Does a flipped physics classroom work?

September 16, 2016

As is typical with many other courses, changes have been made to the Physics 10A curriculum. Conventional physics courses are based on students coming to lectures and the professor monotonously droning on and on while writing a bunch of equations on the board. Usually most students do not bother to read the textbook under such a curriculum, and often show up to the lectures lost but in high hopes of gaining something from that day’s lesson. One of the problems with such a curriculum is that it impedes the students from actively learning the material.

What ends up happening is that the students come two days before the exam and flip through their notebooks looking for which equations to memorize and apply to a specific type of problem. The issue with this is that it does not allow the students to understand why they are doing what they are doing. In the end it all comes back down to memorization. Physics (even if it is an introductory course) is not beginning biology; memorization will not take a student far.

For those reasons, Nate Tompkins restructured the Physics 10A course to be in the form of a flipped classroom. The idea behind it is that students will come to class having thoroughly studied the chapters in the online book (on which students must also comment by reflecting on something or by asking questions) and then attend seminar-sized classes during which they will work on problems either independently or with their peers. The whole point of the flipped classroom is to build communication and get students thinking on their own without the professors feeding them equations. Students are supposed to learn to apply in a flipped classroom.

That being said, there has been an influx of complaints by students about the changed course. Students talk about how they are paying a lot of money to basically read a book themselves and not be taught anything. Other students are fine with the independent and group learning but are upset that there is no way for students (other than by doing the online homework problems) to know if they are right or wrong about the problems they complete in class.

As a more independent learner myself, that latter point is something I highly agree with. Yes, it is true that as we go through the problems in class, we can ask the graduate and undergraduate TAs if what we are doing is correct, but that is not possible to do for every single problem every single time. Furthermore, not having the ability to check our answers or rather how we are applying or approaching problems decreases confidence for the most part—especially with the first midterm coming up.

On one hand, it is true that the flipped classroom is allowing us to utilize our resources to the fullest, but the problem is, every student has an array of other classes that they need to also go to office hours, recitations and study for. With a purely flipped classroom, spending 9 hours per week (as described in the course syllabus) is a legitimate amount of time to be able to read through the chapters, comment and work through the homework problems and understand the concepts. But for the students who cannot consistently find 9 hours to work on physics per week, or may have trouble independently learning without any form of lecture, it becomes a bit of a problem for them. They will fall behind and a vicious cycle will begin as stress perpetuates in the student’s life.

After speaking with multiple students (some of whom are strongly opposed to this course’s curriculum at the moment, and also those who do not mind a flipped classroom but would like some adjustments made to it), a possible solution to accommodate everyone is to emphasize the foundations of a flipped classroom. The emphasis is on reading the textbook, trying to understand the material on our own before we come to lecture, doing lots of practice in the form of homework problems and class problems, but then also having the opportunity to check our work after and get structured lectures on particular concepts (instead of whole chapters themselves) that are important or tricky once in class.

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