Creating Significant Learning Experiences for Students (Patrik Hultberg, Kalamazoo)

Patrik Hultberg,
Associate Professor of Economics and Coordinator of Educational Effectiveness
Department of Economics and Business, Kalamazoo College

I began my transition to a flipped classroom approach approximately five years ago. The initial catalysts were L. Dee Fink’s book “Creating Significant Learning Experiences,” and José Bowen’s book “Teaching Naked.” Fink’s book convinced me that the task of a professor should be to create “significant learning experiences”; to be an instructional designer, not a lecturer. Bowen’s book emphasized the importance and scarcity of the face-to-face time that we have with students, and that we need to create value during those precious hours. Bowen suggested that we move technology out of the classroom and adjust our classrooms to focus “less on content and more on application of material to new contexts.” This idea appealed to me, and the flipped classroom approach, with content delivery pre-class and in-class active learning, seemed to incorporate perfectly these ideas.

Consequently I made a concerted effort to flip my courses. As Professor Thompson noted in her article, this was, and continues to be, a major undertaking since I needed to change everything that I had done previously in my courses. One part of the traditional flipped classroom approach is the use of videos to facilitate delivery of content. Making videos is not as easy, or comfortable, as one might think and I invested a significant amount of time trying to make “great” videos (with some YouTube success to show for it!). However, today I don’t view videos as especially important or even necessary for the flipped classroom. In fact, I ran a controlled experiment in two sections of Principles of Economics comparing learning outcomes between using only textbook and only videos in content delivery; the results were indistinguishable, as also mentioned in Professor Thompson’s review. What the experiment did indicate was that activities performed in class were important for student learning. Today I use videos only if they promote learning by providing different content and perspectives, or promise greater student engagement.

I still view the flipped classroom as my overall framework for teaching, and I have almost eliminated standard lectures from my interactions with students. That is, content delivery takes place almost exclusively outside of my classroom. I expect students to read and watch videos before they come to class. I “enforce” this by the use of pre-class questions and quizzes. The flipped approach thus provides the general structure in my courses, but it does not answer the question of what to do during our precious face-to-face time in the classroom. My answer to this question, which is most important, has led me to gamification (the application of game-design elements and principles to non-game settings) and cognitive load theory.

Gamification emphasizes “human focused design.” That is, designing courses that explicitly address meaning-making, accomplishments, empowerment (agency), and social aspects. These are ideas that, I believe, promote student motivation, engagement, as well as creating a sense of belonging in the classroom. Cognitive load theory has clarified my thinking about what material to “cover” in my courses, and when to introduce it. I attempt to design my courses so that material introduced matches students level of expertise and greater complexity is only presented as students build up their knowledge structures (scaffolding).

So, similar to professor Thompson’s conclusion, the flipped classroom approach is not the answer to effective teaching and learning. What the flipped classroom does, in my opinion, is open up the space to incorporate the evidence-based teaching strategies that social and cognitive psychology offer. It releases us, the instructors, from the pressure of “covering content” and allows us to focus on the more important, and much more rewarding, task of creating significant learning experiences for our students. In this respect the flipped classroom can be transformative.

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