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An economics experiment: Flipping the lecture class

Students in nontraditional microeconomics class show greater engagement, but comparable grades

The first time Pedro Dal Bo taught microeconomics — as a teaching assistant 20 years ago to students in Argentina — it was with the traditional blackboard and chalk. But last semester, after years of teaching in a conventional manner, Dal Bo decided to conduct an experiment.

Though Dal Bo, associate professor of economics, taught two sections of ECON 1110: “Intermediate Microeconomics” last semester, one of them was modeled after a new “flipped classroom” teaching style that is gaining traction in schools across the country. The other section served as a control group, taught in the traditional manner.

In the flipped section, students attended lectures on Mondays and Fridays, went over questions in problem-solving sessions on Wednesdays and watched explanatory videos recorded by Dal Bo throughout the week. Problem-solving sessions consisted of both individual and group work, supervised by seven undergraduate TAs, culled from previous semesters of the course.

There were no significant differences in final grades between the two sections, Dal Bo said, but he believes the flipped teaching style rewarded students with a deeper form of learning.

“Students crammed less,” Dal Bo said. “It’s not clear that what you learn from the exam is going to stick 10 years out of the exam.”

“The (flipped) class was much more structured than the regular one,” Dal Bo said. “I knew what I wanted to teach on Monday, I knew what I wanted to teach on Friday, I knew what was going to happen in the problem-solving session.”

Dal Bo said he thinks students in the flipped section enjoyed the course more. When they evaluated the course at the end of the semester, students praised the group problem-solving sessions and the videos, he said.

Dal Bo planned the flipped experiment with Kathy Takayama, executive director of the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning, which is charged with promoting and finding new styles of teaching. Takayama trained the undergraduate TAs to lead the problem-solving sessions and help students grasp the material.

“The TAs have been an immensely important aspect of this experiment because they are instrumental in engaging students in the process of collaborative learning,” Takayama wrote in an email to The Herald. “The deep learning takes place when students are engaged in meaningful discourse and problem-solving during the face-to-face time, and these exercises must be scaffolded carefully to promote effective study habits.”

Alex Drechsler ’15, who worked as one of the TAs in the flipped section, said many students appreciated the flipped classroom model.

“I heard from a lot of students that they looked forward to the (problem-solving) sections,” Drechsler said. “One week we didn’t have section, and the students actually complained that they were having a tougher time with the material than normal.”

Jenna Anders ’16, who was enrolled in the traditional section, said she felt at times that students from the other section were more prepared than she was.

“There were some instances in which I felt that they had a better understanding of certain material when we would study together,” she said. “They occasionally cited the problems they had done in their problem-solving session, and they cited problems that were harder than what I’d done.”

Takayama said the Sheridan Center will continue to work with professors to try out new teaching methods in their classes.

This semester, courses in the chemistry, applied math and physics departments will also involve collaborative problem-solving sessions, though their professors will not replace lectures with videos, she said.

Dal Bo said he wants to continue teaching the class in the flipped manner in future semesters.

“For me, it was a very nice experience,” Dal Bo said. “I learned a lot. I hope to be teaching the class like this in the future.”


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