Flipping Quantum Mechanics I

In a recent post I discussed my plans for my fall 3rd-year Quantum Mechanics 1 class and one of the things on the list was that I was planning on doing a full flip for this course. Bret Benesh asked in the comments to hear a bit more about my flipping plans so here we are.

For anybody needing to catch up, a flipped (or inverted) class is one where there is some content delivered to the students before class (by video/screencast, reading, worksheets, whatever) and then in class you have that freed up time to do more productive things than stand at the front and lecture. My two favorite recent run-downs of flipping the class are here and here.

First of all, I plan to call the complete package of what they do before coming to class “pre-lecture assignments”. In the end these will actually be quite similar to what I have been doing in my introductory Physics courses with textbook readings, but the upper-year textbooks are (in my experience) a much tougher read for the students. So I will be using screencasting of some form to present the easier-to-grasp ideas from the text and then use class time to build on those.

Why am I flipping this class?

There are two main things that I am trying to accomplish by flipping this class:

  1. Buying myself more time for the fun stuff. In class I use a lot of clicker questions and whiteboarding. I would sum the approach up as I give them some basic tools (the pre-lecture assignments) and then use class time to get them to explore the intellectual phase space of these tools and what can be built upon these tools.
  2. Reducing student cognitive load by having them learn, before they come to class, the basic tools and associated new vocabulary so that their precious working memory isn’t mostly occupied trying to deal with that low-level stuff when we’re trying to work on the more advanced stuff.

In the time it has taken me to get this post together Brian Frank has posted twice (with rapidly growing comment threads) on topics related to the point of vocabulary first. There are tons of great conversations to be had related to this, but for now my mindset is that I have a good chunk of the in-class activities for my course fleshed out, so what I am going to work on is trying to have the students show up as prepared as possible to do those activities, with as little headache as possible for them. Most of what is found in a Quantum text does not qualify as basic tools or easier-to-grasp ideas so my screencasting plan is to extract those parts from the text and present them so that they are not overwhelmed trying to read the text.

The plan

My plan looks something as follows, but I have to do some trial runs on the first couple of pre-lecture assignments to find the first-order issues. Assume that these get assigned on a weekly basis.

  1. Sit down with the sections of the text that will be “covered” that week. Determine what I would realistically expect an average student to get from reading those sections before they came to class: vocabulary, simple and fundamental concepts, the easier examples and derivations. Let’s call these “base ideas”.
  2. Make some short screencasts that present the base ideas and try to put a framework or narrative around them to make them look like a cohesive set of fundamental ideas that can be built on. I am not great at helping the students build a larger framework and showing how all the ideas fit together, so this will be a very productive activity for me.
  3. Give them 3-5 questions that ask them to wrestle with with these base ideas. In my intro courses I typically use my easiest conceptual clicker questions for this purpose and expect that I will do the same here. These easiest questions typically force the students to deal with the new vocabulary and get a chance to apply the fundamental concepts to reasonably simple situations. They are much like the “check your understanding” questions typically found at the end of a section from any recent intro physics textbook. Other options for these questions are ones that ask the students to go one step beyond what was presented in an example or to fill in a critical step in the reasoning process in a derivation. These assigned questions always require both an answer and an explanation of the answer and are submitted the evening before class. In order to get credit the students do not need to be correct, but their answers need to demonstrate that they put in an honest effort to figure out the answer to the question. There will also always be a “what question do you still have after completing the rest of this pre-lecture assignment?” question.
  4. Before class, I will respond by email to each of their submitted answers. I do this in my intro courses and feel that it helps communicate to them that I am reading their submissions and that I am there to support them at every stage in their learning. There are often quite a few copy and paste explanations as part of my responses to their wrong answers since the reasoning behind their submitted answers mostly falls into only 2 or 3 different camps. But I still make sure to personalize each response even if the bulk of the response is a copy/paste job.
  5. Pull student answers and questions into the lecture material. I don’t usually re-organize my class-time plans much based on their submitted answers, but I will use their words in place of my own as much as possible or present their questions to motivate something we were already going to discuss or an activity we were already going to do. Since the questions I use are mostly my easier clicker questions, I will usually show the question again in class at the appropriate time. More often than not I will skip over voting on the question and instead just try to have a discussion with the students that looks similar to the one we would have after they had just done a group vote on a Peer Instruction question. If most of the people nailed the question in the pre-lecture assignment, I usually skip the question in class and move on to a more challenging question on the same concept or one that builds on the question from the pre-lecture assignment. This gives the students that didn’t get the correct answer a chance to catch up because we are still addressing the concept in class.

Many folks will note that much of the above is a Just-in-Time-Teaching (JiTT) implementation. The JiTT bits are the pre-class content with questions to be submitted before class and the adjusting of what is done in class in response to the answers to those questions.

Some last thoughts

One thing that I will use to help me sort out which are the “easy-to-grasp” ideas is the collection of student questions from the last time I taught this course. Last time I had them send me (for some bonus marks) questions from their reading of the textbook before coming to class. The completion rate was usually 4-7 of the 10 students and the questions were mostly about things they had trouble understanding from their reading (but there were real-world application and other interesting questions as well).

There is a great conversation about flipping the class going on over at Jerrid Kruse’s blog with lots of great ideas being brought up (same goes for the pair of posts by Brian Frank that I link to above). Like I have previously mentioned, I already have a lot of resources (mostly clicker questions and some whiteboard activities) and a general course trajectory laid out, so the plans I have laid out here are ones that are meant to help make my current plan work better. Given tons of time and more experience running Quantum courses I would probably be inclined to move further toward an exploration before explanation model. What I will do is keep good notes of my reflections along the way for possible ways to bring in more exploration-first activities. I will also take advantage of OSU’s Paradigms Wiki and try out some of their appropriate exploration before explanation activities.

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8 Comments on “Flipping Quantum Mechanics I”

  1. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

    This looks like a very solid plan, Joss. I love the focus on what best enables a vibrant classroom. That’s certainly been the driving force for all the flipping I’ve done. Class time is precious to me and I love thinking of ways to make it even better.

    One thing that’s great about this plan is how you’ll be heavily involved in the material just a little before the students are. That’s why I’m pretty sure I’ll continue to produce scasts even for courses I’ve taught this way before.

    I also like how you’re trying to figure out what they can get from the book by themselves and thinking of resources you can supply/point to to help them with the harder stuff. That takes some work for me but when I get that right it seems like things really click. Of course, I try to be careful to remind them that they need to read *and* watch along with submit/answer questions for each other.

    I’ve said it elsewhere but I’m also really excited about trying out VoiceThread with my scasts. It’ll be really cool if I can get the students to comment/create using that tool.

  2. Joss Ives says:

    Hi Andy,

    We have 3 80 minute slots a week for most of our courses and I still always want more time.

    I’m really not planning for them to read the text more than they would in any of my colleagues’ classes so the screencasts are going to be the material from which they answer their questions, but the text would then still be there for reference and I imagine some of them will use it. How this will actually play out I am not sure and will certainly be the topic for at least one week’s worth of “Friday Feedback”.

    I’m interested to find out how VoiceThread works for you. It does look promising!

  3. Brian says:

    It’s always obvious in your writing how much thought you put into courses, especially around organizing the class. This is a bit of what I was saying before about being an architect, and me feeling like I really need to work in this area.

    With respect to JiTT, I really like getting student feedback before class. Mostly here, it’s been having students turn in reading reflections the day before class, so I have a chance to tweek to discussion toward things they brought up (or didn’t). And to make contact with things they said and important concepts. I have found that my ability to manage a discussion improves a lot, not only by reading the feedback, but trying (even if minimally so) to organize a bit of what they’ve written into categories.

    I also like how you are flipping to the class to have more time for the fun stuff. Someone might think that’s selfish, but I think it’s important!

    @ Andy, do you think doing screencasts help partially because it’s like a pre-lecture warmup for the instructor, not just for the students?

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      Yes, Brian, absolutely. I once taught a class (I think it was Modern Physics) where right after class I’d have to post solutions to the HW they just turned in, and post screencasts for the next class. It was a great way to be fully immersed in the material for two consecutive days!

  4. Simon Bates says:

    Joss, this is a great intro to the rationale behind flipping the classroom and also the practicalities of doing it. I am going to pass it on to a couple of my colleagues as this coming session I think there are a few of us who are up for ‘a full flip’ in a couple of our courses.

    And I love the idea of ‘exploring the intellectual phase space’ that a set of primitive tools will give you.

    • Joss Ives says:

      Hi Simon,

      I don’t know what sort of experience you have had using pre-class reading assignments or other flipping strategies, but I started to write a reply discussing a few extra things to consider that I would have included in this post if it were more of a general post on flipping the classroom. It got a little long so I made a quick post out of it instead (posted here).

      If you (or anybody) is interested in the pre-class questions (and samples of student responses) that I have used in my intro courses, please let me know. I’m always happy to share.

  5. […] reading materials or screencasts that best suit my needs and this is something that I am going to try out in my 3rd-year Quantum Mechanics course this […]

  6. […] of the flipped or inverted class. I have discussed why I implement pre-class learning strategies in the past and want to focus instead more on the how in these […]


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