February 7th, 2017

Four Strategies for Effective Assessment in a Flipped Learning Environment

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students in flipped classroom

Flipped learning environments offer unique opportunities for student learning as well as some unique challenges. By moving direct instruction from the class group space to the individual students’ learning spaces, time and space are freed up for the class as a learning community to explore the most difficult concepts of the course. Likewise, because students are individually responsible for learning the basics of new material, they gain regular experience with employing self-regulated learning strategies they would not have in an “unflipped” environment.

But because initial engagement with new material is done independently as a preparation for class time, rather than as its focus, many things could go wrong. If students do the assigned pre-class work but don’t acquire enough fluency with the basics—or if they simply don’t do it at all—then the in-class experience could be somewhere between lethargic and disastrous. How can an instructor in a flipped learning environment avoid this and instead have consistently engaging and productive learning experiences for students in both the individual and group spaces?

A key to achieving this kind of environment is assessment. Because flipped learning is more decentralized and personalized than in a traditional course design, the challenge is to have assessments that provide reliable, actionable information about student learning in the various phases of flipped learning that is as up-to-the-minute as possible. Armed with this knowledge about student learning, instructors can provide just the right amount of support at just the right time, any time.

Here are four strategies for flipped learning assessment that can help provide this kind of support.

  1. Start with good learning objectives. The basic principle of backward design states that we should start by determining the learning outcomes we wish from students, then determine what constitutes acceptable evidence that students have attained these, and then design specific ways of gathering that evidence. Before any good assessment can happen, we need good learning goals. When designing a flipped course or unit, careful and clear enumeration of learning outcomes will give a framework for learning activities and help students know what they need to know, and where it fits in the overall scheme of the course.
  2. Employ a “frequent and small” approach. In an ideal world, there would be a device that connects directly into students’ brains that would give a continuous stream of full-spectrum data about student learning and engagement. No such device exists yet, so the next best thing is to give assessments that are short, frequent, and informative and can collect these data for us. For example, classroom response systems can be used effectively to gather in-the-moment data about student learning. Short metacognitive activities, such as one-minute papers, can give a bigger picture. And don’t forget that assessment doesn’t necessarily mean quizzing or grading. Sometimes simply having students talk through a procedure while you observe them can give you mountains of “data” about how they are doing.
  3. Use “pre-formative” assessment. In addition to the usual categories of formative and summative assessments, flipped learning environments have a special third kind of assessment that I call “pre-formative.” This refers to assessments given while students are learning new material independently, before any group interaction has taken place. Pre-formative assessment gives a reliable idea of what students have learned before the all-important group space activities you have planned.Pre-formative assessments can serve not only as data-gathering opportunities, but also as learning experiences. For example, in the Guided Practice model of pre-class activities (Talbert 2014) students practice self-regulated learning strategies in acquiring fluency on new material while at the same time giving the instructor data about their attainment of basic learning objectives, in a format that is lightweight, risk-free, and welcoming to initial failures.
  4. Act on, and share, the data you collect. The purpose of assessment is to glean information that will improve student learning. When assessment data come in—from a reading assignment, a clicker question, a one-minute paper, and so on—ask: “What does it mean and how can this help?” In this way, the instructor takes on the role of resident data scientist in his or her class, converting data into information and communicating that information to his or her client (the student) with a view toward them attaining their goals.

It is helpful to remember that the word “assessment” comes from the Latin term meaning “to sit down beside.” When we assess, it should be as if we are pulling up a chair next to each individual student, getting down on their level and putting ourselves in their corner to give them information that will help them succeed. In a flipped learning environment, the structure of the class puts students in a position to learn in improved ways, but it’s assessment that opens the way to success.

Adapted from the Magna Online Seminar presentation, “Assessment Strategies for Flipped Learning Experiences,” 2015.