Learning Before Class Strategies Part 1: Types of Assignments

This is part 1 of a 3 part series on pre-class learning strategies, which can be used as part 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 posts.

  • Part 1 (this one) focuses on some common types of assignments/assessments that you can use.
  • Part 2 focuses on some different ways that you provide your students with the resources that they will be using to do some learning before coming to class.
  • Part 2.5 is a continuation of part 2 and discusses the types of video lectures in a bit more detail
  • Part 3 (eventually) will discuss some tips and some issues that I have come across trying to implement learning before class strategies.

Common pre-class assignments

These are types of pre-class assignments that I have tried out in my own classes or have heard of being in use out in the wild. Part 2 will go into more detail on the learning resources you can provide to your students, but most of these assignments types will work well with commonly used “flipped class” resources such as textbook readings, pencasts, screencasts and multimedia video.

    1. Reading Quiz – Reading quizzes are usually administered at the beginning of class and marked for correctness. I have used clickers, bubble sheets and index cards to administer them. The problem with reading quizzes is that they have to be reasonably easy  and target recall or very basic understanding so that students that put in an honest effort to do the reading will get most of the questions correct. As a result it is hard to come up with questions that aren’t reasonably easy to guess. The administration through index cards refers to the times that I have asked them to draw or explain something in a way that shows their understanding, but the overall performance of the class on these types of questions has usually ended up being low. I moved on from reading quizzes after just one term of using them.
    2. Guided Reading Quiz – Instead of asking the students to read and try to figure out what are the most important ideas from their pre-class resources, you supply them with a set of questions to guide their initial learning. And then a small handful of those questions are used for the start of class reading quiz. I have not tried this in my own courses, but I came across it in a effectiveness of peer instruction in computing paper by my friend and former CWSEI STLF Beth Simon. If I was teaching a giant section of a course, I think that I might use this method. If the students try to take a shortcut and just learn the answers to the questions, they still end up touching base with the most important points from the pre-class resources (assuming well-constructed questions) which means the assignment will still have accomplished its purpose. Haha, gotcha shortcut-takers.
    3. Pre-Class Online Participation Questions – This is my generic name for the type of pre-class assignments used in Just-in-Time-Teaching . Students are asked to answer questions online (through your CMS, online homework system or plain old email) at least a couple of hours before class, giving you time to review their answers and modify your lesson plan or seed your class notes with their words and questions. These questions are not marked for correctness, but are instead marked for completion, usually based on answers that show that the student put in some reasonable level of effort to learn the material. I get the most mileage out of asking them to answer relatively easy conceptual multiple-choice questions and asking them to explain their answer. Easy is a very relative term and I am usually happy if anywhere from 50-100% of the students are able to get the question correct after consuming the pre-class resources, but it is most important to me that I can see from their explanations that they had to mash the ideas around in their head a bit before being able to answer the question. For these questions I usually just pull a clicker question straight out of my notes. Other types of questions that work well for this type of assignment are estimation questions and short calculations (I will be discussing when these go poorly in Part 3). As I have discussed in a previous post, this is the style of pre-class assignment I currently use for all my courses (intro, upper-year and labs) other than my project-based upper-year lab course. One of my main open questions with this type of assignment (to be discussed more in Part 3) is how best to provide feedback to the students.
    4. Student-Generated Questions – (added an hour after the orginal post went live) I can’t believe I forgot to include this. As part of the pre-class online participation question assignments I usually provide an extra box on the web-form where they are encouraged to ask any questions that they have regarding the content in question. If there are some common themes to these questions I bring them up in class. For more isolated questions that won’t be addressed in class, I usually respond to that student’s question via email. This year in my 3rd-year quantum class I had the students generate some questions after reading an 8-page excerpt on the postulates of quantum mechanics and some compare/contrast points between classical and quantum mechanics. They generated fantastic questions and we spent a whole period going through these questions and tying the ideas from these questions to each other and to their previous courses. The best part was that if I had prepared a lecture to discuss those exact same ideas from their questions without having had them first generate the questions, they would have been nowhere near as invested in what I had to say. It really personalized the whole thing. I want to try this type of thing again in the future.
    5. Summaries – Get them to write a paragraph or three summarizing the main ideas or their understanding of the pre-class resources.
    6. Reflective Writing – The purpose of the student writing in this type of assignment is for them to focus on the ideas that they are having trouble understanding and to highlight or summarize those ideas through their writing. This type of assignment is marked for completion and evidence that they were writing for their own understanding, but is not marked for correctness. Calvin Kalman is a proponent of this type of writing to learn strategy.
If you have tried other types of assignments for learning before class, let me know about them. Part 2 coming soon.
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Hello lecture hall, bye bye whiteboards?

At my university, the University of the Fraser Valley, most of our classes have a maximum enrollment of 36. We teach our intro sections in a room with tables that seat 3 and I do a lot of whiteboarding activities. And once the students are used to using them I find that they also use them for discussing their answers during clicker questions. I never have “board meetings” meaning that I don’t ask groups to take the rest of the class through a solution that is on their whiteboards. I use the whiteboards more as a collaborative space.

Next fall I am tentatively scheduled to teach a slightly larger section (somewhere between 54 and 90 students) in our lecture hall. I don’t mind converting most of my whiteboarding activities to clicker questions since I have been recording their results and diagrams and such in previous sections. So I don’t “need” the whiteboards.

Lecture halls are less than ideal for facilitating collaborative group-work, but lots of people make it work and I am curious to try it out for myself. Clicker question discussion groups form all over the room and that part should be fine. What I am not looking forward to is the potential loss of whiteboards as a collaborative space for students when working on clicker or other questions. I suppose I could chop up some whiteboards to make ones that are an appropriate size to use on those tiny little arm-rest tables that are found with lecture hall seats. But I doubt that they would be able to be large enough to allow for a decent collaborative space.

Does anybody have experience trying to use whiteboards in a lecture hall environment? How did it go? How large were the boards? Any other suggestions other than to simply ditch the whiteboards for this forthcoming section?