Alison Gibbs

Flipping the Classroom and Making It Relevant

Alison GibbsThe infinite refrain of the unwilling math student is “when am I ever going to need to know this?” And no matter how dismissive it may be, if you’re teaching a college math course, it’s a useful question to answer.

In pursuit of that answer, U of T statistical sciences professor Alison Gibbs helped introduce a different way to teach her Intro to Statistics course.

“The goal is to make students see why it’s relevant,” Gibbs says. “To engage them better, and integrate it with their other studies.”

To do this, Gibbs employed an emerging new practice in higher education—flipping the classroom. The idea is relatively simple. Instead of the traditional method where an instructor would teach the core tenets of statistics in the classroom, and then assign students problems to explore these tenets for homework, the dynamic is inverted.stats graphic

Instead, students learn the basic lessons from online videos and modules, and class time is used to help guide students through active learning and application of those lessons—like examining case studies, for example.

The result is a situation where a lot of the dirtier work of teaching and learning, like how to find the standard deviation in a bell curve, or even what “standard deviation” means, is already done before the students get to the classroom. This means more time for Gibbs and other instructors to work on creative ways to help students actually connect with the material.

“It’s very liberating,” Gibbs says. “I used to worry about fitting all this information into class. Now it’s all covered in the videos.”

Of course, that still means Gibbs had to help develop the framework for all the out-of-class learning. The ITIF funds she got supported all aspects of the operation, from staff meeting materials, to software, to student employees.

Initially only one section for the course was inverted, but as of Fall 2014, all four will be. That’s due in no small part to the fact that the results have been good. Part of the project involved handing out a mass survey of all students, and Gibbs says their responses showed that the general attitude towards statistics of the inverted classroom students went up compared to the traditional ones.

And although they haven’t found any evidence that the flipped classroom for the course helps students learn better, “Better attitudes was really the goal,” Gibbs says. “So we’re happy.”

Still, Gibbs thinks the flipped classroom helps students know what it means to take on responsibility, and take some aspect of their learning into their own hands, as opposed to sitting back and waiting for it to happen.

“I think about developing students from dependent to independent learners. This format is very good for that. It makes explicit that there’s this part of the course that you are responsible for.”

Another advantage of the way Gibbs deployed the flipped classroom format was that she was able to talk to every student in the class at some point, as opposed to the usual tradition of the same group of students coming up to her after every lecture. She made sure her teaching assistants, while working with students in smaller groups, tried to engage every student with questions.

Shortly after the ITIF grant, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—which works to fund education initiatives—was so impressed with Gibbs’ efforts that they offered her and her team more funding in order to develop a massive open online course (MOOC), which is used to offer a college-level course to anyone with an internet connection.

With the additional funding Gibbs is re-working the statistics course so it’s fully online, including the interactive classroom aspect. It’s hallenging, but if the way Gibbs was able to flip the class the first time around is any indication, tweaking isn’t something to be afraid of—it’s an exciting future.