By Caroline Bennett

So, I’ve decided to flip a class.  [File this blog post under ‘Confessions’.]  Specifically, I’m going to flip a course this Spring semester, titled “Design of Steel Structures.”  It’s a fourth-year design class taken by civil and architectural engineers.

This is an undertaking that I’m both excited and nervous to tackle.  The part that I’m really looking forward to the most is really, really focusing in on “what should students be able to do” when they’re done with the course.  This is also the part that I am the most nervous about.

When I’ve taught this course in the past (seven or eight times), I have tried to keep this end-game in focus.  However, I have found that it is far too easy to let “what do I need to cover” take front stage under the pressures of any given semester.  I am expecting that flipping this class will pretty much make that recurring ‘slide’ impossible.  Which is great, and a 100% worthy goal.  And also a little terrifying.

I’m starting to think about how I am going to restructure the course for this spring.  The class is three credit hours, and meets for “lecture” sessions twice a week for 75 minutes and once a week for a two and a half hour “lab” sessions.  In the past, I’ve used the lecture sessions for presenting the theory and concepts behind designing steel structures.  I don’t think these lecture sessions have been particularly bad; in fact, I am proud of many of them.  We spend a lot of time in class working through examples — many of them I lead, and many of them students work through in small groups.

I am planning to move approximately 75% of this content outside of the class time.  Instead of working through this material in-class, I am going to create a series of online videos that students will be asked to view before class periods.  This is going to free up a lot of in-class time.  This newly-freed class time presents a great opportunity to focus deeply on higher-order learning objectives.  The question that this begs is “what is the best way to meet those objectives?”  The answer to this question should drive how we spend our in-class time.

This is my first foray into flipping, and I promise to keep you posted on my progress — my thought exercises and implementation.  I’m going to be wrestling with a host of new questions and challenges, and I would appreciate engaging in discussion with you on this forum!

Caroline Bennett is an associate professor of civil engineering and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. 

By Doug Ward

Learning is a partnership, I tell students. As an instructor, I do my best to provide interesting and relevant material, use class time wisely, and grade student work fairly. I also make time in and out of class to help students better understand material they struggle with.

I can do only so much, though, I explain, and I certainly can’t make students learn. Learning takes place only when students engage themselves in their education, complete their work meaningfully, come to class prepared, and participate in discussions and projects.

It sounds simple, but it’s not, as a new study on undergraduate engagement makes abundantly clear.

The study, A Fresh Look at Student Engagement, surveyed freshmen and seniors on such things as higher-order learning, collaborative learning, student-faculty interaction and the supportiveness of their campus. In the foreword to the report, Paul E. Lingenfelter, former president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, sums up the challenges well: “An authentic postsecondary education is more than simply acquiring knowledge; it must produce a sophisticated ability to use knowledge creatively to solve problems and add value.” (5)Pages from NSSE_2013_Annual_Results

That ability starts with engagement, and the report shows that those of us in higher education have lots of work to do on that front. Here are a few of the findings:

Collaborative learning

Only about a third of students reported engaging in collaborative learning, which was defined as working with other students on projects and assignments, explaining course material to others, or preparing for exams together. Those in engineering and biology reported the highest levels of collaborative learning; those in the arts, humanities, social sciences and social services reported the lowest levels.

Study time

Freshmen reported spending an average of 14 hours a week preparing for classes; seniors, 15 hours. Students taking all their courses online reported spending about an hour more studying each week. Seniors in engineering spent the most time studying (19 hours); those in communications, media and public relations, the least (12 hours).

Time spent reading

Students in online courses spent more time reading (eight hours a week for both freshmen and seniors) than students in traditional courses (six hours for freshmen, seven hours for seniors). A third of students reported doing no reading for class.

Amount of writing

Students in online courses did far more writing (59 pages a semester for freshmen, 107 for seniors) than students in traditional classes (45 pages for freshmen, 75 pages for seniors). Not surprisingly, the more reading and writing a course required, the more students perceived that they increased their ability to think in complex and critical ways.

Learning strategies

Students who used such learning strategies as identifying key elements of reading assignments, reviewing notes after class and summarizing what they had learned from a course generally reported higher grades than those who didn’t.

Effective teaching

Only about 40 percent of students at research universities reported that their instructors used effective teaching practices. The study defined those practices as having clear goals and organization, using clear examples to explain difficult concepts, and giving prompt and detailed feedback on assignments. Those in liberal arts reported the highest percentages of effective teaching; those in engineering, science and technology the lowest.

Interaction with faculty

Only about 20 percent of freshmen and seniors at large universities (those with more than 10,000 students) reported having meaningful interactions with faculty members. This included activities such as talking about career plans, meeting with faculty members outside class, and discussing academic performance.

Supportive environment

Older students, veterans and transfer students were less likely to find the campus environment supportive than other students were. Students who lived off-campus were less likely to describe campus as supportive than students who lived on campus were.

Online engagement

Students in online-only courses reported a higher level of interaction with instructors, advisers, student services staff members and administrators than students in traditional classes did. At the same time, they reported low levels of collaborative learning and were less likely to find the class environment supportive than those in face-to-face classes.

Use of technology

Students said courses that used technology for learning and that helped them understand the use of technology improved engagement and higher-order learning.

Adjustments to teaching

Assistant professors and lecturers were far more likely than associate and full professors to use course evaluations to improve their courses and their teaching.

Highimpact practices

This was the umbrella term the survey used to describe such things as learning communities, study abroad, internships, service learning and research with faculty members. Eighty-four percent of seniors reported engaging in at least one of these activities and 60 percent reported two or more. Fifty-eight percent of freshmen reported engaging in at least one, and 12 percent said they had done two. For seniors at research universities, the most common activity was an internship (53 percent), followed by service learning (52 percent). For freshmen, the most common activity was service learning (46 percent).

Student jobs and activities

Seniors at research universities averaged 14 hours a week working for pay, 12 hours relaxing and socializing, 5 hours participating in extracurricular activities, 5 hours commuting (including walking and driving to campus), 4 hours caring for dependents, and 3 hours doing community service.

The study was conducted by the National Survey of Student Engagement, an organization that focuses on undergraduate learning. Dan Bernstein, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at KU, serves on the organization’s advisory board.

This year’s survey involved more than 1.6 million students at more than 600 colleges and universities. Unfortunately, KU was not among them.

I’d highly recommend looking more closely at the report, which provides a rich snapshot of student and faculty perceptions of higher education. Most certainly, the survey highlights many encouraging aspects of student engagement. As I said, though, we all have a ways to go.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Connecting with students in online courses challenges even the best instructors.

I was reminded of that recently when I spoke with Tracy Russo, an associate professor of communication studies, at the C21 Course Redesign Consortium.

C21 brings together about 60 instructors from many disciplines at KU who are interested in making learning more active and more meaningful by changing the ways they approach their classes. The discussions teem with energy as faculty members, post-docs and graduate students share ideas and consider the provocative questions from the C21 organizer, Andrea Greenhoot, an associate professor of psychology and associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence.

At the last C21 session, Russo and I talked about our experiences with online courses. She created and taught her first online course in 2000 and this year coordinates five sections of COMS 310, an introductory course in organizational communication that has three online and two face-to-face sections of about 25 students each. The face-to-face sections employ a flipped model, using modules from the online course to help prepare students for in-class discussions.

Images via Clker, Stock.xchng
Images via Clker, Stock.xchng

The combination of formats has allowed Russo to look more closely at how students learn.

“We’re trying to find out what works,” she said.

She isn’t ready to draw any conclusions about the class formats yet, but she has been frustrated with her online section. Discussion boards have been thin and her email inbox has overflowed with messages from students asking for clarification on assignments. She plans to add more explicit instructions and to alter some assignments to make them more meaningful. She still yearns for the face-to-face contact that traditional classes offer, though.

I know that all too well. I struggled the last time I taught an online course, and not surprisingly other instructors raise the same concerns that Russo and I have.

“As a teacher, I find it phenomenally frustrating because I don’t know the students personally,” Russo said.

A recent study by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University does an excellent job of explaining those frustrations, which students feel, as well. I highly recommend that anyone planning to teach an online course read the study. It is filled with excellent advice and provides welcome insights into students’ perceptions of online learning.

Among findings from the study:

  • Direction. Students want instructors to better explain the important aspects of readings, essentially emulating the points instructors might highlight in a classroom. They also want clear rubrics and written guidance on assignments so they won’t have to wait for instructors to respond to email so they can complete their work.
  • Feedback. Students expect feedback on all assignments, including discussion posts, often in far more detail than instructors provide. They find the lack of feedback discouraging, with one student saying, “It’s almost like you are talking to a wall.” (p. 19)
  • Motivation. Instructors say that students need to take responsibility to learn independently in online courses, but students say they need more help from instructors in understanding expectations and in devising strategies for learning.
  • Communication. Students cite communication with instructors as among their biggest problems in online courses. They expect instructors to respond via email far more quickly than instructors usually do (24 vs. 48 hours). Not surprisingly, in most of those messages students seek guidance on assignments.
  • Lack of visual cues. Students and instructors both find the lack of visual cues frustrating, and say that students need to reach out when they have problems because instructors have no way to know whether they understand material. That, of course, generally means more email and hence more frustration.
  • Course materials. Students prefer instructor-created video or audio presentations over nearly anything else, saying that those types of materials personalize courses and help them feel more connected to courses. Instructors often find those expectations unrealistic.

I plan to take the findings of the study to heart as I prepare for an online course in January and another in the summer.

One of the things those of us who teach online have to remember, though, is that most of us have had far more practice at teaching in person than we have online. That’s what makes the study from the Community College Research Center and Russo’s experiments with class format so important. They help us learn about and reflect on our own practices as we work to connect with students.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.