Flip Your Students, Flip Yourself

Collect content-summaries; return them at exams.

I’ll explain that prescription shortly. But first, a confession:

The title of this essay, in which the word “flip” refers to the pedagogical innovation called the “flipped classroom”, is misleading because I’m not going to tell you how to run a flipped classroom. For those of you who haven’t heard, the flipped classroom approach to education is based on moving lecture-delivery out of the classroom and into the dorm room. No, not by having the professor show up in everyone’s dorm room to deliver content on an individual basis; that would be both impractical and improper. Instead, the professor prepares a video, and the students watch it on their laptops. That way, when the students show up in the classroom, they can focus on teacher-supervised activities that take their knowledge to the next level.

Often the in-class activities involve students working together in groups. Ideally, the teacher moves from group to group, discreetly eavesdropping to get a sense of where the students are (maybe there is a prevalent misunderstanding that needs to be addressed), planting a seed of an idea here, redirecting an almost-but-not-quite-right idea there, and throughout the process instilling ownership, confidence, and competence among the students.

I’m not going to tell you how to run that kind of classroom, because I’m still at an early stage of learning how to do it, and my own efforts fall far short of the ideal. For instance, instead of having students present their solutions to problems they’ve worked on in groups, all too often I’m the one who presents solutions, so we can save time and cover more material, especially material related to the upcoming homework assignment. But is this teaching, or is it coaching?1

Also, I don’t do the full-bore flipped-classroom thing; I do a more modest version called “blended learning”, where instead of having the students watch videos I have them read an on-line textbook and supplementary on-line documents. And some of you who teach college for a living are probably rolling your eyes right now, because you’re thinking “Students don’t do the assigned reading before they come to class; that’s a given. How naive can you be, to imagine that giving them more to read would improve outcomes?”

I myself might have said that twenty years ago, because even then I’d observed a vicious circle in operation: Savvy students don’t read before class because they know the professor will cover the material in the lecture, and the professor (if she cares about students’ success) has to cover the material in the lecture because the students haven’t learned it yet, and so on in a vicious circle.

Let me cut right to the chase, because many of you are busy and you might not want to read this whole essay. I have a fairly successful prescription for getting students to prepare for class, and I can reduce it to a simple formula: in fact it’s the seven-word formula that you saw at the top of this essay.

Under my approach, a student taking an exam is handed a sheaf of all the reading-summaries she’s written, class by class. It’s an open-book exam where each student has written her own book, if she’s availed herself of the opportunity. If the student knows this ahead of time, there’s a big incentive for writing that book, which requires that she keep up with the reading during the weeks preceding the exam.

And now I suspect other readers — not the cynical traditional teachers, but the innovative idealists — are rolling their eyes for a different reason, because they’ve noticed that I’m using the desire to do well on an exam as a motivator, instead of letting the worth of the subject matter and the intrinsic joy of learning impel the students to prepare for class. My inner Paul Lockhart and my internalized Alfie Kohn say “You’re not changing the system; you’re tinkering with it! You’re not replacing the teacher-centered paradigm for learning by a student-centered one; you’re adding epicycles to it!” That’s a fair point. Still, for now I’m taking a gradualist approach to reforming my own teaching practice.

One thing my students tell me is that they often end up not consulting the summaries at all during an exam, but that they’re still glad they wrote them. That’s because (in reverse chronological order): having the summaries during the exam gives students a sense of security that mitigates test-anxiety and lets them think more clearly; knowing in advance that they’ll have those summaries lets them focus on conceptual understanding instead of memorization when they’re studying for the exam; and preparing those notes in the first place forces them to organize their knowledge and helps them master the material.

Now a whole lot of you are probably thinking “This isn’t about anything as newfangled as flipped classrooms. This is about standard twentieth-century teaching practice, with an extra trick for motivating students to come to class better-prepared.” That’s sort of true. But when students come to class better-prepared, a different way of using class time becomes possible, with less lecturing and more interaction with students. So I think this gimmick really is about flipping the classroom (whether one wants to use that buzzphrase or not).

I developed the gimmick while I was teaching cozy ten-student sections of honors calculus, and I found that it worked very well. But these days I teach fifty-student classes, and my experience has been a bit different, as students come up with ways to game the system and I have to devise countermeasures.

If, back when I was in college, I’d had as a teacher the kind of teacher I am now, then I, being the kind of student I was back then, might have tried to game the system by handing in section “summaries” that were just photo-reduced copies of the entire sections themselves. So before any actual student of mine could try this, I took a preemptive countermeasure, decreeing that the summary of a single section could be no more than two pages long and had to be handwritten or typed, not photocopied or printed out from the web. One reason I require that is because I believe that even in the seemingly mindless process of transcribing words from one medium to another, there’s a kind of learning that goes on. 

Once I started using my gimmick with larger classes, I noticed that some students were routinely handing in their reading-summaries late. They weren’t coming to class, or they were skipping class entirely; they’d just hand in a summary whenever they liked. This defeated the original purpose of having the students write the summaries, namely, encouraging them to come to each class prepared for the activities I’d planned. So I made a new rule2: to get to submit a reading summary, you had to submit it on the day for which the reading was assigned.

But this wasn’t fair, because some students did the reading assignment on time, and wrote the section summary on time, and weren’t able to make it to class because they got sick. And I want to be fair. So nowadays I ask the sick students (or students who for some other reason are unable to come to class) to scan their summaries using their phones and email them to me before the end of class; if they do this, then I accept hardcopy at the next class.

Then there are students who get sick for more than just a day, or who have some other life-crisis, who miss doing the work and coming to class. It seems unfair to penalize them, and I want to be fair. So in exceptional cases I let students hand in the summaries late. And just to add an extra bit of leeway for everyone, I give each student an extra allotment of five two-sided pages of notes to bring to the exam.

These days I’m teaching about a hundred students at a time, and I find that there’s a burdensome amount of paper-shuffling involved with getting those summaries back into the students’ hands at exam time. I collect the summaries in batches (Day #1, Day #2, etc.) and give them back to the students in different sorts of batches (Student #1, Student #2, etc.). So each batch I collect needs to be alphabetized, and then I need to collate the batches that the students are to get. My spouse suggested that I save myself some work by just making a folder for each student and having the students put their summaries into the folders, but that invites abuse: a student could put several summaries into a folder at once, including ones that were due at earlier classes. That wouldn’t be fair to the students who make a point of getting the section summaries done on time. And I want to be fair. If any of you have ideas for how I can streamline the process, please let me know!3

A separate way I incentivize doing the reading is by giving a $1 reward each time a student finds a hitherto unnoticed error in the online textbook (an idea I got from Elwyn Berlekamp and Donald Knuth). It has the virtue of leading to continued improvement in the quality of the book.

I also have ways of encouraging students to read the solutions to homework problems; see my earlier essay on this

As for what happens in the classroom itself, I haven’t yet learned much of a broadly applicable nature. Certain subjects, like probability and calculus, are loaded with paradoxes, and it’s not too hard to come up with a theoretical question that will divide the class into roughly equal-sized factions. (When I teach calculus from James Stewart’s textbooks, I find many of the true-false questions at the ends of the chapters delightfully divisive. As for probability theory, it’s been my experience that after you tell your students about the Monty Hall Problem, it’s hard to get them to talk about anything else.) Once I’ve thrown a question like that out to the students, the class runs itself, with me serving as poker-faced moderator; this is the kind of teaching I enjoy the most. I still haven’t found enough divisive questions for the class I’m teaching now (discrete math for computer science), but I keep looking for them!

Now and then my students help me find divisive questions by asking such questions themselves. Things like that can happen when you have a classroom full of students who’ve done the reading and want to take their understanding a step further.

Thanks to David Jacobi, Henri Picciotto, and Evan Romer.

Next month: Mazes, Puzzles, and Proofs.


#1. I find that students like in-class coaching. They appreciate the fact I’m trying to help them get good grades on the homework — momentarily forgetting that the Good Cop who’s helping them do a hard problem is also the Bad Cop who assigned it in the first place. But what is the goal of teaching? If it’s just to help students get good scores on the upcoming homework, then yes, coaching them by working through similar problems is the way to go. But college teaching isn’t about coaching, because the students’ lives after graduation won’t be a sequence of problem sets neatly segregated by problem-type. My students will spend much of their time after graduation solving problems for which no solution-sheet exists and trying to convince others that their solutions will work. To do that well, they need to acquire communication skills, which I can help them cultivate now by having them present solutions to their peers and get feedback on those presentations.

#2. I hate making new rules. In my household I’ve institute a “Rule Zero” (not my idea) with my kids: “Don’t force me to make a new rule.”

#3. One thing I might try next year is to make two folders for each student: one that they use for handing in section summaries (a sort of “holding tank”) and one that I use for gradually collating each students’ section summaries over the course of the term. Both sets of folders would be racked in alphabetical order. By inserting the holding tank stage into the process, I can spot instances where a student is handing in a section summary late without permission.

10 thoughts on “Flip Your Students, Flip Yourself

  1. Abcd Efgh

    #3 is the first thing that came to mind for me too. if every student had a pass-through scanner at their seat, they could sign-in and scan their two pages. if the student’s folder had a way to count the number of pages entered you could catch people trying to stuff the folder. if each student’s folder was actually a vacuum sealer, then each week’s summary could be checked for length and then vacuum sealed on top of the previous submissions.

    what if you had a set of mail slots for each student. each mail slot drops into a basket. the basket has a board that goes on top of all the previously submitted summaries. after each class, someone checks the new summaries for length and content, and then moves the board on top. this would be a heavy investment in floor space and planning, but you’d get out of the business of moving 100 summaries from holding folder to archive folder each class, and it remains purely physical so it’s easy to handle exceptions intelligently.


    1. jamespropp Post author

      I think I’ll need to take a low-tech, low-cost approach if I want my department to cover the expense, which rules out scanners. But my inner Nick Parks (of Wallace-and-Gromit fame) really likes the image that your first approach conjures! Maybe have pneumatic tubes from each student’s desk to mine? 🙂


  2. theowinterza

    Could you get some budget for a time stamp machine? That way the students stamp and file their pages themselves in class. You could do a randomised sample of spot checks before the exam.


  3. Reginaldo

    About how to collect the summary, I suggest you could get one or two binders and the students should hand in the summary in pages that fit in this binders. You could separate the summaries by name and at the end of each day the students would form a line, in alphabetic order, to hand in the summaries. I’m not sure if made myself clear enough.


    1. jamespropp Post author

      That probably makes the most sense (though some students may need to arrive late and others may need to leave early, and I don’t want to penalize them unfairly, so some flexibility may be required). Thanks for your suggestion!


  4. davidwlocke

    Toward the end of my college career, I read the entire book before the first day of class. I didn’t take notes. I didn’t do the problems. In class, I remembered what I read, so I took very few notes. Then, I went home and did the homework.

    I was in a class on a subject I loved. That professor spent the semester reviewing the previous course. He wanted me to slow down. I didn’t need that review. Oh, well.

    Sorry, but group isn’t for me. I need a tutor to answer my questions. I’ve had professors that couldn’t answer my questions. They wouldn’t be questions that anyone else in that class would ask. A video is not a class. I’d have already watched all the relevant videos.

    The question I asked my linear algebra professor was what is an eigen. He pointed at the formula. Had I been able to read that formula the way I can read formulas these days maybe that would have been an adequate answer. It was a waste of tuition dollars. I found my answer in a YouTube video recently.


  5. Evan Mitchell

    I definitely agree with the part where the section summaries are rarely used during the exam but I’m still glad that I wrote them. I think reading the material before class and writing it down then also hearing it from the professor is great since if you didn’t understand something from the reading, the professor will probably answer it in class or you can ask about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Who Mourns the Tenth Heegner Number? |

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