My last lecture (and no, I’m not dying; I’m just flipping)


Recently I posted an inspired message to friends and colleagues on Facebook, shortly after finishing a session of (voluntary) summer teaching at UC San Diego. The post went something like this:

“A few years ago I decided that I didn’t want to lecture anymore. So, I retired my lecture-based class, and created a new class (which happens to be on parenting), and flipped it. This involved writing scripts for prerecorded 5-10 min videos (with 5-6 videos per week), recording these videos, and learning to use some new tools, including CourseKey (kinda like Clickers, but with iPhone or laptop access). Each week, students watched lecture videos from home, answered 20-25 questions about the videos and a 5-6 page journal article, plus a press article (e.g., The Atlantic, NY Times, whatever), and then I asked them to ask one open ended question about the videos, and one about the readings. Class was one 3 hr period per week. 1 hr of this was a guest speaker (LGBTQ parents, midwives, a surrogate, a homeschooling dad, an autism researcher, my own daughter, etc.). Most days there was a 10 min, in-class quiz. For one hour I answered student questions that they had submitted online, focusing on problem areas that they had, and focusing on training them to answer these questions themselves, by doing lit searches together in class (rather than just providing the answer). In the third hour, because students had so much take-home content, I just stayed in the classroom with my TA and talked to whoever wanted to talk. Open Q&A. The most transformative aspect of this approach was the open-ended questions. Because students had done readings and watched lectures before class, and asked questions that I read before class, I could call on them to repeat their questions. This got everyone involved in a non-threatening way, and soon students started asking questions spontaneously. I also got to know students who never would have spoken otherwise – the many silent, interested and engaged students. This was by far the most rewarding teaching experience I’ve ever had, and the first time in my career that I can say I looked forward to teaching, and am sad it is over. This is a real revolution for me – someone who has despised the very concept of large lecture classes, hated the anxiety it produced, and disliked the product we delivered. Finally, my students learned. My tests were every bit as hard as ones I’ve given in the past, where students had averages in the mid 70’s. In this class I expect an average of about 90. This, I think, is my job: To make material so accessible and compelling to students that they can’t help but learn it, and learn it well. If anyone else wants to end their days of lecturing and wants to talk about it, let me know. I’ve seen Jesus.”

The post received a fair amount of interest from others who lecture for a living, and some have asked me for details on how, exactly, I implemented the class. Here I want to provide a few additional details and some links to relevant resources. Just for fun, let’s do this as a Q&A.

Q: How large was your class, and how big can it be for this model to work?

A. The class was designed with a size of about 250-300 students in mind, but was taught this summer with a group of just over 60. I don’t see why it couldn’t work with even larger groups, though I do think that as classes grow larger, it gets harder to form interesting connections to students. But that’s a problem that is orthogonal to this approach.

Q. How did you record lectures?

A. In my case, I started the class from scratch. With the help of some graduate students, I researched topics that I wanted to include, read the primary literature as exhaustively as I could, and then wrote a 1 page, 500 word “script” on each topic. Some of these scripts reached 2 pages, and some even maxed out at 3. Each 500 word page generated approximately 4 minutes of video, such that a 3 page script took 10-12 minutes to “read” when recording.

(Aside: We also designed some “tutorial” scripts, e.g., on how to compute a correlation, or on DNA, which allowed animations, screen grabs of excel, etc. that would be quite awkward to do in a live lecture).

After writing the scripts, I read them aloud to myself and made changes for readability. This allowed me to detect text that might cause disfluency when recording, or awkward repetitions that pop out when read aloud.

Having nailed down the scripts, I then borrowed a green screen setup from the AV people on campus, a video camera, a clip-on mic, and a light kit. Much of this can be gotten very inexpensively online, or can be borrowed. Also, a greenscreen isn’t really necessary, but it allowed us to easily superimpose slides onto the same screen as my image when we edited the videos.

I then made my first mistake, which was using my iPhone as a teleprompter using Teleprompter Lite. I strapped my phone to the video camera so that as I read the scripts my eyes were directed almost perfectly at the camera. Also, the small size of the screen meant that my eye movements were small enough as to be almost completely undetectable. The problem, however, is that because the screen was so small I could only see 2-3 lines at a time, which made it insanely difficult to read, especially when larger words came up in close succession. This meant I often had to do multiple takes, and had to read much more slowly than I would generally like to. I recommend getting your hands on a *real* teleprompter and playing with it to reduce eye movements. I had the chance to work with one after finishing my class and couldn’t believe the difference it made.

Another error I made is that I began recording wearing a jacket that I felt obligated to continue wearing after the first few videos were done. I regret this because I felt like a stooge, because I sweated like a madman, and because I felt like a stooge (did I mention that already?). A little secret: Many of the videos I recorded were done under such warm conditions (in my garage) that I may or may not have warn pants in some videos. May or may not have. I don’t recall.

Finally, I passed on the videos to a video editor employed by the university (Matt Santos), and he did amazing things. I’m deeply indebted to him. Thanks Matt.

Q. Isn’t there a simpler way?

A. Yes, apparently. Jessica Sullivan at Skidmore College used a program called Panopto, which allows you to record and upload videos of lectures (or micro lectures as I did) and also to upload slides. Also, it appears to allow you to assign quiz items to students that they can perform after watching videos. Brilliant! I don’t know anything about the pay structure of this app, but it looks like a great way to do this simply.

Q. How did you share videos with students?

A. With Panopto, this appears to be done by asking students to download an app and join the class. In my case, I shared videos on Edx.org, which also made them available to the general public. I won’t share a link here, because… the suit… But you should totally go check out examples of other classes. The nice thing about EdX vs. Panopto is that you can probably get your university to chip in help for creating your class. Also, EdX videos are transcribed, which means that learners who are hearing impaired, or who are not native speakers of English (many of my students) can read the lectures as they listen. Videos can also be sped up (yes please!) or slowed down, depending on a learner’s preference.

Q. What did students do at home, other than watch 5 min videos?

A. I scheduled the class to meet for a single 3 hour block once per week. For each week I assigned about 8-10 videos on a topic. I also assigned a 5-6 page scientific article from PNAS, Science, PLoS One, or other. And I assigned one short media article on each topic (since the class was focused on how to analyze media reports of scientific findings). I also assigned about 25 questions on the videos and reading in multiple choice format, which allowed students to deeply process the content *before* attending class, and to practice the testing format that I’d use for exams. And most critically, I asked them to each ask one question about the videos, and one question about the readings. Questions were assigned using CourseKey which also automatically took attendance using GPS data from students’ phones, aggregated grades, and included a messaging platform for communicating with students. A caveat: I won’t use this platform again due to minor, but persistent, technical problems related to reliable saving of student data. I’m told this will be fixed in future, and if it is I’ll return to the platform, since otherwise I found it to be an amazing resource.

Q. What did students do in class given that you didn’t lecture?

A. I divided my 3 hours into 3 chunks.

In the first hour, I typically began class with a 10 minute quiz (see below). I then proceeded by talking very briefly about the theme of that week just to refresh the topic. I then went to the student questions which I looked over before class, and I pasted the most representative and interesting questions into a powerpoint presentation, organized by topic. In class, I called on the students who had raised these questions, and they asked them live, which appeared to make them more engaged and likely to ask spontaneous questions later in the class. Having cherry-picked the questions, I was of course prepared to answer them: I did extra reading and learned about content related to their questions.

In the second hour, I invited guests. This included a lactation consultant, a panel of LGBTQ parents, some midwives, a surrogate, and many other amazing people. This was by far students’ favorite aspect of the class. Unfortunately, it probably isn’t possible for most classes. But if it is, do it.

In hour 3, I did nothing. I dismissed students and hung out in the classroom to talk with whoever wanted to stay and ask questions. This replaced my office hours, and the office hours of my TA, who also stayed in the class. This meant that students never had conflicts with my office hours, and also that both me and the TA could support one another while fielding questions. I chose to leave this 3rd hour vacant based on advice from other instructors who had flipped their classes, with the idea being that using all three class hours for instruction is overly burdensome for students, given that they’re already doing significant work at home.

I could easily have replaced my guest lecture time or extra hour with more content. For example, one exercise I did when I didn’t have a guest was to read entire papers together, by having students stand up and read paragraphs, and to the pull apart the paragraph one sentence at a time. First we asked what the main question of the study was, then how many subjects there were, then what the method was, then the results, and finally the main conclusion. Amazingly, students raved about this in their teaching evaluations. Apparently nobody had ever read a paper with them before, to explain basic elements of a science paper and what they mean. And it was surprisingly fun to do, too.

Q. How did you evaluate students?

A. For the take home component, worth almost 50% of the grade, I told students they could work together, fully aware of the fact that some might “cheat”, but I also told them that I understood this, but that it was their education to use or lose, and that it was up to them to decide how to use these 4 years of their life. In my view, this is a decision they make whether or not we make it easy for them. If they used this opportunity well, they probably also did well on in-class tests. If not, then not…

In class, I conducted quizzes almost every class. These were generally 10 questions based on the lectures and readings from 2 weeks prior (so that memory of the content was not entirely fresh). I also conducted a 1 hr midterm halfway through the class and in another in the final week, in lieu of a Final Exam.

Finally, 10% of the grade was for attendance. For what it’s worth, my attendance was almost 100% for all classes.

There are many more questions to ask, and right now I’d rather read a novel. At this point, I’m going to stop generating them myself, and leave you to ask more. If you do ask a question, I’ll add it above this line and do my best to answer. Also, I look forward to hearing suggestions for how to improve on what I’ve done from the many people I know who do similar things in their classrooms. Looking forward to hearing from you.


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