Monday, June 02, 2014

"Flipping the classroom": what does that mean?

The latest issues of ASBMB Today contains an article by Brent R. Stockwell and Michael Cennamo with a provocative title: Reimagining the undergraduate science course.

It describes an undergraduate course in biochemistry at Columbia University. Apparently, this course used to be taught in a way that's similar to many biochemistry courses. The lecture consisted of PowerPoint slides and a description of basic facts such as metabolic pathways. Stockwell and Cennamo want to redesign the course to allow more time in the classroom for debate and discussion. This is an admirable goal.

They decided to "flip the classroom."
What does it mean to flip the classroom?

When we say we flipped the classroom, we mean that we had students watch recorded videos before class, freeing classroom time for discussion, group work and solving problems. But this is not something you can do overnight.

We took time to define our goals: Obviously, we wanted the students to be better prepared for each class, allowing them to engage more fully in class discussion. But we also wanted to have students put lecture material into action by tackling practical biochemistry problems.

Last summer, we had a number of meetings to design a new course that not only would get students thinking and problem solving in a new way but would provide instant feedback on how well they understood the material.
What they did was to create a video with their PowerPoint slides and a recording of the lecturer explaining what's on the slides. The students were supposed to watch the video before class and, to ensure that they did, there was a quiz at the end of the video presentation. For example, at the end of the lecture on amino acid metabolism, the students were asked to identify the product of the deamination of alanine.1

Here's the part I don't understand. What's the value of having students watch a video presentation when they have a textbook? (The recommended textbook is Lehninger, Principles of Biochemistry by David Nelson and Michael Cox (6th edition, 2013)).

Why not just assign readings from the textbook? I assume that most lecturers are not very knowledgeable about the content of most lectures in an introductory biochemistry course so they probably rely on a textbook anyway.

And what are the students supposed to do when they watch the video? In the new version of the course, students are divided into groups and they deal with problems that "required students to synthesize and apply the information from the textbook, videos and class discussion" (i.e. "problem-based learning," according to the authors). One of the question is ....
If glucose labeled with 14C at C-1 were the starting material for amino acid biosynthesis, the product(s) that would be readily formed is/are:

A. Serine labelled at alpha carbon
B. None of these
C. All of these
D. Serine labelled at the carboxyl carbon
E. Serine labelled at the R-group carbon2
I assume that the students would have to take notes while watching the video and/or download the PowerPoint slides in order to answer this question during class. Or, they could bring their textbook to class.

Do PowerPoint video presentations add anything to the course that can't be found in the textbook?

1. Pyruvate and glutamate?
2. I assume the instructors are thinking about organisms that regularly utilize glucose as a carbon source so that amino acids like serine are mostly derived from intermediates in glycolysis (e.g. humans). In that case, the students have to understand the distribution of carbon atoms in the aldolase reaction. I had to look this up to determine that the correct answer is "E." I hope I'm right. For species that use the pentose-phosphate pathway, I think the correct answer is "B." (This doesn't seem to me like a fundamental principle or concept based on an evolutionary approach to biochemistry.)

26 comments :

  1. I tried something similar in a series of guest lectures, don't think it worked very well. It worked better in a set of workshops. The differences (beyond execution on my part) were expectations and audience. The mode of lecturing with powerpoint, sitting passively listening to powerpoint is a comfortable dysfunctional relationship.
    Most lecturers probably want more interaction but most I know meet up with aggressive passivity of a sort. As to videoed presentations versus textbooks, there's some merit to outreach to ways students like to learn, and to multimodal approaches but being a geezer who remembers colored chalk to track glucose carbons I'd say learning to learn out of a textbook is another skill that should not be neglected.
    Lastly, even when a set of questions meets with silence, I think it has value, it just doesn't feel that way to the one asking the questions of a class that stares blankly back.

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  2. Textbooks usually cannot be updated or corrected as quickly as can an online video. In the right hands - e.g. someone with the charm of Salman Khan of the "Khan Academy" (http://www.khanacademy.org/) and the knowledge of Dr. Moran - the video approach has much to recommend it. A sampling of my amateurish efforts in that field - on evolution - may be found at: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL149AF63B4B8B20EC

    Donald Forsdyke, Department of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences, Queen's University, Canada

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    1. Textbooks usually cannot be updated or corrected as quickly as can an online video.

      I have yet to see an online video on biochemistry that comes even close to being more up-to-date than my textbook. I admit that it's possible but the "updates" would likely be very minor and if it were really important for the students to know them you could hand out a page of updates to the textbook.

      The Khan Academy videos are just about the worst example you could have chosen. Most of those video "courses" are decades out-of-date. See: The Khan Academy and AAMC Teach Evolution in Preparation for the MCAT and The Khan Academy and AAMC Teach the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology in Preparation for the MCAT.

      There may be some good reasons to prefer video presentations over textbooks but this ain't one of them.

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    2. Larry’s criticism is right on target!

      When a topic is already covered in the textbook, little or no lecture-time should be spent on that topic.

      As a matter of fact, maybe the whole notion of “lecture” should be re-examined. I invite you to google sandwalk.blogspot lecture powerpoint

      ITMT - I strongly urge everyone to refer to

      http://harvardmagazine.com/2012/03/twilight-of-the-lecture

      http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/tomorrows-college/lectures/problem-with-lecturing.html

      And no - I have not changed the topic nor hijacked this thread. To continue this line of thought on the subject of “flipping”...

      If students can somehow be encouraged to study on an almost daily basis… all would agree this is a good thing.

      If students come to class with more background information that allows them to pose more engaging questions in class… this also would be a good thing.

      If students can complete more tasks higher up Bloom’s Taxonomy; ie. Less rote and more “inquiry”… this constitutes a good thing-squared.

      If more time is freed for activities such and engaged in-class debate/discussion or perhaps more laboratories – ditto again!

      If this is all good – why would some teachers in different disciplines report more or less success with a “flipped classroom” approach? Why is Larry’s criticism on target?

      Gary Stager, “a longtime educational consultant and advocate of laptops in classrooms, thinks much that is labeled the “flipped classroom” is anything but! He claims, for example, that Khan Academy isn’t innovative at all. The videos and software modules, … , are just a high tech version of that most hoary of teaching techniques—lecturing and drilling.”

      http://www.wired.com/magazine/2011/07/ff_khan/all/1

      I submit that learning occurs best when students are engaged in an interactive fashion. That explains why I am relying more and more on interactive resources such as http://masteringbiology.com/ , not to mention http://bcs.whfreeman.com/hillis1e/#t_667501____ which has interactive tutorials and visuals that engage the students who proceed at their own pace.

      As a matter of fact, the beginning of each Hillis chapter has a diagnostic that evaluates student mastery on a given topic and custom-tailors a study program that avoids belaboring what students have already mastered.

      In other words, “flipping” the classroom is not deplacing lectures to another venue while flipping; but rather doing away with lectures altogether while egaging students in active learning both in the "Lecture" Hall and at home.

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  3. I do the flipped classroom (not biochemistry but intro bio and A&P) but I assign reading rather than lecture videos. Lecture videos are not what make a classroom flipped. It is the shifting of the more passive input part of learning to outside of class and more active input and output side of learning to the classroom where students can get immediate feedback on and assistance with their work. A faculty member more easily see how a student approaches a problem and recognize (and hopefully correct) problems long before a demoralizing exam reveals they didn't get it. There are a lot of other potential benefits but the flipped model only works when the faculty member plays an active role in guiding the students in the classroom. It ain't study hall.

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  4. I do the flipped classroom (not biochemistry but intro bio and A&P) but I assign reading rather than lecture videos. Lecture videos are not what make a classroom flipped. It is the shifting of the more passive input part of learning to outside of class and more active input and output side of learning to the classroom where students can get immediate feedback on and assistance with their work. A faculty member more easily see how a student approaches a problem and recognize (and hopefully correct) problems long before a demoralizing exam reveals they didn't get it. There are a lot of other potential benefits but the flipped model only works when the faculty member plays an active role in guiding the students in the classroom. It ain't study hall.

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  5. Do PowerPoint video presentations add anything to the course that can't be found in the textbook?

    I think the lectures (video or live) offer a few advantages:
    1) It provides another format for the information that some students may find easier to assimilate than reading,

    2) It allows you to focus on the topics you want the students to learn, at the level of detail you think appropriate. Larry is lucky in that he writes his own textbook, so I imagine it closely aligns with his preferred balance in his courses. The rest of us are not so lucky.

    3) I teach stuff not in the textbooks - my field is rapidly moving these days, so textbooks are usually lacking a lot of the really neat stuff.

    4) You can incorporate media not available in a textbook. Again, in my field video microscopy is quite common, and being able to walk students through a video (and relating that to the lecture topic) can be quite informative for them.

    Lectures are far from perfect, but IMO do offer opportunities that cannot simply be replaced by reading the textbook. Especially at the higher-level courses.

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    1. I teach stuff not in the textbooks - my field is rapidly moving these days, so textbooks are usually lacking a lot of the really neat stuff.

      Can you give me an example of this "really neat stuff" that you teach in an introductory biochemistry course? Why is it important in explaining fundamental concepts and principles?

      Again, in my field video microscopy is quite common, and being able to walk students through a video (and relating that to the lecture topic) can be quite informative for them.

      Yes, that's definitely an example of something that textbooks aren't good at! :-)

      Can you provide me with links to some of these videos that are used to teach introductory biochemistry courses? How about introductory cell biology courses?

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    2. > Can you give me an example of this "really neat stuff"

      Hah.....the latest discoveries of ENCODE, of course. I am surprised you had to ask that question :)

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    3. Weird, part of my reply disappeared. Lets hope the second time is the charm.

      Can you give me an example of this "really neat stuff" that you teach in an introductory biochemistry course?
      Where did you get the idea I teach biochemistry? I was quite specifically referring to your comment "Do PowerPoint video presentations add anything to the course that can't be found in the textbook?". For both non-introductory and introductory courses I'm involved with, and I suspect even for those you teach in biochemistry, the answer is a resounding 'yes'.

      Why is it important in explaining fundamental concepts and principles?
      Firstly, university should be about more than simply learning concepts and principals. None-the-less, in my field (immunology/host-pathogen interactions), recent developments, especially in immunomodulatory drugs and immunotherapies, represent excellent basic examples of how the immune system is regulated and are great illustrations of the importance of the small number of key regulatory molecules that act as "master controllers" of much larger regulatory networks. Moreover, in my field we're still uncovering some of those basic concepts - including key sub-types of cells that play important regulatory roles. We would be remiss in not at least mentioning those in an intro course, even if it comes with the caveat "this may not be entirely correct".

      One thing I try to strive for in my lectures is presenting science not as a series of facts, but rather as conditional knowledge gained through an active and on-going process. I think illustrating where that knowledge ends, old ideas now known to be wrong, & what is new - even at the introductory level - is key in helping students understand that science is a way of doing things, and continually progresses. Far to many think of it as a set of unchanging facts to remember (and forget after the exam).

      How about introductory cell biology courses?
      Immunology is essentially cell biology writ large, and I do largely teach the cellular side in the intro course. Harvards "the inner life of the cell" video is one I use a lot - it shows the cellular/molecular processes used by leukocyte to extravasate at a somewhat superficial level (its appropriate for introductory immunology). I edit out a section in the middle for my course, as some of the DNA expression & vesicle transport stuff is irrelevant - and "wrong" in the context of extraviasation (extraviasation takes place over seconds-to-minutes; no time to express new proteins required to make the process work - it all has to be in place when the cell arrives). That wrongness is actually used as a basis of some of the on-line learning modules I use.

      Most of the others I use are from scientific papers &/or my own (or from friends) research/labs. I have a number of fluorescent/multiphoton microscopy videos of phagocytosis, chemotaxis, dendritic cell/T cell interaction, NET formation, phagosome/endosome maturation, exocytosis, etc, that I use. On the cell biology side, the phagocytosis & chemotaxis ones are particularly good for teaching phosphatiylinositol signalling & the concept of localized versus cellular impacts of signalling. The pahgocytosis ones are also great for teaching vesicular trafficking since you can actually see the vesicles fusing/fissioning, switching PIP's, etc.

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  6. I think textbooks only really work when they part of a course that the author is teaching -- because then they basically are lecture notes (albeit with a glossy cover and a higher price tag). The problem is that everybody has their own slant on topics and so rarely do textbooks line up with lectures. Besides, in the sciences, I'd think introducing students to actual scientific articles as early as possible would be more useful than textbooks. When these students go to grad school or industry there will be no "textbook" to read anyway -- they will have to deal with the actual literature to get anything remotely modern.

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  7. The problem is that everybody has their own slant on topics and so rarely do textbooks line up with lectures.

    I agree with you that this is a serious problem. Most lecturers in undergraduate biochemistry courses think they have a better "slant" on the subject than the average textbook author. This can have disastrous consequences as we've seen in evolution courses.

    Besides, in the sciences, I'd think introducing students to actual scientific articles as early as possible would be more useful than textbooks.

    There is no evidence to support this claim when it refers to introductory biochemistry courses and plenty of evidence to refute it. The goal is to teach fundamental principles and concepts and getting students to read the primary literature rarely advances that goal.

    When these students go to grad school or industry there will be no "textbook" to read anyway -- they will have to deal with the actual literature to get anything remotely modern.

    There are 1400 students in our large introductory biochemistry class. Only a tiny percentage of those students will ever need to read biochemistry papers for the rest of their lives. Those that will need this skill can learn it in advanced courses and in graduate school.

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    1. I don't feel I have a better 'slant' on teaching Biochemistry or Cell Biology than textbook authors. But, when your department selects MBOC (1400+ pages) or Lehninger's principles of biochemistry (1200+ pages) for a 2-semester class, some decisions have to be made. Neither text is great at laying out critical thinking about science, or establishing what I consider the key concepts over a vast and dense wall of information. Frankly, they tend towards being encyclopedias of knowledge on a subject.

      As an undergrad, I tried memorizing all this, in preparation for the (now-dead?) Cell, Biochem and Genetics subject GRE. Result--I apparently I got about 60% of the tested facts down, which put me in the 96th percentile, and prepared me for really doing science in grad school ~0%.

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    2. I agree with you about encyclopedias posing as textbooks. That's why I wrote a textbook with "only" 700 pages that concentrates on fundamental principles. Unfortunately, there are far too many teachers out there who think that the big bulky textbooks with lots of trivial information are better for their course.

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  8. Many AP Biology teachers use Paul Andersen's videos on Bozeman to flip their AP Biology classrooms.

    Paul Andersen does a decent job of refining and updating his videos.

    On the subject of out-dated textbooks: John Kimball (in a personal communication) indicates that he updates his cyber-textat least a dozen times a month. I often rely on his text to check if I am not current on certain topics in general biology.

    For example, Kimball does a decent job on the topic of ENCODE .

    That said – Kimball seems to echo more Claudiu Bandea than Dan Graur.

    Aside to Claudiu: Thank you for your patience and your indulgence. I remain in your debt.

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    1. I often rely on his [John Kimball's] text to check if I am not current on certain topics in general biology.

      Please, oh pretty please, tell me that you are not serious!

      I quickly scanned several of his topics and it's hard to decide which ones are 40 years out-of-date and which ones are only 20 years out-of-date. Then there's the ones that were never correct in any decade.

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    2. LOL!

      Hi Larry. How come I already knew in advance what your reaction would be.

      Well, the truth be told, I have yet to find an introductory textbook that hits all the check boxes on my list.

      You mentioned a while back that the AP Biology Curriculum according to you
      "looks pretty impressive"

      The problem is of course that any curriculum is out of date almost before the ink dries. There is nothing wrong with that.

      John Kimball's text is better than any print version of an AP approved text - warts and all.

      For example, the AP curriculum already needs to update its discussion of gene regulation with respect RNAi. I defy you to locate a Freshman Biology text that does a better job than Kimball on RNAi. I for one would like to see any such textbook.

      There exist other piddling little details in the AP curriculum that I find irksome; for example the AP guide’s reference to lysosomes as “suicide sacs” citing the common conflation of autophagy with apoptosis.

      Kimball again does a better job than any other text I am aware of.

      How about Enzyme regulation? Please find me any other Freshman Introductory textbook that does a decent job of distinguishing precursor activation from positive feedback control.

      I could go on and on but I am going to reach my message size limit shortly – you get my drift.

      Granted – Kimball does cite conventional wisdom on a variety of topics such as when discussing the C-Value paradox and ENCODE. Kimball endorses the mainstream, where you often do not. That’s OK – that is what a good introductory textbook should do! How many Freshman texts even mention ENCODE?

      Yes Kimball could do a better job on a variety of topics; anabolism coupled to ATP hydrolysis jumps to mind. Yet, even here again Kimball still does a better job than a host of other Freshman Introductory texts that perpetuate silly notions such as breaking the terminal phosphate bond releases energy.

      Here is a wager – why don’t you send him an email suggesting some improvements. I will wager that he will post the corrections within the month if not the week. Now consider doing the same with any other published textbook.

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    3. RNAi should not be mentioned in a high school biology class and neither should ENCODE. It's far more important to make sure that students understand evolution and things like Gibbs free energy change. They should also understand why ATP is a common energy currency.

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    4. Hi Larry

      I agree with you sort of…

      First of all, RNAi is specifically mentioned in the AP curriculum. The problem is that there is a lot more to RNA involvement in Eukaryotic Gene Expression Control Points other than RNAi. At this juncture, you are correct: the story quickly becomes too complicated for an introductory class.

      Check out the following link from one of my favorite introductory texts: http://tinyurl.com/8wm65cg

      As much as I like this text, I think it is still guilty of oversimplification.

      Control of Gene expression is not only about regulatory proteins/enzymes. I tell my students that there exists an alphabet soup of acronyms for regulatory RNA involved in control of gene expression at each step of the way: lnRNA, piwiRNA, miRNA …etc, etc

      I provide one illustrative example (usually miRNA) and move on. No big deal.

      I also make a quick reference to evolutionary implications of the RNA World hypothesis not to mention the co-opting of ancient defense mechanisms against virus to explain the origins of this complexity – and then I move on.

      I do remain in your debt for setting me straight on the Metabolism First hypothesis. I and my students thank you.

      ITMT – I still remain grateful for Kimball’s text which has managed to bring me up to speed on a great many subjects. If Kimball is out of date on some topics – he is far more current than I can manage on my own.

      Of course, I also attempt to stay current by frequenting your forum.

      Best regards

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    5. I don't think that control of gene expression by RNA molecules is very important but if you feel you really have to teach it in high school biology then I recommend that you use the traditional examples of antisense RNA controlling expression of the Q gene in bacteriophage lambda and the control of initiation at the origin of replication in plasmids by RNA molecules.

      These "classic" examples have been known for three or four decades and they still represent simple, well-understood, examples of RNA-controlled regulation. If you throw in attenuation in the trp operon then you will have covered all the basic concepts in RNA regulation.

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  9. A flipped classroom seems an awful lot like what my college called "recitation" in the undergraduate organic chemistry course.

    It seems to me that the main difficulty in lecture is that many students treat the lecture as a list of verbal cues to what will be on the test. And they read the text for the answers to what will be on the test.

    Lecturing could be seen as a process of adding verbal cues to clarify text devoid of emphasis; re-presenting in different form concepts that failed to gel in textual form; a precis of material that allows an overview that extends concepts and integrates with problems. The difficulty there is knowing when the student has insufficient factual knowledge to conduct an effective analysis.

    The text in this approach is that infamous device, the study resource. In complex subjects, it is likely that there is no real substitute for the extended presentation of argument supported by detail in a format unlimited by the smaller capacity of verbal memory.

    I'm not sure that the customary texts are not taking the study resource function rather too literally, so that many students are lost in a wilderness of study aids. I think in art there is a "rule of five" referring to the number of figures that can be grasped simultaneously when looking at a painting. How many pages of a textbook flunk this rule?

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  10. I teach using Lehninger, and that question sounded too familiar. It is, in fact, question #12 from the Chapter 22 instructor resources. So, is "active learning" just group in-class homework, or trying tough exam questions?

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    1. I think it's a horrible question that doesn't demand critical thinking and doesn't examine understanding of a basic concept.

      Please don't keep us in suspense! What's the correct answer?

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    2. Serine labeled at the R-group carbon. Again, I'm not sure what the "active learning" process is here, other than looking up the pathways and structures.

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    3. Using your class time in that manner defeats the whole purpose of flipped classrooms. It may qualify as "active" but it doesn't qualify as "learning" in my book.

      In a class on amino acid metabolism using my textbook, I would ask students to discuss questions like ...

      "Why do other textbooks make such a big deal out of "essential" vs "nonessential" amino acids."

      "Is the citric acid cycle really a cycle when so many of the intermediates are involved in amino acid metabolism?"

      "Where does the nitrogen in living organism come from?"

      "Do you see any relationship between amino acid metabolism and the genetic code?" (Jeff Wong developed his theory of the evolution of the genetic code after teaching amino acid metabolism in our introductory biochemistry course.)

      "How important are amino acid degradation pathways in most species?"

      "Why are there lots of genetic diseases associated with catabolic pathways but none caused by defects in biosynthesis enzymes?"

      "What's the point of having a urea cycle?"

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