Engaging Students with Difficult Text Through a Flipped Classroom

December 9, 2019

This post is republished from Into Practicea biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Jay HarrisIn his general education courses, Jay Harris, Harry Austryn Wolfson Professor of Jewish Studies, posts two different videos prior to class for students to view: pre-reading videos contextualize and provide guidance for the week’s readings, and lecture videos replace Harris’s in-class lectures on the material. Students then send their questions and comments to Harris through Canvas, which he uses to build the class discussion.

The benefits: The pre-reading videos, in particular, give students a road map into the readings and lower the barrier for getting through difficult texts. Having students use the forum to post their questions and reactions to the reading “helps them recognize that they’re not the only ones struggling. It helps them gain confidence and see that ‘what I didn’t understand, other people didn’t understand.’” Moreover, enabling students across all four sections of the class to view their peers’ postings builds a course-level learning community.

The challenges: Because the pre-work adds to students’ workload, there is a range in the level of consistency with which students post and complete these posts on time. For Harris, this is not an issue until it becomes a pattern, in which case he or his TFs talk to the student directly. Additionally, the initial production of the lecture videos takes time in order to be reasonably well-polished. In contrast to the more extemporaneous explanations he used to offer in class, Harris had to plan his instructions carefully for the videos, in order to engage the wide range of students taking Gen Ed courses.

Takeaways and best practices

  • Award participation for effort, not the right answers. Harris grades students’ participation on the pre-work based on whether they have completed the assignment, rather than on the quality of what they post. Harris observes that as students get used to this way of engaging with the material, the quality of the questions they pose improves over the course of the term.
  • Use in-class discussion time strategically. While Harris devotes a portion of class time to address questions and comments raised by students beforehand, he makes sure to focus the discussion on the concepts he sees as most important for students to take from the course. “You always have more material than you can fit into limited class time, but one way or another the important stuff will get covered.”
  • Use learner perspectives to shape video content. “The hardest part of teaching is not remembering when you didn’t know something.” When planning pre-reading videos to provide students with tips and guidelines for success in reading difficult texts, Harris consulted with former students and teaching fellows to understand what they struggled with most and what they believed would have been helpful to know before, and then applied that feedback to his production.

Bottom line: Harris explains that though this specific flipped classroom structure is time-intensive for both professors and students, it makes for rich and generative conversation, and gives students a sense of ownership and confidence over the material. It fosters an atmosphere of growth and learning where classroom time can be specifically tailored to student needs and questions.