Flipping and Going In Circles

Moving student learning out of the classroom will require better formative measures of competency and content acquisition.


Summer is the time for reflection in the life of a teacher.  This year I stumbled upon something interesting; I found myself at a nexus of several teaching styles:

  1. I teach a general biology course in a traditional time-allocation model.
  2. I teach an AP Biology course with significant aspects of a flipped classroom.
  3. I teach a Biotechnology program that is primarily student-directed.
  4. I participate in a master’s program that is 100% online learning.

In having access to a representative cross section of the current time-usage models, I noted that the primary struggle in moving learning outside the classroom walls and into a flipped or online model is continuing to obtain evidence of student learning without regular direct student interaction.

Assessment is Hard.

At first this observation is not particularly noteworthy, because all teachers must measure student learning frequently.  Informal assessment of student progress occurs constantly in a traditional classroom.  Bell work assesses retention from previous lessons.  Prelabs assess existing knowledge and preparation for an experience.  Teacher monitoring and student conversations provide information on class progress during an experiment.  Summative tasks such as writing samples and future applications provide guiding information moving forward.

The problem in moving to a flipped classroom or an online class (which is really just flipping a classroom 100% of the way) is losing access to all of the easiest methods of assessment.  Bell work is no longer sufficient for assessing extended learning occurring since the last meeting.  Informal conversations provide some information, but are not enough evidence alone to ensure an activity occurred outside of class time.  This leads to some of the greatest complaints from students in online/flipped environments.

Too Many Students' Online Course

Too Many Students’ Online Course

 If a Student Learns Alone in an Empty Room, Does She Make a Sound?

Online classes are notorious for superficial assignments, rote repetition, and unbalanced workloads.  These problems arise as supervisors clamor for evidence to support grades.  A professor or teacher can show a dozen forum posts about inquiry as evidence the students learned about inquiry.  The difficulty, as any teacher can tell you, is learning requires more interaction with the material than simply making required posts on a topic.

It seems too many flipping teachers are relying on superficial tasks (read-quiz-repeat or two-dozen-papers-done) because the most valuable learning behaviors are difficult to measure.  A class can read a passage and have a meaningful discussion and a teacher can know those things happened because they witnessed them in a room.  How else can you ensure such behaviors happened online without required forum posts?  As a result, online or heavily flipped classrooms revert to all the same learning behaviors seen in classrooms 100 years ago.

This problem leads to lots of “evidence”, but little legitimate learning!  We must as teachers have the courage to provide tasks to students that promote critical thinking and student ownership, and spend our time finding measurements that are strong evidence of a learning trajectory to reach a single point, rather than many superficial measurements along a linear path.

Do Digitize Strong Practices, Don’t Force Digital Practices

The solution to real online learning is two-fold:  make quality classroom experiences accessible to students alone at home, and measure their competency on those tasks after-the-fact.

The first struggle is one not easily solved.  There exists an experimental design course in my master’s program, and I dreaded this course.  I didn’t fear it for difficulty, but for quality.  How could forum posts alone help me refine my experimental design skills at a graduate level?  The answer was the obvious one, it couldn’t.  Our professor was very clear, we will be designing our own experiments at home and reporting our results.  I know other teachers in virtual environments tackle the same problems.  For teachers looking to flip our classrooms, we must be brave enough to create authentic tasks for our students to tackle on their own.

I would argue the best way to accomplish this is to identify the most fertile areas for flipping.  Prelab work and readings are obvious, but lab work can also be done at home at times.  Don’t flip your electrophoresis lab, but flip the prelab preparation so they can ensure they can run their gels long enough in class.  Don’t flip your photosynthesis lab by making it a dry lab over break, flip it by finding a new way to measure photosynthesis progress like biomass accumulation in various amounts of shade or temperature.  Don’t skate around the problems by simply providing tasks that are easy to design, get creative and solve the REAL problem.  Eliminate the busy work and allow more time for your students to focus on what’s left.

Flipping Pic 1

Excel file to report a full lab in AP Biology.

The second issue is evidence for the final course marks.  Half this problem is solved with quality flipped tasks.  The observation I would make is that we must find ways to take measurements that provide greater description for past learning.  A forum post is a fairly superficial measurement at face value.  A photo diary of the experimental process provides the same verification of an activity, but cuts the extraneous time investment to a minimum.  A well-crafted graph can be reported which provides evidence of data collection and analysis in a product that can be rapidly evaluated by the teacher.  The ultimate message is, “Increased workload does not a rigorous course make, and often it is its undoing.”

Michael Ralph is a teacher making mistakes at a prodigious rate in the hopes he will run out of errors sometime before he retires.  He’s also tweeting more now @ralph0305.

Recollections from the Marais des Cygnes National Wildlife Refuge Field Trip

As one of the trip coordinators for this year’s field trip, I must say that even though I was a bit stressed when our journey began and not everyone decided to take advantage of the free van transportation, it didn’t take long for me to relax as I watched the participants striking up conversations with each other in the field.

Our first stop was at the Headquarters of the Marais des Cygnes National Wildlife Refuge where we met with Kim Martin, Federal Law Officer at the refuge.  She showed us a 12 minutes video introducing us to the history and growth of the national wildlife refuge system.  She then talked and answered questions about the Marais des Cygnes refuge and her duties in federal law enforcement.

After our introduction, we check 15 small mammal traps that had been baited and set the afternoon before.  The traps were set in a recently burned restoration area, a non-burned restoration area, and a non-burned area that within a remnant tallgrass prairie.  We had no success in either of the restorations but captured a single hispid cotton rat and lone deer mouse in the prairie remnant.  While traversing the prairies the young naturalist in our party enjoyed netting the numerous great spangled fritillary butterflies we observed pollinating a stand of dogbane.

From there we travel to another prairie restoration along Yardley Road to search for Mead’s Milkweed.  This federally endangered plant is known to exist naturally at three locations on the NWR property.  The plants we saw were individuals that had been planted into one of their restorations.  Participants were able to find a couple of plants that were in full bloom.

From there we returned to Linn County Park for lunch and a short siesta.  When finished, we returned the NWR and headed to Stick Pond adjacent to the photoblind to check 4 turtle traps that had been baited and set the evening prior.  Three of the traps were hoop traps and one was a cage trap.  Each were baited with creamed corn and mackerel.  Interestingly enough, three of the traps had not a single turtle while one of the hoop traps contained 13 turtles of three species – 1 large snapping turtles, 1 painted turtle, and 12 large sliders (2 males and 10 females based on fore fingernail length).  It took us awhile to safely position the snapping turtle for removal from the trap and get a few pictures.  You’ll have to check out the KABT Facebook site for images of the turtles.  I had my hands full and didn’t want to get my camera wet.


After our interactions with the chelonians, we traveled a wooded area surrounding an abandoned coal mining operation.  We were in search of the only stand of swamp white oak in the entire state of Kansas.  We read the informative email from MdCNWR Biologist, Tim Menard, which contained the following information –  “As you walk west from the state line parking lot, the swamp white will begin to appear before you get to the old service road, and definitely before you get to the flowing creek.  many of these trees are forked at the base.  Then you can see many more as you walk to the northwest.  The leaves look like chinkapin (which are just on the other side of the hill).  However, look for last year’s acorn caps with the long stem attached.”  We successfully found the trees.  At this stop we also witnessed a ringneck snake and the caterpillar of the pipe-vine swallowtail butterfly.  Chris Ollig from Blue Valley North High School introduced the group to dendrochronology and the appropriate use of the increment borer.




Next, we traveled to Turkey Foot Pond, a man-made pond resulting from previous coal mining activities.  There we checked four additional turtle traps as well as surveyed for freshwater mussels known to occur at the site.  As the name implies, Turkey Foot Pond has three fingers.  On our descent to the western most finger, we encountered a lush stand of equisetum.  Two young snakes were observed – a plain-bellied water snake and a northern water snake – and a horsehair worm was discovered swimming in the pond along the shore.  We found a number of mussels the most abundant of which was the three ridge mussel.  The identities of the other mussels encountered awaits verification by mussel experts.  In the second finger we searched, we captured two sliders in one of four traps deployed.  Check out the aged slider that doesn’t look like a slider anymore in the images below.


IMG_2457  IMG_2480

Finally, we travelled to the Marais des Cygnes River itself to search for the mussels beds that eluded Kelley Tuel and I on our previous trip to the refuge.  The group rallied their remaining reserves of energy to make the 1/2 mile walk into the site.  Along the way a number of gravid ribbon snakes were found hanging out in a warm ephemeral watered ditch.  Most of the kids and only two adults made there way into the river.  Not thinking, I swam downstream looking for mussels and found a few weathered shells and a young slider basking on a log.  Otherwise, the kids enjoyed this final swim one of the parents of the big muddy.

IMG_2504 IMG_2509 IMG_2528 IMG_2536

On Sunday, those that were left travelled to the Smith Ranch newt pond.  We encountered a large plain-bellied water snake (check out the story on the KS Herpetology Facebook), a worm snake, and a ground skink.  None of us braved the muddy pond to seine for newts.

IMG_2545 IMG_2574


IMG_2586 IMG_2595

I will be adding some links in the future, and subsequently will be creating individual posts for some of the information that we planned on sharing but didn’t seem the time to.