Passive and Active Activities in the Flipped Classroom (Part 1)

No discussion of passive learning can begin without a reference to Ben Stein’s portrayal of an economic teacher in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” in 1986.

I think most of us could argue quite persuasively that there is no learning going on in this classroom. Although the teacher attempts to interact with the students with the infamous “Anyone, anyone?” question, there is no response from his audience. One might note that he is facing the class and attempting to gauge the student’s understanding of voodoo economics. Is he practicing active retrieval to help his students consolidate the information in memory? In the book Making It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, and Mark McDaniel, the authors describe how testing can help students strengthen memories.

The act of retrieving learning from memory has two profound benefits. One, it tells you what you know and don’t know, and therefore where to focus further study to improve the areas where you’re weak. Two, recalling what you have learned causes your brain to reconsolidate the memory, which strengthens its connections to what you already know and makes it easier for you to recall in the future. In effect, retrieval – testing – interrupts forgetting.

Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Paramount Pictures, 1986
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Paramount Pictures, 1986

This statement assumes that some learning has already taken place. Perhaps the students have already read about voodoo economics in a textbook or a news story from the time period. In the case of Ben Stein’s economics instructor, it appears that his presentation is the first time these students have been exposed to the content. His question, “Anyone, anyone?” is simply an attempt at engaging the students. In this form, the class period is simply one long passive “activity”. I use the term “activity” cautiously in this context since it brings to mind students actually engaging in an experience.

In flipped learning, direct instruction does not take place in the classroom as a group experience. Instead, direct instruction is an individual experience often mediated by technology.This means that students may read a textbook or watch a video prior to attending class. However, it could also be more involved utilizing a learning management system. A classroom for flipped learners may then be utilized to apply other teaching methodologies that are student centered. This environment should embrace difficulties. It should help each student to understand what it is they know and don’t know as well as apply their learning to realistic problems.

math_logosIn my mathematics classes, I use Pearson’s MyMathLab as a math learning tool. Other similar products exist such as Hawkes Learning Systems, McGraw-Hill’s Aleks, WebAssign, and the open source MyOpenMath are used around the country. They offer the ability to do math homework and quizzes online. As designed, these systems assess what a student does not know and then delivers content in appropriate areas. Most are built on years of educational research and take best practices into account. In the most naive use of these systems, the math learning tool is used to do online homework and/or in class quizzes. They form a large portion of the overall grade to make sure students actually do the work. Immediate “feedback” is provided on homework to help students learn the content. However, this feedback may also be used as a crutch to do the homework when no foundation has been laid in the form of reading, videos or other resources provided by the instructor. A student encounters a new problem and clicks on a button which instantly provides instructions for doing the problem. There is no struggling. Students often rely upon crutches like this to do their work. It may seem to get the work done, but do they really learn the material?

Studies indicate that there is a curious relationship between how easy it is to practice memory retrieval (do the online homework problems) and how much you benefit from this practice. The easier it is to retrieve the knowledge (perhaps with the help of a math learning tool), the less benefit the practice has on retaining the knowledge. I take this to mean that a student who relies upon guided solutions to do all of his homework will retain less. However, does retrieval that requires effort lead to better retention? Information is initially stored in the short term memory before being committed to long term memory. Using frequent learning tips in quick succession helps you to recall information from short term memory. This is gives a student the illusion of learning the information and leads to temporary gains in knowledge.

“Neuronal activity DARPA” by courtesy of Massachusetts General Hospital and Draper Labs

To commit information to long term memory, the brain needs to consolidate the information. If retrieval is effortful, the brain connects the information with other learning that is already known. Frequent retrieval helps to strengthen the memories and encode it more deeply in long term memory. If the retrieval practice is spaced out chronologically so the brain has a chance to forget some of the details, learning is encoded better. This effort requires the brain to reconstruct the memory, the cues for remembering, as well as the connections with prior knowledge. This process is called reconsolidation and helps the brain to form mental models in which related ideas are grouped so that they can be applied later.

These ideas are presented very understandably with complete references in Making It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. By applying these ideas in the context of of flipped learning, we can hope to increase what our students learn. The question I’ll tackle next is how I do this in my flipped classroom.