Teaching Strides

MRU Faculty Daring Greatly

Season 4, Episode 4: Flipped: how this “read first, lecture second” model makes Chemistry accessible


Dr. Brett McCollum’s students loved his lectures so much that he stopped doing them. After realising that his students weren’t doing much reading outside of their classes, he wanted to introduce a new, problem solving-based approach. In a move to encourage them to read academic texts and engage with what they were learning, he developed the “flipped classroom.” In this episode, Dr. McCollum talks about the success of the approach and its benefits can be found outside of class and how it can encourage team building in a highly competitive discipline.


Meg Wilcox: (00:00)

I’m Meg Wilcox and this is Teaching Strides, MRU faculty daring greatly. In this episode, we’re tossing lectures aside and flipping the classroom. Dr. Brett McCollum’s students have described him as a great lecturer, but he doesn’t do much of that anymore. When Dr. McCollum, a professor of chemistry at MRU, noticed that his students enjoyed his lecturing more than reading their textbooks; he decided to flip the script on them, The results? More readings outside of class and discussion on the text during lecture times. And the students love him for it; well, for the most part. Today we’ll be talking about what this new model of teaching means and how his chemistry students have seen the benefits outside of their discipline. Thank you for joining me.

Brett McCollum: (00:49)

Thank you.

Meg Wilcox: (00:50)

So I guess the first question, Brett, how long have you been teaching chemistry at MRU?

Brett McCollum: (00:55)

This is my 12th year.

Meg Wilcox: (00:56)

12th year. And so when did you first notice in those 12 years when the students weren’t necessarily doing their readings outside of class?

Brett McCollum: (01:05)

It really came about in 2010, 2011. I had been asking my students as part of a beginning of the term activity to make a name card and on their name card fill in what their is major and their favorite genre of reading for leisure. And I’d have one or two students at term who would say, ‘Oh, I don’t really read outside of class.’ I’d say, ‘Oh, well just put something else that you’re interested in that you can share with your neighbor.’ And I’d collect those and learn a little bit about my students. And then I saw about 2011 half my class said, I don’t read. And it had ticked up a little bit the year before, but to go from, you know, one or two students out of 70 to half of the room, it was really shocking. And the following year, and since then it’s been around 70 almost 80% of my class say that they don’t read outside of school for fun. So I engaged in a conversation with them and said, ‘well, why not? I love to read.’ And, it really came down to how young people today use their free time. There’s a lot more time spent on their cell phone engaging with peers over social media, consuming video content and reading has changed. And I got quite concern as an educator because I felt if you’re not engaging with a text for fun, how are you going to take the challenge of reading an academic text? And in chemistry it becomes really important because it’s not just words on a page, but we have an entire symbolic language in our field. And so there’s an intimate relationship between the text, the images and the way that we think about our field, the way that we envision molecules that you can’t see. In my view, it really detrimented student learning when they’re not engaging with their book. As well as reading outside of class, I can’t change whether or not they read a novel, but I can do something about how do I help them want to engage with an academic text.

Meg Wilcox: (03:25)

So if someone was to ask you a quick and simple definition of a flipped classroom, how would you explain it?

Brett McCollum: (03:32)

It’s really about flipping what you ask people to do at home versus in the classroom. So rather than me lecturing for 50 or 80 minutes and then asking them to go home and attempt to problem solve based on the content, I instead ask them to go home and read the textbook and then engage in some low level assessment. Typically that would be using an online system. So they get immediate feedback as to whether or not they understood what they read. But they can come to class saying, ‘I understood this level or this amount of what I read’ and they’ve already got questions about content that they were confused on. Then we can spend most of class time working in teams talking about those misconceptions and problem solving and doing the challenging problems that normally, you know, I remember taking organic chemistry and I would get together with a group of students after class and we would spend three, four hours, a night trying to do organic chemistry problems to really understand what was going on. Because the lecture gave you an overview whereas the problem solving really is where you develop your conceptual understanding of how the solve an equation. How do you predict what would form a reaction? How do you solve a spectro chemical, a spectroscopy problem? Getting students to problem solve together in the room rather than me being the focal point is really kind of the goal of a flipped classroom. And that’s why I like the active learning room that we have on campus in the new Ridell Library and Learning Center, because the room is actually laid out for my students to work in teams. I’m situated not at the front of the room, but I’m actually, the instructor station is in the center of the room. And so I can draw all the attention into me for a short period of time when I need, but it’s not an ideal place to be. My back is to someone and so there’s microphones in the room and speakers at the desks so that when I’m talking in one direction, people behind me can hear me, but I should really only be lecturing for maybe five minutes at a time or 10 minutes at a time and then drive them back to problem solve in their teams. And so room layout really plays a big role and I’m excited that we’re developing new rooms on campus, rearranging some space to make that more available for larger classes because trying to do flipped classroom in one of the ampulla theaters that I, you know, I teach in one for three, which is set up for a lecture. But the students are ingenious in terms of ways that they can get together and problem solve and get teams in a room that is not designed for it. But it’ll be great as we get more spaces that permitted that.

Meg Wilcox: (06:42)

So now being able to use the active learning classrooms, being able to work with the flipped classroom for you, it’s success and it works out. But I’m curious about that first time, that first trial of the flipped classroom. How did it go?

Brett McCollum: (06:57)

The first thing I’d say is you have to know the content better when you’re flipping then when you’re lecturing. Because when you lecture you can prepare what you’re going to say, you know, the story that you’re going to tell. But when, when you’re flipping, you’ve given the control over the experience in many ways to your students and they will come up with questions that they would not have in a lecture environment where you were guiding their, you know, specific thought process. And so you have to be prepared for those type of questions. I’ve also found for many of my students, it is the first time they’ve been in a active learning room, particularly in science. And there’s a bit of pushback. ‘Why don’t you just lecture to us? I learned better when I listen’ and I don’t know many people who that is actually true about. I think a lot of people learn best when they do, when they, when they’re involved in the learning, rather than a passive participant. But you have to get past those perceptions of, of what people are used to doing. And so I’ve learned one way to do that is to have the conversation. I will often put up, you know, here’s what my classroom distribution would normally look like. You know, here’s a hypothetical, typical distribution and here are distribution. Again, hypothetical, but essentially look like the distributions I now get as a result of flipping where my class average has gone up anywhere from, I think it’s 11 to 17% for most of my classes. And so, you know, I’ve had one or two where a midterm average went up 25% and it was getting students to really engage with that material in a much deeper way. So when I can share with my students at the start of term and then I can remind them before the midterm, this is why we’re doing it different than you expected it would be. There was a lot less pushback. There’s a little bit more buy in, not 100%. And I don’t imagine it ever would be, but I’m just trying to share with them I’m on their team and they need to be on my team and that when we work together, that’s when they can really see the success they’re looking for. But if they come in and say, there’s a specific way of learning that worked for me in high school and I want you to continue with that way, then, then I pull out Bloom’s taxonomy and we have a conversation.

Meg Wilcox: (10:00)

I bet they love that.

Brett McCollum: (10:04)

Exactly, and I make the point that a lot of learning they’ve done to date is really low level Bloom’s is memorization. And that what we’re going to be pushing to over their degree is moving to a more diversified way of communicating their knowledge. And so if they felt that they were good at memorizing because the lecture worked for them that way, that might be an effective technique in a course where the assessment is primarily based on memorization, but my courses aren’t that. And so we need to adjust our learning strategies and metacognitive strategies that they employ to reflect the more challenging material and the different ways I will assess them.

Meg Wilcox: (10:49)

Wonderful. Thank you so much, Brett.

Brett McCollum: (10:50)

Thank you.

Meg Wilcox: (10:53)

That was Dr. Brett McCollum, a chemistry professor here at MRU. You can find him on Twitter @McCollumBrett. Teaching Strides is produced by Hadeel Abdel-Nabi and me, Meg Wilcox, in conjunction with the Academic Development Center at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta.

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