3 ways to get your students to like doing homework in a flipped class


Close your eyes and imagine a place, on a planet far far away, where students relish doing challenging homework problems…on their own and smile while doing them; in fact, where they may even be inspired to do individual homework and have no compulsion to cheat. A cozy place where during most of a three hour lecture period the instructor mingles casually with students discussing the beautiful and big ideas of her discipline, while the students intensely collaborate and innovate. And where sophisticated (and correct) subject-matter language, punctuated with phrases such as “how do you know that?” or “what’s your evidence for that?” or “what if we tried it this way?” are coming from students’ mouths, not from instructors or teaching assistants.

Welcome to AP50, a new applied physics class in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University, taught by Professor Eric Mazur and preceptor Carolann Koleci. Students are freshmen, sophomores and juniors and from a mix of disciplines. The course is equivalent to introductory, calculus-based physics.

Eric Mazur teaching a traditional and a flipped class.

I spent the good part of an afternoon this week hanging out in this alternate universe–with all the landmarks mentioned above. I spoke to 8 students about their experiences, and overwhelmingly they reported sincerely enjoying doing homework.  Here are three qualities they pointed to that differentiated their experience compared to traditional courses.*

3 Qualities of Enjoyable Homework

1. Graded on effort versus correctness 

The first quality of enjoyable homework has to do with the approach to grading. AP 50 problem sets are rigorous, but graded on effort versus correctness. Students are required to do problems and show their work and explain their thinking, versus arrive at a correct answer. In fact, one student told me: “First of all, there is not really a right answer to some of these questions.  I don’t know if I have ever gotten a problem like that before.” On the topic of grading, another student said, “these problems are graded on effort not correctness. I felt less pressure to find the right answer and more freedom to explore.” She went on to suggest also that this strategy might minimize cheating, because the end goal is not one right answer.

Another student stated, “I liked the problem set, I could fiddle around, try stuff out. If I didn’t get it right, I could just try something else, and if it came out wrong, I could just figure it out today with my group.”

This approach emphasizes the means, as one student indicated, rather than the end, and mimics the kind of work we do as experts–lots of trial and error before arriving at a solution.

2. Autonomy is encouraged 

In AP50, homework is set out in two stages: 1) students work on the problem set alone, at home and 2) they spend the first portion of the following class period going through each problem using a reflection guide and with a permanent team. Students don’t turn in their homework until after this reflection, and make marks on their individual problem sets with colored pencils so instructors can see what they did at home and what they did with their team. One student commented that this was very different from other classes where homework is almost always done (and encouraged to be done this way) in groups. “The night before a problem set is due, I would normally be going to study sessions, form study groups, work out problems with my roommates, etc. Last night, I was inspired and encouraged to do these problems on my own with the promise of collaborative work today.” (No, I am not making that up!).

Another student reflected, “in a traditional class, we would all be standing out front before class comparing and changing answers on problems before we put them in the dropbox, but none of that was going on today, knowing you’ll have the chance to collaborate.” Another student mentioned how in traditional courses when you are working with groups to do homework it is “hard to know what work is your own.” In this class, however, he knows what he’s done, and what he has gotten from others.

Another student emphasized, “I am classically trained.” He went on to explain that in more traditional approaches to problem sets, he was always given problems with explicit “variables and equations.” He went on to comment, “here, I have to think of my own variables and find an argument, not an answer, and this is really interesting.”

3. Reflection is built in, rewarded, and the opposite of boring 

While accurate self assessment is a characteristic of expert thinkers, we rarely teach students how to self-assess, or provide them self-assessment practice opportunities or reward them for engagement in self-asessment. In AP 50, the problem sets are structured to provide students guided self-assessment training. Again, after working the problems on their own at home, a significant portion of class time is dedicated to going over the problems as a team. They are provided with a reflection handout, on which they write up their own reflections on how they can improve their learning and hand that in with their marked up work. Here are some of the phrases I heard while observing them do this reflection: “What assumptions did you make?” “I took a totally different approach,” and “I like your assumptions.” Part of the reflection is rating their own understanding of ideas and concepts in the problem set on a three point scale: green, yellow, and red (and they have a rubric which explains each point on this scale).Their grade on the problem set is determined, in part, by how well they rated their own understanding of the concepts.

Figure 1. Problem set 1, AP 50

At the end of the first problem which is displayed in Figure 1, two students summed up the process as follows: Student 1: “I got to the final number differently. Our different approaches were all plausible, even though our assumptions were different.”  Student 2: “Which is OK, because that’s what would happen in the real world. It would be boring if we had all the same assumptions.”

My Own Reflections

The elegance in Mazur’s approach to problem solving is that it seems to be squarely aligned with current thinking about human motivation in the 21st century.  Specifically, counter to our intuition, rewards (in this case right answers) may diminish rather than promote motivation. In AP 50 the reward appears to be the innate pleasure of problem solving and discovery (see Willingham, 2009), not the grade.

The real take home for me is two fold:

  • I felt deep regret for how much energy, time, and anxiety today’s students direct toward correctness. As one student  told me, “I might have put in more effort if this was for a real grade.” This perplexed me as I leafed through her many pages of beautifully written math and extensive narrative about how she arrived at her solutions. When I probed a bit, it became clear that in more traditional environments students spend a lot of time worrying about getting it right, rather than getting it. As another student described, “It was weird to adjust that this is not graded on correctness. I was working on this last night and about to check and double check my solutions, but then remembered, that didn’t matter!”
  • This obsession with correctness is extremely problematic. I don’t want the creative space in my students’ minds crowded out with anxiety about correctness. I want to free up that space for them to “fiddle” with different solutions, and to be “encouraged and inspired” to do autonomous work. I invite you to consider that the focus on right answers is less the doing of students and more the doing of ourselves as educators. When you change up the emphasis with homework to hone in and cultivate what really matters, your dreams about student learning will not seem so utopian.

*Interviews with students were not recorded, but verbatim notes were attempted.


Comments RSS
  1. StudentLance

    Amazing approach to be used by students to let them work for their homewoerk in easiest way. However this situation is quite difficult.

  2. Mark

    The history of education is full of “innovations” that turned out to be busts. No where is evidence cited about the ability of students to get answers — which is what the world normally wants from its scientists and engineers — once a student completes a course using this experimental pedagogy. Has anyone conducted a controlled experiment comparing student abilities coming from a traditional class vs. this “new” approach?

    • Julie Schell

      This is a really terrific question. Not that I know of, specifically, but we do have several researchers working on the course asking similarly thoughtful questions and I will pass this along to them. You are hitting on something here – that the true purpose of education is to prepare students to use/transfer their knowledge outside of the classroom, so does giving students practice doing so actually better prepare them to engage in authentic scientific problem solving or not? This is something we should definitely explore in research. I also don’t think this is necessarily a “new” approach….we have just made the instructional design decision that if we want students to transfer knowledge from our classes to subsequent classes and work, then we must purposefully give them practice with more authentic problem solving than the problem sets you find in most physics textbooks. Thanks for the thoughtful response. You might like this article – http://bioliteracy.colorado.edu/Readings/ErsatzLearning.pdf by McClymer and Knoles (1992).

  3. cognitioneducation

    Both the physics and chem departments at the university where I work are doing this and claim much satisfaction as well. I am thinking myself about how to organize an Intro Psych course in this way, but know it has to look different given the difference in material, as we aren’t solving problems in the same way. Rather, we use empirically based theories to guide our thinking about the nature of human behavior. I think psych is ideally suited to this format, in that asking and answering questions with sound logic (or apt use of the empirical method) is what we aim to teach, in as much as we teach content. Arriving at the correct answer isn’t the goal, rather, using the highest quality empirical results & theory to help us understand the nature of human behavior and experience is the challenge we present our students with. Its rare to have a definitive answer in psych. Yet, our biggest battle is getting students to recognize that the process of thinking critically is most important – compared to memorizing facts – because current undergrads in the US have spent their entire educational career to-date under NCLB legislation where demonstrating knowledge on exams holds prominence. I think physics and chemistry classes, where problems sets “make sense” to students, the transition to a flipped environment is relatively smooth. It doesn’t disrupt students’ expectations. Not so in psych though, where students expect a lecture format with ready explanations, but that’s not what they get in a flipped environment, never-minding the fact that the process if solving problems is murkier to boot since there aren’t equations to be solved.

    All that said, anyone out there reading have experience “flipping” a Psych classroom?

    And, to my last point above, anyone else out there have any good tips on how to shake our students’ schemas out of the testing mode and into the inquiry mode in social sciences? Though I haven’t completely “flipped” yet, I do already model and encourage critical thinking in a number of different ways, and take the time for break-out small group discussion set up in a problem – solution format, and find that many students are so unfamiliar with the inquiry process that it’s quite anxiety provoking for them, so much so that if they don’t have an inherent interest in the material, the class is a miserable experience for them (noting, on the other hand though, that those students who enjoy the material love the process…).

    • Julie Schell

      Hi cognitioneducation – I do know of some awesome folks flipping psych @UTAustin – I visited their class and it was pretty cool to see their “benchmarking” process – where they create tailored quizzes on previous content mastery (on stuff at home and in a prior classes) for students to complete the first 10 minutes of class – http://bit.ly/SpEC48 also check out: http://bit.ly/QKO5zG to see folks in psych who are using Peer Instruction.

  4. Seth Taylor

    I have been thinking of how I might integrate this into my secondary mathematics course. I have been a fan of small groups and peer review as well. I have used small whiteboards in the past as a substitute for the one larger whiteboard per group (which i would prefer) Could I see how the self reflection guide looks? i.e the layout and terminology I would like an idea of how I might tailor that for my own students.

    • Julie Schell

      Hi Seth – I’m working on a blogpost about this – will let you know when it posts. Also, check out the Showme app for a cool digital interactive whiteboard.

  5. Lara

    What are the reflective questions (and rubric) that you use?

  6. Julie Schell

    A user posted in the poll section: (Jeff): “Thanks for sharing! Can you describe how many students were in the course, the number of hours allocated to the preceptor and the room configuration?”

    34 students, the preceptor is full time, and the room is a large open space with 10 round tables on wheels, each with a large whiteboard, also with wheels.

  7. Andrew Morrison

    I’m curious about the logistics of the course.

    Two staff (one faculty and one preceptor) are used to teach this class. How do their responsibilities break down? How much contact time does each staff have with the students in this class? What is the teaching load for each staff person? How does this fit with Prof. Mazur’s use of Peer Instruction? Is the three hour lecture meeting once a week or three times a week for an hour each? What about lab type activities? Is this a studio physics model where the class can do experiments as needed? Do they write lab reports?

    • Julie Schell

      Andrew, I’m going to as the Preceptor to reply to your questions! Thanks for the comment.

    • Robert

      actually there are 6 or 7 graduate students who also circulate during class to help facilitate discussions and clarify concepts. As a student in the class I am quite satisfies which the amount of face time I get with instructors.

      The class meets twice a week for 3 hours each (total 6 hours of class).
      There havent been a lot of lab-type activities so far but most of what we’ve done has been project based, almost like an engineering course. For those projects, extensive write-ups have been required.

      • Julie Schell

        Thanks so much, Robert! There are actually 3 official TA’s and one preceptor- there are often other visitors too that roam around.

        A post with more details on the class will go live early next week.

  8. Jen Ebbeler

    This is great! Already thinking about how such an approach might be adapted for a non-physics (or natural science) classroom. How many students are in the class?

    • Julie Schell

      34, but we could think of ways to adapt to larger, I’m sure. Eric said “Approach is easily scalable.”

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