Flipping the Canadian Politics Classroom

by adelcol on November 15, 2013

Like the institutions that sponsor us, university presses have twin goals: to advance scholarship and to provide a rich undergraduate learning experience. The Higher Education Division at UTP (something unique to North American university presses) provides quality and innovative scholarship that is conceived of, and designed for, undergraduates. Given that 2013 was all about “disrupting” the higher education experience through MOOCs and “flipped learning,” during University Press Week we wanted to invite someone who is challenging traditional pedagogy to share some thoughts. Below, Christopher Alcantara, Associate Professor of Political Science at Wilfrid Laurier University, explains how he has flipped his political science classroom. If you pay close attention, you’ll note that it’s not all about videos and games—there is serious reading assigned here as well!

Much like the majority of academics in the discipline, I didn’t receive any training on how to teach. Instead, I simply taught the way I was taught during my university education. And so my undergraduate courses have long been structured in the typical “sage on the stage” manner, with me lecturing for two to three hours a week. Similarly, my graduate courses were designed around “directed discussions” of assigned readings. In both cases, I basically crossed my fingers and hoped students would learn. Did they learn? Yes and no, but I would usually find out too late, having to wait for the midterm, final exam, or essays, at which point we would have already moved on to the next topic.

Last year, after some not-so-gentle prodding from my wife (who is a high school teacher), and my own growing dissatisfaction with my teaching pedagogy, I decided to read up on how we learn in the scholarly and scientific literature. The main message of this literature can best be summed up with this diagram (below), which can also be found here:

Learning PyramidWhat this diagram told me was that all of my current teaching pedagogies were basically the least effective strategies for producing learning.

And so I decided to search for a comprehensive model that would capture most of the active learning strategies near the bottom of the pyramid.

The model I stumbled upon completely by chance was the “flipped classroom” pedagogy. In essence, this pedagogy moves the formative assessment (or initial learning) activities to the home and uses class time to allow students to apply their learning with guidance from the instructor.

The basic format which I use, and which I’ve blogged about before, is as follows:

Pre-class activities: assign some sort of content for the students to consume. It can be a set of academic or non-academic readings or you can post your own recorded lectures (or find some online). If you choose the latter, they need to be relatively short (10-15 minutes maximum is ideal). What you assign depends on what your learning objectives are. As much as possible, I like to assign academic readings but sometimes there is specific content that I need covered which isn’t accessible in a set of readings and so the recorded lecture is the better option. Regardless, students must consume that material and then complete an online quiz. The quiz is important because I use it to write a short (maximum 10 minute) lecture that covers the content that students had trouble with on the quiz.

Depending on the size of the class, you might want to split the class in two. Have half the class come for the first 90 minutes, and the second half come for the second 90 minutes (or if the lecture schedule is two 80-minute meetings per week on different days, then have half the class come to each day that week).

Then, in class, we spend most of our time in small groups doing a variety of activities. It could be discussing a bunch of hypothetical scenarios and using the theories/concepts from the readings/videos to explain them (and of course I try to pick controversial scenarios). It could be doing a simulation. It could be watching a set of short video clips. It could be playing games (learning video games, game theory exercises, stratified monopoly, etc.). The point in class is to get the students to apply their learning to a variety of situations and scenarios and to reflect. And then I spend the last bit of class with a small group/large group debate or other activity that allows for discussion of the utility of the theory/concept (e.g. the traditional seminar format). The class ends with a short 5-minute maximum lecture in which I cover anything that I noticed during class that students continued to struggle with.

There’s usually some sort of follow-up after class. Either a paper (e.g. use everything you just learned and assess the utilty of the concept/theory in 3 pages), or another class on the topic, or this year I’m using an assignment where they have to find a news item that illustrates the theory and post it and a 2-sentence description on the course website.

So what does this model look like in practice?

Here is one lesson plan for my second-year course (enrollment 125):

And here are some reflections and lesson plans from my first-year seminar course (enrollment 20):

So what are the results of this pedagogy? Unfortunately, I don’t have any empirical evidence yet, although I’d like to run two sections of a second-year or first-year course and use the flipped classroom in one section and the traditional lecture in the second. But anecdotally, the results have been excellent so far: weekly feedback regarding what students are learning and what they aren’t, full student engagement and attendance during class, and high quality discussions and analysis.

Overall, I think this pedagogy, and any other strategy that links active learning to a set of clear learning objectives, is preferable to the old models, at least the ones I have been using. I also think the pedagogy can be used in a variety of disciplines. But in political science, where concepts and theories play such a big role, the flipped classroom is ideal.

Next steps for me are to fully flip my second-year Canadian politics course and to try out the pedagogy at the graduate level. Stay tuned!

Christopher Alcantara is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Wilfrid Laurier University. His latest book, Negotating the Deal: Comprehensive Land Claims Agreements in Canada, was recently published by University of Toronto Press.

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Flipped Classroom: The Basics | Opinion - Policy Nexus
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