After two years of remote teaching and learning, we are facing some strong headwinds. Habits have changed. Students have grown accustomed to learning course content in an asynchronous manner. This comes with many benefits. With more autonomy over when, where and how they learn, students have the flexibility to better manage other demanding commitments such as part-time work and caregiving responsibilities. From a student perspective, it no longer makes sense to commute to campus on a specific day at a specific time to sit in a large auditorium and observe a lecture. After all, that same content could be learned through the convenience of an online course. This should have us reconsider a fundamental question: why should students come to campus to learn at all?
In a previous University Affairs article, undergraduate and graduate students noted why they prefer in-person over online learning. Among the numerous reasons discussed, they highlighted improvements in motivation, focus, discipline and time management. These are all attributes of becoming a self-regulated learner. This involves the cognitive, metacognitive, emotional and behavioural awareness to plan, monitor and evaluate one’s learning. Developing effective learning strategies is difficult, but the structure, interaction and motivation that a classroom environment provides can help expose students to a foundational truth: learning isn’t something that happens to us; it’s something we do.
In-person learning should offer students opportunities that are not easily replicable in other learning environments. By engaging in a learning activity that builds on course content, collaborating on a group project, or contributing to a class discussion – all of which are more conducive in an in-person setting – students learn to take a proactive approach to their learning. Through this process, they can come to appreciate learning not for a particular end such as a high mark in a course or a high-paying job, but for its own sake. To me, this is one of the overarching purposes of a university education: to cultivate the abilities and dispositions of a life-long learner, to learn to love learning. It’s certainly possible to develop these skills online, but an in-person class – if done right – can create the conditions to supercharge a love of learning.
I’m not suggesting that we do away with the lecture, but I am suggesting that we reconsider its purpose in an in-class setting. This trend was in motion well before March 2020 when the flipped classroom (or flipped learning) was gaining considerable traction. Instead of using class time for instruction, in a flipped classroom students work through the course content on their own time through recorded lectures and other formats. With this baseline understanding, students come to class ready to engage in activities and discussions. This model maps nicely onto Bloom’s Taxonomy. The lower levels of learning such as understanding and remembering are conducted asynchronously, while the application, analysis and evaluation of course content are done in class. These higher-level categories of learning provide students with experiential learning opportunities that they can subsequently reflect upon, which is a necessary component of the learning cycle.
One might contend that a flipped classroom sounds good in theory but in practice it doesn’t work. Students won’t do the work at home, and they will come to class unprepared. If an intentional approach to course design isn’t taken, this is certainly a possible outcome. But by designing a course that encourages students to plan, monitor and evaluate their learning – that is, to become a self-regulated learner – these concerns can be mitigated. Linda Nilson’s excellent book Creating Self-Regulated Learners offers many suggestions for faculty to help students stay on track with their learning.
We could of course try to resist these trends and push against the headwinds. An instructor could deliver in-class lectures while choosing to neither record them nor post the presentation slides. This might incentivize students to come to class, but it’s not good pedagogy. Why replicate an in-class experience that students could easily have asynchronously? Students will and should demand more. Class time has become a valuable resource. Rather than transmitting course content, it should be dedicated toward deep and transformative learning.
As we transition back to campus, I hope the momentum that was already building for flipped classrooms accelerates. The pandemic has disrupted learning in ways that have been challenging, but as we look forward, hopefully with the wind at our back, we have the opportunity to re-envision teaching and learning.
James Southworth is a writing consultant at the teaching and learning centre at Wilfrid Laurier University.