The role of smartpens in the flipped classroom

Six in 10 students in a recent survey said flipped learning has proven effective.

In a perfect world where students always do their homework and come to class completely prepared, flipping the classroom would be the ideal solution for keeping students engaged in class.

However, one of the challenges of teaching is that some students do not always come to class completely prepared. Maybe flipping the classroom would be easier in a high school setting, where parents can enforce homework time. But college students have a choice — they’re adults.

No one is standing over their shoulders and making them do their homework.

When I decided to flip my classroom last year, I was faced with the challenge of engaging both my already highly-motivated students, and those who were slightly less motivated.

I teach mathematics at Mesa Community College, the largest community college in Arizona. I have been a math teacher for more than 25 years and have gained a considerable amount of experience in teaching current and future educators, blended math classes, and using technology to teach both inside and outside the classroom.

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I’ve always loved technology and am constantly looking for new tools that will help my students.

One of the problems I had in the past involved students eMailing me with math questions that were difficult to answer over eMail–which is not exactly an ideal format for answering questions about graphing, for instance. So, about three years ago, I asked my kids to buy me a Livescribe smartpen for Mother’s Day to use with my students.

Smartpens captured what I said and wrote, so I could explain math problems while sketching them out. Instead of answering my students’ questions through eMail, I started sending them pencasts (the digital version of notes tied to audio) and then uploaded the pencasts to my class website for other students to access.

Students found the pencasts easier to understand than my eMails, which gave me the idea to start teaching a blended course. During online days, I’d have my students watch pencasts instead of using their textbooks, and instead of lecturing during precious class time, I had them work in groups so I could help them tackle harder problems one-on-one.

Eventually I had assembled such a large library of pencasts on my website that I could completely flip my classroom. When I first introduced the new class format, some students resisted. I made it a requirement for students to watch pencasts, read the eBook, and take notes before coming to class.

In the beginning there were groans about the extra work outside of class — students were perfectly content just to show up to class and listen, rather than prepare beforehand — but once they got over the initial change in status quo, many students actually thanked me for the change. Because they were already familiar with the material when they came to class, we could dive into some of the harder problems or do group work.

Those who prepared outside of class saw that their grades improved post-flip. Students who had been getting B’s and C’s were suddenly getting A’s, and the class average on the semester final went up about 20 percent the semester I flipped my classroom.

However, I could not ignore the students who weren’t willing to prepare outside of class. There was an initial group of students who dropped the class because of the workload, and another small group who stayed, but didn’t do the work before class. I began requiring students to show their notes before class started to demonstrate they had done the prep work at home.

I made it clear to students who did not do the pre-class work that they shouldn’t come to class until they reviewed the materials. Instead, I had them spend the hour in the library catching up on the notes from the night before. It was a better use of their time to actually learn the material than sit, lost, as the rest of the class moved ahead. That small group found my methods to be a wake-up call and they began to quickly get on board.

To help familiarize the students with pencasts, I started letting them use the smartpen, designating different students as the “daily note taker” for the class. I asked — okay, assigned — a different student to be the note taker each day, and afterwards they surprisingly told me they actually appreciated the experience. Because they were responsible for taking notes that would be posted online for those who had missed class, they made an effort to take better notes and ultimately their note taking improved as a result.

Flipping the classroom is not a one-size-fits-all magic cure. But for the students who want to improve in math, flipping the classroom allows them to reap the benefits of the extra work they put in before attending class. Students who prepared beforehand felt more confident when they walked into my class and knew exactly what concepts we would be talking about that day.

My students are more engaged in class now — I enjoy interacting with them more, and they get to interact with each other, so the class period goes by a whole lot faster.

A flipped classroom is just what it sounds like: it is turning the typical classroom model on its head. Students are used to sitting and listening and a flipped classroom can be a bit of a shock to students at first. Ultimately, a flipped classroom does not come easy for every student, but with a little guidance and structure to get everyone on board, it certainly helped more of my students to succeed.

Sue Glascoe is a math instructor at Mesa Community College in Arizona.

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