Advance Preparation or Active Learning?

I have been teaching a flipped classroom for almost two years now, and a colleague teaches the same course, very similar structure but with traditional lectures.

There is significant evidence for the benefits of flipped classrooms, but a colleague at SFU found no improvement in a previous study comparing a semi-flipped approach (advance preparation, but no major changes to the in-class teaching) to a traditional lecture. We are interested in seeing how important the active learning components (that should fill classroom time in a flipped class) are compared to video lectures only.

To that end, after collecting baseline data this semester and next, my colleague will ask her students to watch my videos in advance, then teach in-class material the same way (traditional lecture and lab) as usual, while I will teach with increased active learning components in a fully flipped setting.

We will assess learning in four separate units using published concept inventories before and after each unit. A trained observer will determine the amount of time spent on active learning using established protocol (COPUS) and student experience will be gathered in end of semester focus groups.

We’re just starting, but I hope to update on results here and/or have a publication to share down the road.


The work is supported by a Teaching and Learning Development Grant from SFU


PIDP so far

I have found the PIDP courses very useful so far, and I have implemented something in my own teaching from almost every course.

From 3100, I learned about the flipped classroom, and how to create a blog like this. I implemented started teaching a flipped classroom soon after. This is probably the single largest change I have ever made in my teaching, and is now the subject of a research project I am part of.

From 3210, I learned how to make lesson plans and define course objectives. Until then, my lessons were in my head, and sometimes made up on the fly. I am slowly writing lesson plans for each class.

From 3230, I learned to better define exam questions and provide clear instructions and expectations. I immediately implemented these changes in the exams I use.

From the Instructional Skills Workshop, I learned to use a Bridge-in at the beginning of each lesson. This is also a work in progress; I am working to either “set the scene” or include a “hook” to attract attention a the beginning of each lesson.

Throughout the courses, I have been introduced to the value of reflection. I began to try some reflection in my class, with limited success. Through discussions in 3250 I came across a set of questions to guide students in reflecting on a major project. I have used that in the last two semesters with surprising success. Not only are the students demonstrating a level of critical thinking and reflection that I expect, reading these has also provided useful feedback.

I have also come across various classroom assessment techniques in many of the courses, and see that they can also be used as feedback tools. I am slowly trying some of these out in various lessons.

Through the courses in the program, I have come across resources either in course materials or as part of the readings or discussions in those courses that have changed the way I teach, evaluate and interact with students.

Politics in Education

As Brookfield (2006) reminds us, politics is ever-present in adult education, regardless of the subject. There is politics in hiring, assigning sections (courses), program availability (number of “seats”), tuition, funding, and within the classroom.

I am interested in the big-picture politics at play that ultimately decides who can afford to attend, what options they have when they do and perhaps the difficulty and expectations within that program.

Public funding  for post-secondary institutions has shrunk in recent years in both the U.S. and Canada, and British Columbia is no exception. This results in universities courting higher tuition, international students, and private donors. In some cases these private donors are allowed significant influence of faculty hiring and student positions. It is conceivable then that these private groups gain access to influence curriculum and research priorities, opening the door to corporate control of what students learn and infringing on the notion of academic freedom.

Governments also exert influence, funding specific programs and cutting others in the name of jobs creation. This may be fiscally responsible in the name of the economy, but it effectively limits student choice.

This political pressure may also extend to within the institution, and infringe on ethics. The college I teach at has a nursing program for which my department teaches foundation biology courses. At times in the past, our department has been pressured by nursing program administrators to dilute course objectives or even eliminate lab components because it is too challenging for their students and affects progress through the program compared to competing colleges. My department feels very strongly that these are important skills for future nurses and has successfully (to date) won the argument. A significant portion of the students in our department are pre-nursing students, largely accounting for employment of a number of faculty; decisions on course requirements by nursing program administrators have significant affects on the biology department. If we refuse to dilute the course expectations (as some believe is an ethical issue), these courses could be removed as requirements. If push comes to shove, we may lose the opportunity to teach these students at all.

While I recognize the real challenges, I don’t appreciate seeing education as a business, particularly at public institutions.


Brookfield, S. (2006). The Skillful Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Toward a Better Lecture

As Brookfield (2006) suggests, lecturing is here to stay as a major component of post-secondary teaching. Prior to starting PIDP, I had two main things going on in class: lecture or lab activities. I would typically lecture for 90 minutes, sometimes more. And I hated it. I knew this was not the best way; I knew that attention spans are much shorter than that, and students were only passively listening when I did have their attention. I tried struggled with giving powerpoint notes before or after class, sometimes withholding key points, but still very few students would write notes.

The problem was that I didn’t know a better way. I am the product of my teaching experiences (Brookfield, 2006), and most of those were predominantly lecture oriented. Even with short activities or discussions interspersed, I ran into another problem: there was so much information to cover and I had to teach it before students could use it. There wan’t enough time to add things, and too much to cover to reduce lecture time.

My students are beginner adult learners, and often on;t have the tools to learn effectively on their own. I felt I had to cover more than the broad strokes in lectures, because it was the only way they would be exposed to it. All the Classroom Assessment Techniques (Angelo and Cross, 1993) and strategies to break up lectures (Brookfield, 2006) wouldn’t help if I was going to run out of time. My lectures needed a major overhaul, and a serious look as to the minimum information I could include. And that was a major project that I kept putting off.

I my first PIDP class, I found the answer for me: flip the class. I could stop lecturing altogether (or mostly, anyway). That was, perhaps, an extreme solution, but it did address the things I was looking for. With an innovative method in mind I was excited and could no longer put it off. Flipping isn’t for everyone, and it does take a lot of work. Now I am addressing something I didn’t when I initially made all those videos: content, the same problem I had before. Now I see that I can remove detail from my lecture videos because students will see the detail in class.

There are two major components to a lecture: content and delivery. I found an innovative delivery, but a good lecture is only as good as its content, and I am now taking the time to look at the content with a critical eye.



Brookfield, S. (2006). The Skillful Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.