completion of the assessment mechanism which, in turn, shows you what the students have learned of the identified standards.

The What is hard to specify, because the variety of activity in a flipped environment depends on individual student needs. Using the 5E structure helped me plan meaningful and varied activities all within the large scope of the unit.

If you’re not familiar with 5E, here’s a breakdown:

  1. Engage
  2. Explore
  3. Explain
  4. Elaborate
  5. Evaluate

I bolded Engage and Explain because it’s where I focused much of my effort in early unit planning.


It’s easy for me to stand up front and teach a topic. I can communicate ideas clearly and succinctly and ask students to demonstrate understanding with a variety of mechanisms. But, that sucks the joy out of learning something new (not that all students will love chemistry, but you get the idea). Ramsey Musallam and Dan Meyer are two really smart people I found early in this transition who helped frame my view of the engage portion.

Ramsey’s Explore-Flip-Apply structure fit well with my goals. Science is the practice of observation and I wasn’t great at getting students to observe phenomena. Use EFA at times, I was able to both engage the students in an interesting question and push them to draw conclusions based on lab experience.

Dan has pioneered 3 Act Math approach, which works to drive student inquisitiveness as a carrier for math instruction. I took his advice about practicing capturing perplexing things and started trying to photograph or film things that would be useful for engaging my students. (The previous link is a video about halfway through Dan’s 2014 CUE keynote. I recommend watching the entire presentation if you can find the time.)

This is hard to do, mainly because what I find engaging might not be engaging to students at all. Expect to swing for the fences and miss with some. As you hone your units, your engage activities will improve.


After exploring an idea, there will inevitably be misconceptions which need to be corrected. This is the Flip in Ramsey’s Explore-Flip-Apply. I can assess and gather information about student understanding as they explore and then I can use the power of a camera and a short video to instruct where students need the intervention.

If you’ve been flipping for a while, you know where students struggle. You probably already have a library of support videos you can filter into the unit. This also helps you identify gaps in your own instruction! Pay attention to what material students need additional help with and continue to build those resources out. Structuring your unit (not just a lesson) this way will also help you target which lessons are the most important, and that’s what students do. You don’t have to assign everything every year because the goals of the unit stay the same while student understanding changes year to year or class to class.

More on 5E

Each step in the 5E structure were not prepared for every single day of every single unit. Some components were easier to run across several days (or even weeks) because of low overhead (no prep, etc). Others were limited to specific dates and times. This is particularly important in a science classroom because of lab availability and safety considerations. Giving students choice in how they tackle a particular activity does not mean carte blanche. Specific constructs and limitations are acceptable.

Without repeating the linked 5E article above, Elaboration focuses on connecting to other ideas rather than staying within the immediate context. This is a great place to spiral back to previous units or to build anticipation for future units. It forces you to continue to consider the connections at the standards level rather than looking 24 hours in the future. Not only are your units more powerful, but your course as a whole takes on a larger internal support structure.

Final Thoughts

Much of this is written from secondary math/science perspective because that’s my experience. If you’re not in the same context, pay attention to the support structures rather than the individual examples. How are your standards mapped out? Have you mapped them out? Start large and work down to the day to day. This ensures students have a consistent experience and that the unit has internal fidelity to specific ideas. Looking day to day narrows the scope and makes it too easy to dictate the entire path of the course.

This is a skill that develops over time. There are strong communities of teachers on the FLN website and Slack channel. Get connected with others to solicit feedback and suggestions from people working on the same ideas. As you continue to zoom your lens out and work down to individual lessons your skill will build and your students will benefit.

Thanks for reading the series. If you have questions, leave a comment or head over to my website and drop me a line.

Featured image by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash.

Planning a Flipped Unit Part 3

Once you know why you’re teaching what you’re teaching, you need to define how you’ll know what students have learned or not learned. What task(s) will students complete in order to show what they’ve learned as you move through the unit? Keep in mind that this does not necessarily have to be a written test! This step in planning helps you meaningfully outline the Why of your unit.

Default Action

Defaults surround us. When I use my computer, I have a default web browser. I have default settings on my phone. When I get home in the evenings, I change into more comfortable clothes. Defaults help us work effectively and efficiently to accomplish a specific task.

We also have defaults in our teaching. When I need to quickly assess students, my default is usually a quick poll (choose the best answer from the board) or some targeted questioning to reiterate some important points from the activity. Those quick checks are routine for my students and the default action helps me effectively check for understanding without significant interruption of the class flow.

Defaults can also be dangerous. If I’m going out in the evening, my default clothing choice would not be appropriate. Asking students to answer a single multiple choice question (probably) won’t show me deep understanding. Our default actions need to be overridden from time to time depending on the situation. Relying on the default is particularly dangerous when you’re planning your unit assessment.

Understanding By Designing

This portion of the planning process relies heavily on Understanding By Design (UbD), also called “backward design,” developed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTigh. UbD outlines seven key principles which permeate all instructional decisions. I’m not going to go in depth on the entire framework in this post, so I encourage you to go read more about how to implement UbD.

At it’s core, UbD “helps focus curriculum and teaching on the development and deepening of student understanding.” The How defines how students demonstrate their learning. I cannot answer the question of whether or not students learned without some kind of assessment mechanism. The Golden Circle parallels the three-step process outlined by UbD:

  1. Desired Results
  2. Evidence
  3. Learning Plan

We’ve already outlined our desired results by defining and organizing standards. Now it’s time to dive into the assessment mechanisms that will flow throughout your unit.

How Will You Know What They Know?

The purpose of defining the assessment before the lessons is to ensure you are hyper-focused on teaching the standards you outlined in the Why. This is absolutely teaching to the test and it’s absolutely okay. Understand that teaching students the material you outlined is expected! Don’t fall into the trap of labelling your instruction as “narrow” or “prescribed” because you define the scope of your instruction. If you find something is missing, you can add it to your unit plan! This is an important component of planning because your assessment, to be reliable, valid, and fair, should reflect the material you set out to teach.

As you learn more about UbD, this portion of your unit planning is for the culminating event, not necessarily day-to-day formative assessments. The formative checks are critical because they help you “correct the ship,” as it were, but those are more aligned to daily tasks, so we’ll plan those in the next step.

There are six facets for understanding defined by Wiggins and McTigh that you should work to include: explanations, interpretation, application, perspective, empathy, and self-knowledge. Your culminating event should be broad enough for students to demonstrate many of these facets and narrow enough to ensure they are showing their learning on the defined standards.

A Sample Culminating Event

You have complete control over the culminating event, so try to avoid your default action and plan a true event, not just an assessment.

In my general chemistry course, we spent a significant amount of time on the properties of atoms. Understanding how these little pieces of matter behave is important in later concepts, like describing bonding or chemical reactions. Luckily, we have the Periodic Table of Elements which describes and organizes these properties. A major component was my emphasis on the fact that the periodic table is relatively new - only in its current form since the early 1900’s after many years of experiments and revisions. I needed my students not only know how to read the periodic table (explain and interpret), but to also relate to it’s development and connect it to the nature of science as a revision-based process.

I can definitely assess their knowledge using a multiple choice and essay test, and those were a component as we went through the unit in the form of quizzes. But, I’m missing the other half of the six facets of understanding - empathy, perspective, and self-knowledge. By using a unit test as my culminating event, I was missing opportunities for metacognition and growth.

In 2006, NSTA published an article by Vicki Volpe which described a Periodic Table of Cereal Boxes. I modified the project and added a reflection my students would do to show their understanding at the end of the unit. By putting students in the driver’s seat, I was able to watch them assimilate all of the principles they’d learned over the course of the unit to create something novel. Beyond the chemistry skills, students felt the frustration of building a meaningful representation, not unlike the early organizers of the periodic table. The process involved research, drafting, and revision - and not just one cycle. The reflection included a strengths/weaknesses analysis of their table and many recognized that it wasn’t perfect, but it worked given the data they had access to.

The Role of How

The culminating event brings into alignment to the entire unit. Every standard was assessed in some way, but not in isolation. All learning is connected and our unit assessments should highlight and expect students to make those connections. Designing your culminating event should unify the learning standards and give students opportunity to show the facets outlined in UbD. As a bonus, these holistic assessment items don’t feel like assessments. The conversation changes from “we have a test over this stuff” to, “use what you know and show me what you can do with it.” It’s a rolling performance event for students with checks along the way to ensure a supportive learning environment. This is particularly evident in a flipped environment where students can go back to review material as needed. The support structure is built right in!

What’s Next?

Once you’ve defined the Why and the How, you have a framework which provides support for the What - the day to day items. We’ll look at that in the next post.

The featured image is Geared flickr photo by arbyreed shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Planning a Flipped Unit Part 2

The biggest portion of the circle, the Why, defines everything you do in the unit. Before planning a single activity (or lesson), it is important to take time to outline what the students will be learning within the unit as a whole.

Large circle with the word

This guiding focus will bring consistency to your individual lessons and empower you to build more meaningful instruction. By outlining the standards, you’ve built a roadmap to help students to go from Point A to Point B in a meaningful - and much more flexible - manner.

If the standards are defined, where does flexibility come from? Here’s a chemistry standard I taught in Indiana:

C.1.5 Describe the characteristics of solids, liquids, and gases and changes in state at the macroscopic and microscopic levels.

From a lesson-centric point of view, I can certainly work with this guidance. Maybe we do a lesson looking at solids, liquids, and gasses in the lab to compare and contrast properties. Then we could look at a PhET simulation and play with particle diagrams. Students would be introduced to the material and hopefully be able to describe properties on their own.

The problem is that I’m artificially limiting that exposure. I don’t know what questions students will ask leading up to that particular lesson. I’m also not thinking about bigger connections because the point of the lesson is to teach the single idea.

By outlining standards rather than lessons when planning a unit, themes begin to emerge. We can move away from teaching standard C.1.4 before we teach C.1.5. More importantly, it gives students a chance to define their own path in describing a particular piece of content. Having options for interaction rather than prescriptions - all within the scope of the outlined standards - gives students more autonomy and choice, which leads to more engagement.

Creating Outlines

There is no ‘best’ way to outline standards, but I’ve found it helpful to create simple documents for each unit I’m preparing. This focuses my attention and gives me one place to brainstorm ideas. I’m a paper-and-pencil first kind of thinker, so I have physical templates that I’ll scribble on as I work. It may also be helpful to print standards or write them on post it notes so you can quickly rearrange as you think, especially if you’re working with collaborative content teams.

If you’re teaching a single course, you really only need two boxes at this point: Standards and Themes.

Single course:

Chart with a space for

In collaborative planning sessions, look for common threads and throw anything relevant in. This is the brainstorming phase where ideas have equal vitality and worth. You can go back and refine later. Seeing standards on paper will help you set the big idea for the unit, so start at the highest possible level.

Multiple courses (cross-curriculuar):

Chart with

You can’t begin to design coherent, innovative units unless you know exactly what you need to teach during that unit.

I find it’s helpful to verbalize a story. Why is one standard included, but not another? How are they tied together? What significance comes from the addition (or deletion) of one standard over another? If you’re unable to answer these questions or tie together a narrative for the unit, continue to work through standards until you have something you can articulate out loud.

Looking for Themes

When your standards are laid out and you can articulate a narrative, it’s easier to see common themes and threads. Try to stay away from restrictive topics like, “the 1920s,” or “cells and organelles” because they frequently limit the scope of thinking about material. What connecting ideas permeate all the standards you want to incorporate into the instruction? Brainstorm ideas. Bounce topics off one another. Keep a journal of interesting ideas to loop into other units or pull back in during a different course or even year.

Let’s take the chemistry standard again:

C.1.5 Describe the characteristics of solids, liquids, and gases and changes in state at the macroscopic and microscopic levels.

This used to fall into my “Properties of Matter” unit (real original, I know). Instead of tackling this idea from a narrow materials perspective, it is rolled into a design unit. Why do we use particular materials for different applications? What industries rely on (or manipulate) some of these characteristics?

By opening up our line of thinking about how to incorporate a standard, our students can now take different paths to showing their understanding through lenses they define. It’s also important to remember that the unit or investigation you design might not fit every student’s interests. Knowing the endgame - seeing the big picture of the Why, will give you and your students flexibility in exploring different ideas.

What Now?

The meat of your work is getting standards aligned. Rather than dive into day to day activities (where we’re all comfortable), map out a sequence of units or even your entire year. If you’re in a district that has a scope and sequence laid out, use that as a starting point.

  • Standards-alignment helps you see the big picture
  • Tell a story with the standards. Think about flow from one idea to another.
  • Identify potential themes or topics that include - but are not exclusive to - the standards you’ve identified.

Familiarizing yourself with the standards that are taught in each unit will help you open up different avenues for student learning. If you’re struggling to articulate why a particular standard is included, move it! You’re the architect of the course - you have freedom and leeway to design something meaningful for your students

In the next post, we’ll look at the How of unit design. How will we assess and evaluate student learning within the context of the Why?

Featured image: Where am I? flickr photo by Carol (vanhookc) shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

Planning a Flipped Unit

The idea for this series was sparked when I was helping some people research sample flipped lessons for a curriculum workshop I was facilitating. I was embarrassed while working with this teacher because most of what we found was significantly below standard.

That night, I did some more searching and I leafed through page after page of Google results of substitution-level implementations of flipping. Lessons that came up in the search were roughly:

  1. Video for homework, quiz the next day.
  2. Video for homework, worksheet the next day.
  3. Video for homework, lecture the next day.

What I could not find were resources on designing effective and powerful lessons for flipping, let alone units.

This is a problem.


In my early years, a unit was simply a sequence of lessons around a central theme. Essential Questions guided my day to day work, but instead of focusing on content standards as a baseline, I relied on thematic relationships. At the time, I thought I was giving myself freedom to explore related ideas no “prescribed in the curriculum.” In reality, I was making more work for myself as I pulled ideas in without a guiding framework. On top of cherry-picking pieces of content within a unit, I was trying to flip everything. That meant making videos and corresponding materials to help my students in their learning. The majority of my work was focused on lesson preparation and the overall unit structure was left to nothing more than the sum of the parts.

Flipped Learning has been around long enough for most people to have heard about it if not researched it for themselves. Sal Khan’s 2011 TED talk is a firestarter for conversation among teachers and administrators looking for methods to jumpstart some innovation. Jon Bergmann and Aaron Sams have published a number of books about flipping at the classroom level as well as for particular subjects. Others like Crystal Kirch, Troy Cockrum, Robert Talbert, and Ramsey Musallam have written books (all linked) about their implementation strategies teachers can model as they begin to explore.

The Gap

There is a significant information gap when it comes to learning about how to successfully implement flipped practices. In a culture of Google results and “power skimming,” most implementations begin - and end - with finding or recording lectures that students watch at home and then “apply” in the classroom.

At it’s worst, the teacher becomes a non-essential mediator of student YouTube binging. At best, the teacher essentially resets the clock on student work, promoting passive listening and devaluing the net positives that can be gained in a classroom setting.

Sherry Turkle explores the advent of using technology to engage today’s “disengaged” students in her book, Reclaiming Conversation. Her point is similar - rich classrooms come with discussion and interaction. Savvy and intentional course design is key in promoting this interaction. Flipped Learning can help you build that culture, but only if you’re prepared with the right instructional tools.

So, our question: When you’re asked to design a lesson, where do you start?

Like many, you may identify your Big Idea and Essential Question for the day (don’t forget to put them on the board!). Then, you’d outline your instruction and some guided practice strategies after which you can assess student understanding of the material.

Lessons are easy. As a teacher, you’ve been crafting lessons since your undergrad years. Over time, they may be refined or updated, but planning is typically spent looking at a calendar, outlining day to day activities.

When you design from the top - starting with the biggest ideas and burrowing down through assessment and lessons - you are rooted in the main ideas. Those themes permeate everything your students do, which leads to more opportunities for exploration and discussions on related topics. You won’t need to think about every contingency to engage students when they lose interest because students will define those topics themselves.


Our worldview informs everything we do in the classroom. “The medium is the message,” the adage goes, and it’s particularly important to remember as you begin to incorporate video (or other media) into your instructional habits. The idea of an asynchronous introductory event is not a common experience for most of our students. How will it communicate a shift in the typical learning cycle?

Our bubbles are strong. Our brains work hard to fit new experiences into existing schemas. When they don’t fit, the schema is broken down and rebuilt. Working in a flipped environment will certainly break your students schemas about learning. If your schema for instruction isn’t being broken and rebuilt as part of the process, your wheels will spin.

The Big Picture

To address the shortcomings of planning effectively for flipped material, we’ll be using a modified version Simon Sinek’s “Golden Circle” to plan out a holistic unit from the top down. If you’re not familiar with the Golden Circle, here’s a diagram:

The golden circle - What, how, why

The Golden Circle is meant to help organizations determine their core mission. In many cases, employees (or teachers and students) can quickly answer What it is they do every day. For example, a Microsoft employee would say they make software. A student would say they’re learning about the Revolutionary War or linear equations.

Most people, however, can’t answer the “Why” nearly as easily. Why does Microsoft make software? Why are linear equations taught in school? Sinek’s argument for the corporate world is that by answering the Why for your clients, you stand out - you become unique and a cohesive and productive culture develops.

Schools are not businesses, but the principles of the Golden Circle can be applied to curriculum development. How do we transfer corporate descriptors to the classroom?

  • WHY: Standards, essential questions, outcomes.
    • Defining the Why in your curriculum is step one. It sets the tone for the entire course, defining the end results for students. Knowing which standards, essential questions, and outcomes you have for student at any given point keeps your instruction on focus as you plan. Looking unit by unit helps you tell a story to your students - it provides a cohesive overview of how things relate to one another.
  • HOW: Assessment(s)/capstone event
    • Once you know why you’re teaching what you’re teaching, you need to define how you’ll know what students have learned or not learned. Step two in Understanding by Design calls this “Assessment Evidence.” What tasks will students complete in order to show what they’ve learned as you move through the unit? Keep in mind that this does not necessarily have to be a written test!
  • What: Lessons, day to day
    • You’ve defined the Why and you know How you’ll be evaluating student growth, now you can start to think about the day to day work. Every single thing you plan for your students should support their growth toward showing what they know (the Why) and How you know they know it.

In our application, we’re going to put the Why at the outside, exchanging it for the What:

Modified Golden Circle - Why, How, What

This Golden Circle hangs on a wall near my desk. It’s a visual reminder as I work with teachers to build units of instruction. Everything defined in the unit is nested and related: all of the What is measured and related to the defined Why. The idea is to root our planning in practices which focus on teaching standards with authentic and meaningful opportunities for assessment.

Admittedly, the visual analogy isn’t perfect because usually, when a dartboard is involved, you’re shooting for the bullseye. We need to get to the what eventually, but it’s always within the context of what’s around it, the standards and assessments.

Each post in this series will dive deeper into designing units of instruction rather than flipped lessons. Comments, suggestions, and feedback are always appreciated.

Ultra-Specific Classification

The edu-blogification of ideas gets overwhelming. Six years ago, I went to a workshop on using videos to help with my instruction. We called it the flipped classroom and it helped me work more effectively with my students. I learned about my own strengths and weaknesses (watching your videos day after day is a great opportunity for reflection) and I had the fortune of being pushed by some great friends to think deeper about instruction.

A couple years later, many of us felt like “flipped classroom” wasn’t descriptive enough. Words mattered and suggesting that the classroom space alone is what changes wasn’t accurate. So, we started saying “flipped learning.” We even got together one weekend and wrote up what we called the four “pillars” of flipped learning.

For me, the biggest piece comes from Ramsey Musallam, who says that flipping, at its core, is distinguishing between the “community” space and the “individual” space. What happens in community traditionally is lecture – whole group instruction. Move that to the individual space in whatever way you’d like and you’ve essentially flipped.

The pillars also make no specific mention of when or how you do this to be considered “flipped.” I tend to move my instruction to video so students can watch it if (or when) they’re ready. This might be a week early, it could be a month later. I don’t really care how, when, (or even if) they watch my video. The video is simply a step they can take at one point or another to work from.

Distinguishing between an “in-flip” or “out-flip”, a “homework” flip or a “nowayhomework” flip (or any other naming convention slapped onto the idea) begins to wall off possible points of collaboration and growth because camps have been set up. Lots of posts outlining the core tenants of being an “in-flipper” vs an “out-flipper” discourages discussion because it focuses on a single implementation in a single classroom with one particular set of students.

When we wrote the pillars, we worked to be specifically non-specific. Indicators can help define what happens the majority of the time and it can provide common ground for discussion or debate. Specializing criterion – often to stamp a brand on it – doesn’t help the broader community grow. Look for ways to describe a method or structure without coining a new label, as innocuous as it may seem, because of the danger of isolating ideas.

Featured image is a flickr photo by stenz shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

Using Someone Else’s Videos in Your Class

In November 2015, an independent model showed YouTube received around 500 hours of video content uploaded every minute. There are 1440 minutes in a day, meaning there was roughly 720,000 hours of video every day.

That’s a lot of videos.

Granted, many are of cats, kids, and Barbie Jeep Racing, so it’s not necessarily quality content uploading, but there is a lot of great video available for flipping if you’re not quite ready to make your own yet.

Where to start?

Before looking at how to choose videos, let’s define the goals of using video as an instructional tool (not method) in the first place. Don’t ask yourself, “How do I get rid of lecture?” because it’s too narrow a focus. The intent of using video should be to create space for students to explore ideas with the support of a teacher. Ramsey Musallam says it well: “Good teaching, regardless of discipline, should always limit passive transfer of knowledge in class, and promote learning environments built on the tenants of inquiry, collaboration and critical thinking.”

Flipping can help accomplish the goals of increasing student interaction with material and using existing videos is an easy way to start that process. When it comes to choosing videos to use with students, I focus on three main things:

  1. What value does a video bring?

  2. How well is the idea presented?

  3. How will the video expand on what is happening in class?

Using videos should supplement, not replace your work in the classroom. Your students have a relationship with you, not a video personality. It is important that you frame using outside content as a supporting factor in the interactive and collaborative work happening in the classroom. Otherwise, you run the risk of losing student trust because it appears that you’re taking the easy way out.

What value does a video bring?

There are situations when a video can help you immediately reclaim some time. Algorithmic processes – solving a problem, correcting grammatical mistakes, putting together a timeline of events – are great starting points. They’re usually short and to the point and they become a self-help library for students. When you’re in the middle of a larger activity, these can be a “first line of defense” when students ask procedural questions. At the same time, you can pay attention to which videos you’re referring to the most and address those in class as a whole.

The value here is that you’re not bogged down answering the same, small question over and over. You’re also not obligated to stop the entire activity. You’ll be teaching students self-reliance by curating helpful instructional videos to get the habit started. Eventually, students will go off and find their own help when they need it.

From another angle, resources are limited. I can’t always provide concrete examples in the classroom. Using videos to bring in those topics and examples is a great way to bridge the gap.

How well is it presented?

Presentation isn’t everything, but it’s important. As you’re vetting content, pay attention to the content, obviously, but also make sure it isn’t mind-numbing to watch. Audio is very important in this case. A video that is clear as crystal but sounds like a drive-through is just as bad as a video you can’t see. Don’t pick the first result in the search, either. Take some time to find a video that fits your need and won’t cause more confusion for you later.

How will it expand on what is happening in class?

Remember, you are the teacher and you set the tone of the course with your students. Any video you choose – instructional or exploratory – should fit in with your day to day work. Be explicit and specific about why you’re assigning a particular video to help students see the big picture. Without making connections for the students, you run the risk of looking lazy and the videos become another assignment, not a helpful tool.

Additionally, if you can’t make a solid connection to the learning process, perhaps a video isn’t the best means. It’s a good self-check to make sure you’re proving engaging and meaningful assignments at all levels of the learning cycle.

Big picture

Online video is here to stay. The amount of content available is staggering both in scale and in potential to positively impact learning behaviors. In the end, starting with existing video can help lay a foundation for using video as a learning tool. The major time commitment on your end is starting to curate those materials. Most video sites have playlists that you can create and customize, so start saving videos you like to build out that library.

You may find, though, that you can’t find one that really hits the issue you’re having. Don’t be afraid to make your own. I’ll repeat: you have the relationship with your students. Making a short video is easier than ever and you can find a number of tutorials online to help you get started.

Focus on enhancing the class time. Use the questions above to guide your thinking as you look for materials. If you’re not sure where to start, here are some of my favorites:

Channel Description
:———————: :——————————————–:
Smarter Every Day Mainly physics, some biology and chemistry
Veritasium All sciences, culture of science and inquiry
Bozeman Science Biology, chemistry, nature of science
It’s Okay to be Smart PBS Digital Studios, all content

The featured image is titled Audience Full Movie, a flickr photo by Emily Barney shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

There is No Room for Pride on a Team

I’m proud of the work I do every day, both in my classroom and in the small instructional team I work with. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of work, but there’s a world of hurt if pride creeps its way into your team dynamic.

Being prideful serves only one person – you. It will alienate you from relationships, especially when there is shared work to finish. Revision is consistent and this is where, in my experience, pride often comes to a head.

Consider this situation: You and a team are working on a shared document. Your role, just because of time, has turned into synthesizing the bulk of the notes and outlines into the narrative of the piece. You write and re-write multiple times until you’re happy with the finished product. You’re proud of the work and you send it off for approval.

Your team leader comes and reads and makes a number of changes to the document. This is the telling moment: do you discuss and work with their perspective? Or do you let pride well up in your throat and you choke back frustration?

If you choose the latter, from now on, you’re going to carry that hurt. Any work environment, especially a collaborative setting, has to allow for safe and constructive feedback. Changes to a final product improve the performance of the team and not any one team member. Pride tells you to push for your own recognition. Humility tells you to work for the good of others. Powerful, effective teams work for the benefit of their members.

Building this culture in the classroom takes a long time and it takes the guidance of an experienced teacher. These are not normal behaviors for adults, let alone students. This is one argument against assigning random or variable groups in class. Building a cohesive, service-based culture with peers requires consistency. On the other hand, if every student can develop this mindset, then the specifics of a group become less of an issue as each individual is already committed to working for the good of the whole.

If You Haven’t Changed Practice, Don’t Call It Flipped

When I try new things, the fear really sets in as I’m giving instructions and trying to pick up on the nonverbal cues my students are sending me. Most days, they roll with it. Other days…well, there is usually some kind of course correction in there.

But it’s part of my practice now. Not crashing and burning of course; I learn a lot on those days, but I try not to make them the norm. My practice is to constantly as, “Can this be better?” Sometimes, the answer is “No, not right now,” and that’s totally okay. Other times, I’m actively trying to improve on a lesson, a task, or a supporting item.

Flipping is easy to jump into. Need to teach something? Find a video. Slap an EdPuzzle quiz on there and post it through Google Classroom. Students, turn in a one page summary of what you watched. Quiz on Friday.

Don’t keep your practice the same and call it flipped.

flickr photo shared by Daniel Kulinski under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-SA ) license

How are students engaging with the ideas? Not engaging with the video, but with the idea? The intangible? The abstract? The metaphorical? How are your students processing what you need them to learn in meaningful ways?

Flipping is really about a core change in practice that forces you, the teacher, to recognize that effective, deep learning requires our students chew on ideas…and not just gnaw, but really chew hard. Video might be a component of the chewing, but it can’t be the beginning and the end.

How do we avoid falling into a trap of simply adding another task to check off the list in the learning cycle? I have three main self-checks:

  1. Keep the video _thin_. This is the first exposure, not the only (or even main) exposure. Some questions should be answered, but I really want to get students asking more questions. I try to ride the line of thorough instruction and full instruction.

  2. Explicitly connect ideas from the video to class. I do this in a number of ways from a quick five-minute warm up at the start of class (“Remember, in the video…”) or in the video itself as a preview (“We’re going to do a lab where…”). I’ve found that these peeks help students make connections more readily as the learning tasks come around.

  3. Tell them the videos aren’t enough to get by on. I don’t remember when this hit me, but I never really said that the video alone isn’t enough to help them learn. I make sure it’s very, very clear that they need to engage with me – and each other – during class to really excel. Video is a tool, not the solution.

In the long run, by downplaying the magic-ness of your videos and underlining the importance of multiple modes of engagement, your practice will begin to change. You’ll use that reclaimed time more effectively and you’ll find yourself starting to look critically at everything you do.

Drawing Notes

I used to make fill-in-the-blank notes for my students to complete while watching a video. For a particular subset of students, that works well. Helping lower the barrier for learning by providing a construct for information gathering led to more engagement when it came time to use the information.

Then I took on AP Biology.

Some very wise people told me to teach the material and not provide so much structure. I wouldn’t be able to put in the amount of time it would take to get everything pre-made. And boy, were they right. (I’ve taught AP Chem, but that was a long time ago. I needed their reminders.)

I’ve also wanted to move to a more free-form video…not as structured. More fluid. Focused more on deep content. Trying to write while I spoke at the same time was difficult to maintain. So, in response, I’ve moved to drawing out the lesson notes, scanning it, and talking over the pictures.

flickr photo shared by bennettscience under a Creative Commons ( BY ) license

flickr photo shared by bennettscience under a Creative Commons ( BY ) license

This has helped my students improve their own visual representations of the concepts. It’s also helped me tell a better story (all science is a story anyways. Now it’s an illustrated story).

I sketch the notes…maybe 20 minutes to get everything sorted, and then scan it in to the computer. I drop the image into Camtasia and go for it.

Low key, but early indications are that it’s just as effective as fill in the blank. But now, students can fill in their own blanks.