Not By the Book: Chemistry, Math Gateway Instructors Adapt to Hybrid, Interactive Learning During Pandemic

photo of chemistry students
The idea of the flipped classroom informs teaching in the college’s gateway chemistry classes. Students will watch videos, and then come to the classroom for active learning activities. Mark Cornelison | UK Photo.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Sept. 30, 2020) — Instructors in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Kentucky are combining technology, learning techniques honed by experience, and human interaction to provide multifaceted learning environments for their students.

The goal, as always, is to keep students engaged with hands-on instruction methods even if the current pandemic limits face-to-face class time.

“Students learn by working on problems, not just by listening,” said Alberto Corso, associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Mathematics. “That’s what I tell all of my students. We all like to watch our favorite basketball teams play, but we can’t play with them unless we practice. We need to be on the court and practice three-pointers.”

The chemistry and mathematics departments present prime examples of this commitment to teaching excellence, as faculty members combine recorded lectures, Zoom class meetings for questions and some in-person work in problem-solving for students taking gateway classes. Teachers discuss this technique as a “flipped classroom,” where students take an active part in their education. They watch videos to prepare themselves for interaction with faculty and teaching assistants.

“The flipped classroom has been the big innovation in teaching over the past 10 years,” said Kathi Kern, director and associate provost of Teaching, Learning, and Academic Innovation. “Two of our very popular undergraduate courses ‘flipped’ almost 10 years ago —  HIS 121 (War and Society), and STA 210 (Introduction to Statistical Reasoning). In each of these courses, faculty pre-recorded lectures so that class time could be devoted to discussion, analysis and experiments, with faculty and graduate students interacting with the undergrads. This style of teaching in Stats 210 was the inspiration for the design of some of the large, interactive classrooms in the Jacob Science Building.”

Kern compared flipped classrooms to preparing for discussion in a seminar.

“Students shouldn’t come to class just to listen to a faculty member,” she said. “It’s like reading a novel on your own and coming to class to discuss it. You could use your class time to watch a documentary film, but if people already have absorbed that material, then they get to interact with each other. They encounter the material initially on their own, but then they make sense of it with their faculty.”

The idea of the flipped classroom informs teaching in the college’s gateway chemistry classes, said Allison Soult, senior lecturer and director of general chemistry. Technology has aided instructors in interactive learning, and that technology continues to benefit students during the pandemic. Such programs as the Canvas online learning system and the interactive PlayPosit app make coordinating classes easier and more meaningful.

“We already had our students watching videos, and then we had them come to class to do active learning activities,” Soult said. “We’ve recorded four- to six-minute videos — some people go a little longer — and then we use a tool called PlayPosit. The app lets you insert questions. The questions pop up, and you have to answer them before you can go on. The app then sends the answers back to Canvas for a grade.”

The app motivates the students to watch the videos and measures their understanding of the content. Then students can come to class through Zoom and ask more advanced questions.

“Before class, I can go in and see that the students were struggling with this topic,” Soult said. “Then in my Zoom session, I can do an overview of that topic, and I’ll record that session as part of my class.”

In gateway mathematics classes, faculty members are mixing in-person and online class meetings with recorded lectures to give students a full look at this difficult subject, Corso said. Corso is teaching a yearlong calculus class for biology majors. Faculty members worked diligently before the semester started to plan out lectures, information sessions and recitations with teaching assistants to make sure a mix of in-person, live-conferencing and video lectures would do the trick.

“To devise our plan — and this is something for all the service classes that math teaches, with about 5,000 students in any given semester — the coordinators of the courses met together over the summer every week with a different topic: How do we do the lectures? How do we organize the recitations? How do we organize the exams and quizzes? For my class, we decided we’d have videos that the students could watch on their own time, and then the class time would be used for answering questions.”

Thus, Corso is teaching his class by mixing lectures and question sessions with working on problems in groups — the heart of mathematical learning.

“Typically, our calculus classes meet for lecture three times a week and for small recitation sections twice a week,” he said. “For small recitations, on Tuesdays, half the class is supposed to be in the classroom, and half the class is watching the livestreaming in Echo 360. Students can type questions and ask the TA from home. On Thursdays, it’s more of a Zoom meeting where students typically work in groups with problem sheets.”

Katherine Paullin, lecturer in mathematics, coordinates 22 sections of college algebra, including two joint college-credit classes in high schools. The classes all have the same basic Canvas shell that students can work from and interact with instructors.

“We redid the class over the summer of 2019,” she said. “All students are seeing video lectures that I recorded myself. They have a Canvas page where they can read the definitions of the terms I use and the formulas, and then they get to watch a video of me working problems just as I would in the classroom.”

Those recorded video lectures actually can be a benefit for instruction, Kern said.

“Students are first introduced to the course topics with a recorded lecture, and then they deepen their understanding with discussions, applications, simulations and sample working problems,” she said. “It’s the same model as the classic lecture with recitation sections or labs: a time to be exposed to the material and then a time to practice. In this model, the practice more often takes place with the professor rather than solely the graduate assistants. Faculty spend a lot of time making their recorded lectures, because it’s too painful to post something that isn’t good. Another advantage is that a recorded lecture can be captioned, which helps all sorts of students. And, of course, a lot of students like having a recorded lecture that they can review before exams.”

For one student — Grace Kearney, a UK student in Kern’s Citizenship, Diversity and Community class — the flipped classes offer her decided advantage when it comes to preparation and study.

“I think that flipped classes make it easier to learn in class because you’ve already been exposed to the material,” Kearney said. “I liked flipped classes, because they give me independence and flexibility as to when I start learning material. It’s also nice because you can normally get your questions sorted out in class, instead of having to email your professor.”

The college algebra sections demonstrate the problem-solving abilities of university instructors: Paullin points out that different teachers are approaching the class with a great deal of flexibility.

“Each instructor is using the class time as they choose,” she said. “We have three sections that are completely online. We’re all doing things a little bit differently.”

And it’s that flexibility — along with the technological innovations that assist both online and in-person learning — that is creating opportunities for innovation amid trying times, said UK Provost David W. Blackwell.

“Through blending different delivery methods, our faculty members are demonstrating their creativity and dedication to deliver quality courses for our students under difficult health and safety guidelines,” Blackwell said. “These techniques accelerate and improve learning even beyond the pandemic setting, which is a concept we have been leaning into — we want to come out of this better than we were before.”

“We’re all adapting to new modalities,” Paullin said. “That’s what we do as educators.”

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