Flipped learning: Advice for the untenured

Flipped learning: Advice for the untenured

This is an "alpha" version of a section of my forthcoming book Flipped Learning in the University: A User's Guide (coming next year from Stylus Publications) that deals with a question I have gotten a lot in workshops and Twitter exchanges. Namely, is flipped learning something only tenured faculty could try, because of the possibility of catastrophic student dissatisfaction or the time investment involved? If you're tenure-track, should you wait until you have the protection of tenure to try something like this? If you are non-tenure track, especially adjunct or contingent faculty, should you just forget about it?

Personal note here that won't go in the book: I was tenured in my position at my previous institution when I left there in 2011 to come to Grand Valley State University, and I started over on the tenure clock. I have not regretted this decision for one second. In fact if it weren't for the fact that I am up for tenure this year, finally, I probably wouldn't even think that much about getting tenure. What I do try to think about, a lot, is excellent teaching and doing the right thing with my students. Avoiding pedagogical models that show a clear trend of helping students learn mathematics, because I am afraid of my students or because I am trying to protect myself, is not the right thing. If I get tenure, I want it to be because of what I did in the classroom, not because of what I avoided doing.

I get that some folks may be in places where teaching is not as highly valued as in others. I try to address that below. It's a difficult situation because often in these places, excellence in teaching is not only not rewarded but actually seen as symptomatic of something wrong with your research --- that if you're doing well in the classroom, the only possible explanation is that you're taking something away from research. This is a broken, unhealthy, and irrational point of view, but it's reality in some places. It's tough because you have to be twice as good of a researcher to prove that your work in teaching isn't damaging your research productivity.

I have no other good advice for those faculty because my own personal instincts are to get as far away from such institutions as possible, because I believe at least half of them will be out of business within the next decade. Institutions that try to be mini-R1's and neglect teaching, aren't fooling anyone, particularly their core consitutents who are coming to the university for an education, not a show put on by the best and brightest researchers.

So anyway, here is what I have to say in the book to non-tenured faculty with regard to flipped learning.

Non-tenured faculty --- both those who are tenure-track but still working toward tenure, and those not on the tenure track at all, including adjunct and contingent faculty --- will understandably question the value of risking major student conflicts without tenure in place as a protection. The pre-tenured faculty on the tenure track may see flipped learning as something that has to wait until tenure is earned, so that student conflicts won't damage their career prospects. Adjunct and contingent faculty may perceive that the risk isn't worth the reward --- that while flipped learning seems to benefit students in many ways, the time and energy it takes to implement it plus the potential for catastrophic student conflicts, unmitigated by the protections of tenure or multi-year appointments, is not commensurate with those benefits.

These misgivings are understandable. But they shouldn't stand in the way of doing what's right for students. Instead, they should indicate that non-tenured faculty should "proceed with caution" with flipped learning, with the following advice.

First, faculty who are considering flipped learning should plan carefully what they want to do in their courses once they arae flipped, and take their time flipping. When a faculty member learns about flipped learning and then immediately goes to implement it in their courses which are starting a month from now, the results are usually less than optimal. Instead, take your time: Pick a course you are interested that you are going to teach one year from now. Then gradually go through the course design process for designing or re-designing it with a flipped learning model. Giving yourself a year will allow you time to design the entire structure of the course, create or curate any materials you wish to use (especially online video) and learn about best practices. You can try out flipped learning using the "partially flipped" model discussed in the previous chapter. If six months is a more desriable time frame, then this is definitely possible. But don't leap directly into flipped learning if you are uncomfortable with the possible consequences. Use the time to read, to plan, and to make plans.

Second, once a reasonable plan for a flipped learning course is in place, non-tenured faculty would benefit from discussing the plans with a superior, like a department chair or dean. Inform that person what you are thinking about doing and what your plan is, and ask for advice or input on the design and how this might play out in your professional record. This refers not only to potential student conflicts but also potential benefits. For example, some faculty might be surprised to find out that their academic dean has been thinking about flipped learning for a long time and would like one of her faculty to get around to actually doing it. Perhaps there are funding sources or reassigned time opportunities for faculty who are willing to take risks. Whatever the case, keep your superiors informed.

Third, remember the characteristics of excellent teaching[1] and practice them often while teaching in a flipped learning environment. Especially, communicate with students early and often about their experiences and listen to them and be open to change. Very many student conflicts can be resolved or headed off just by letting students know that you are listening and that their voices matter.

Fourth, if there remains a concern about the potential effects of student conflicts on tenure or reappointment coming from the flipped learning model, check your institution's or department's criteria for tenure or reappointment to see exactly what might be scrutinized in the tenure or reappointment process. For example, some institutions allow faculty in their tenure and promotion materials to include measures of student learning in addition to student course evaluations as evidence of teaching effectiveness; if this is true for your institution, then you can administer assessments that can show student learning in a more objective setting than a course evaluation, and we have already mentioned that flipped learning tends to produce this kind of evidence.

Here we give a special word to those faculty at institutions where tenure, promotion, or reappointment are based primarily on research productivity rather than on effective teaching. In these situations, there can be a concern that too much time spent on experimenting with new teaching techniques will hurt one's productivity in research --- or cause a perception from other faculty that too much time is being spent on teaching and not enough on research. If you are in that situation, it can be rough, since the assumption may be in place that any time taken away from something else and added to research activity will improve the quantity and quality of the research that's produced. This is false, but it is an belief often ensconced among elite institutions and considered unassailble.

To implement flipped learning without running afoul of concerns about research productivity, the faculty member will have to take care to document and make the case that his or her research productivity wasn't harmed by using flipped learning; and the faculty member also has to make a case that not only was research productivity not harmed, student learning and student satisfaction with the faculty member's courses either significantly improved, or did not significantly improve but you have isolated the causes and making changes to your teaching. In short, faculty at research-intensive universities need not shy away from using flipped learning but rather need to be constantly collecting data on teaching effectiveness and also producing research at least at the level of a faculty member who is not teaching with flipped learning. This is difficult, but definitely not impossible, and it makes the faculty a much more well-rounded professional.

Fifth and finally, realize that in most institutions, tenure is not a reward for those who avoid risks. Rather, it is a reward for demonstrating excellence across the faculty member's entire professional spectrum and an indicator of that faculty member's long-term value to the institution. Faculty who avoid taking educated risks that could improve their work might get tenure, but faculty who do take risks and demonstrate successful results --- or at least the ability to engage in "productive failure" by learning from mistakes and making corrections --- almost always get tenure. The same can be said for reappointment to non-tenure track positions.

In brief, don't let the lack of tenure be a deterrent for trying things in the classroom that have a high probability of being the right thing for students. Just proceed carefully, plan well, communicate with and listen to your students, and keep students' best interests in mind.

Discussed in an earlier part of this chapter in the book. According to the research, students mainly identify excellent teaching with personal characteristics of the teacher such as: student-centered, knowledgeable about the subject area, professional, enthusiastic, effective at communication, and accessible. Being "student centered" is the primary characteristic students identify. ↩︎

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.