Flipping the US survey–online or off

Things I never thought could work as well as traditional teaching:

  1. teaching online
  2. using a flipped classroom model

Well, happily, I was wrong. The necessity of moving to online teaching during the pandemic has proved to me that, at least for a lecture-heavy course like the US History survey, both of these can work even better than the traditional class structure. Since many of us will continue teaching virtually or in some hybrid (some in-person time, some online) format, I’d like to share how I’ve made this course work.

I set up the course by having students do reading and lecture viewing on their own at the beginning of the week, then having one class meeting late in the week that is entirely discussion-based. Before class, students have to post one question they have about the material in that week’s lectures. The class meeting could be on Zoom or in person, and we spend the first half discussing/answering their questions. The second half of class is devoted to group discussions of a primary source document they have read ahead of time or another special activity (more on that later).

The key components to making this work are:

  • a very clear course website that reminds students every week of what they need to do that week; I outline this by View/Read/Connect/Assess (see example below)
  • online lectures with both video of you and your slides (which research shows students prefer), preferably in a platform like Panopto that automatically sets up navigation and captions and has a built-in quiz feature
  • a short quiz for each lecture which can be retaken until they get 100% to show they have viewed the lecture
  • a weekly discussion board where each student posts a question raised by the lecture. I offer a few prompts: Can you explain…? Can you tell me more about…? or Who/what/where/when/ and esp. why questions
    • a tip here: set up the board so that students can’t see each other’s responses until they post their own question
  • prep time before class spent reading the students’ questions and preparing answers
    • this might include looking up information you don’t know!
    • I often shared links for those interested in reading more
    • sometimes additional images or graphics helped clarify concepts
  • a structured weekly group discussion activity
    • I use a series of short primary source readings; students must turn in a “primary source worksheet” to show they have done and thought about the reading before class
    • for the few weeks they aren’t reading a document, I have done activities including:
      • an ethics activity related to the Fugitive Slave Law which I wrote up here
      • a document-based lesson, slightly abridged, from the Stanford History Education Group (my students really like the Texas Revolution one, but there are tons of options!)

There is a big up-front investment of time here, especially in recording the lectures. I recommend getting a good microphone for that (I have the Snowball). So, why bother? What works so much better than lecturing, esp. lectures punctuated by class discussion and activities?

  1. Students are MUCH more engaged–they ask great questions and show that they’re really thinking about the material. Giving them time to formulate a question seems to help; even when I handed out index cards at the end of class and let students anonymously ask questions, they were never as thoughtful as the ones I get in this format.
  2. Students like being able to watch lectures on their own time–and pause or rewind them when necessary. Students for whom English is not their first language especially appreciate the captions.
  3. It’s just much more fun to teach–rather than giving the same lectures over and over, you end up addressing different and often thought-provoking questions each time you cover the same material.
  4. The course runs itself after the first time around.

Since switching over to this method in 2020, I’ve never seen so many students so excited about studying US history or so thoughtful about making connections to the present. I’m a total convert–but not for all of my classes. I’ve found that upper level courses, which at my university are small and involve less lecturing, don’t work as well in this format.

Here are some images of the course set-up:

Weekly modules in Canvas break down all of the components for that week
The first page for each week is an overview of the activities for that week
Lectures are embedded in Canvas pages so that I can offer some framing, as well as sometimes including supplemental clips from other sources. The disadvantage to this is that you have to click the diagonal arrow on the Panopto embed to get the full Panopto viewing experience.

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