Conceptual Academy and Student-Centered Learning
for the Traditional Classroom
(aka the “flipped classroom” approach)
“Everything you had us do in class, from making us articulate our arguments, to working in teams, to giving the thirty second presentations on paragraphs in the book, was teaching us to be better students but also preparing us for 'the real world.' Your teaching went beyond the classroom and for that I thank you. You always cared if we understood what we were learning but more than that you seemed to want us to be curious and engaged and thoughtful about it. I am still very curious about the nothingness that is in the space between the molecules of ice. Thank you Coach!”
Student, Saint Michael’s College
Question: Conceptual Academy is clearly a valuable tool for online courses, but how might this website also be used to enhance the quality of teaching within a traditional course where the instructor and students meet regularly within a classroom?
Class time is short, adding up to no more than maybe 150 minutes per week. What might be the most effective use of this time? How about having all your students read their textbooks? You could walk up and down the aisles making sure they were on task answering questions as they arose. Sound good? OK, maybe not. Reading the textbook is something each student can do well enough at home.
How about providing lectures instead? You could deliver the content you know they need to know, much like a “talking textbook.” And sure enough, many of your students, in addition to reading the textbook, need to see and hear the concepts in action. There’s nothing like a good demonstration to bring excitement to the class and there are those precious moments when you have everyone’s rapt attention.
But while giving a command performance, it dawns on you that your students are sitting just as they would if they were reading. The main difference is that their heads are looking up and not down. Furthermore, it’s the same lecture you’ve given a hundred times before. You’re on automatic. Here comes the joke. Sure enough they laugh just like the last time. We’re all in a passive mode here. Is this really the best use of your time together?
This causes you to consider recording your lectures and posting them online. Maybe watching a lecture is something each student can do well enough at home at a time of his or her convenience. What’s more, the demos look great up close and using the pause/rewind buttons each student can watch at a pace that matches his or her attention span.
No devout reading of the textbook in class. No lengthy lectures either. How then do you spend your 150 minutes? Do you even need those 150 minutes? Have the textbook combined with recorded lectures put you out of a job? Or, are you now free to explore other possibilities, such as the “flipped classroom” approach where your students go home for their reading assignments and lectures, but come to class to study under your expert guidance.
Content Delivery and Content Facilitation
Sorting all this out, you recognize the distinction between “content delivery” and “content facilitation.” The two are closely related, but also worlds apart. Content delivery is what textbooks and lectures do so well, which is delivering academic content to students within a carefully laid out structure. This is an essential step to learning.
But students are not themselves recording machines. You can’t simply deliver content to a student and expect immediate understanding. Rather, the student constructs his or her own understandings. Often this is done from scratch, or worse, from entrenched misconceptions. Guiding students through this learning process is the second stage, called content facilitation. This is what instructors do so well, but only if they have the luxury of being free from the first stage of content delivery.
Teaching is a full time career in itself, even in the absence of added professional activities such as grant-funded research. Thus, it is not expected that every instructor write his or her own textbook. Instead, an instructor can select from the published works of colleagues who have dedicated their lives to this time-intensive endeavor.
Similarly, we shouldn’t expect every instructor to create his or her own “talking textbook”. We understand the time and energy it takes to create a product of high production value that will stand up to other online resources students are already accustomed to watching. This would be time and energy lost from the instructor’s main mission, which is to provide students with the personal support they so greatly need and have already paid for through tuition, tax dollars, or both.
The Role of Conceptual Academy
Understanding these dynamics, we authors of the conceptual series of science textbooks have come together to create Conceptual Academy. In the simplest terms, Conceptual Academy is where your students can go to find the “talking textbook” versions of our already published printed textbooks. The site features hundreds of our video lessons—each averaging only about 8 minutes in length—organized around each textbook’s table of contents.
Here’s how it works. Tell your students they are responsible for, say, sections 6.1 - 6.5 of the textbook. Students can then go their textbook to read those sections. But they can also come to Conceptual Academy to watch the video lessons associated with those particular sections. Ideally they do both, but that can be up to them or you. Want to know your students are actually reading? Conceptual Academy allows you to assign “reading check” questions which your students can answer for credit. Similarly, you can assign “video check” questions to assess whether your students have been watching the video lessons.
Enforcing content delivery before class has great significance. It means that your students arrive with an understanding about equal to what they would normally have upon leaving a traditional lecture. So how do you take it from there? You could lecture to them once again for reinforcement. This is fine especially when you know the content available through the textbook (printed or talking) needs to be complemented with additional material or new perspectives. Although redundancy is a powerful tool, you should be mindful to move away from content delivery as much as possible. Knowing that your need to lecture has been minimized you should also have a robust set of student-centered activities up your sleeve. Perhaps the simplest activity is to pass out worksheets that students work on together in teams. You visit each team answering the inevitable questions as they arise. When a similar question keeps coming up, you can call the class to attention and provide a brief “mini-lecture” that addresses this and related issues.
The above example is just one idea of many that we spell out in our article on student-centered learning. Chances are that you already have a pool of student-centered techniques of your own or that new ideas will soon be coming to you as you forge ahead. Also, you need look no further than science education journals or the web to find a constant flow of student-centered learning innovations all made possible by minimizing the number of minutes spent lecturing.
There is great potential in transforming a class from one geared toward passive learning (content delivery) to one geared toward active learning (content facilitation). What is needed is a willingness to get creative and to push the responsibilities of learning more squarely on the student. We can think of students as team players out on the field doing all the hard work, which means finding answers for themselves. We are their coaches here to direct their learning efforts. Sometimes the best way to do this is by knowing when to cheer and when to remain silent.
So, is it better to retool one’s teaching methods in a single semester or to explore new activities one at a time over many years? Revolution or evolution? If you’re like most of us, the thought of revamping everything within a single semester is most undesirable. Indeed, implementation of any student-centered activity requires a fair amount of trial and error. Implementing many new activities all within a few weeks only to have them founder would be a disservice to your students, to yourself, and to the student-centered learning approach. The best practice is to introduce only the activities you think will work best for your students in a time frame that allows for successful development. Too much too soon can be self-defeating.
Student-centered learning is fertile ground, especially for those of us who have already nailed down our lecture presentations and are wondering what do to next. We here at Conceptual Academy are aiming to build the tools that will provide you the support you need to move in this forward direction.