To help students overcome the “but it made sense in class” conundrum, Judith Leatherman, PhD, flipped her approach—and started producing lessons on video.
Associate Professor of Biology ,University of Northern Colorado in Greeley
PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology, BS in Biology and Chemistry
Like many of the sciences, genetics involves working through mathematical problems, such as the probability of certain traits being passed from parent to offspring. When Judy Leatherman, PhD, first started teaching the subject, she expected that students would be able to listen to a lecture, then apply their learnings to their homework. “I might have done one problem on the board, but I didn’t have them do any problems in class,” she says.
Then students began to comment that, even when material seemed clear in class, they drew a blank when trying to do problems on their own. “They were mystified by why this happened, so I decided to spend more time problem-solving in class,” she says. “But I found that I was running out of time for lecture.”
It was 2016 and Leatherman had heard of the flipped-classroom approach, where students watch videotaped lectures as homework to free up class time for things like active learning, group work, and problem-solving. As she made the move to this format, her students responded enthusiastically—especially the students who had been struggling the most. “Now they can watch the videos two or three times,” she says. The format also appeals to the top 10% of the class, she adds, because they can speed through or skip over content that they already understand.
Four years on, her flipped teaching game is as strong as ever. Here, Leatherman shares the most important lessons she learned throughout the process.
“When reading a textbook, it’s hard for students because they have to make that judgment call about what’s important versus what’s not important. Now my students know what to study, because it is all on the videos that I made for them.”
-Judith Leatherman, PhD
Course: Bio 220 Genetics
Course description: Study fundamental laws of heredity, the molecular structure and function of genes, and emerging genetic technologies.
5 lessons Leatherman learned from flipping her genetics class
Here, Leatherman shares her best practices on flipped classes and video lectures.
1. Explain the process of problem-solving
Many textbooks and educators scaffold learning in terms of teaching foundational concepts, then building on them. The same concept is important when explaining how to solve problems, says Leatherman. “When I do a problem in class now, I talk through my thinking process out loud and explain the logic of how I would approach the problem,” she says. “I have to teach students how to do the problems, not just give them the background.”
2. Be ready for long lectures to become short videos
When Leatherman first flipped the classroom, she says she tried to pack too much information into each video. She has found that a good length is 12 to 15 minutes, which is typically all it takes to convey what she normally covered in a 50-minute classroom lecture. This is because in-class lectures tend to get interrupted by students asking questions and making comments. “Now, if a student needs an explanation after watching a video, we can do that at the beginning of class,” she says. “Students really appreciate that I respect their time by making the videos shorter than a [typical] lecture.”
3. Embrace imperfection—for sanity’s sake
When she first started making videos, Leatherman found that aiming for perfection made it impossible to actually complete a video. “[When reviewing the video] I’d think, ‘Oh, I want to do that part over again,’ or ‘I should not have gone off on that tangent.’ So I would clip out that tangent, but then the video will not flow well, so then I would have to do the whole thing over again,” she says. Ultimately, Leatherman found that these imperfect details do not matter to students. “They’ll just appreciate that you created the video,” she says.
4. Offer incentive for students watch the videos
Leatherman uses the first day of class to set ground rules and expectations. “I tell them that if they come to class without watching the videos, they are hurting themselves because they’re not going to be ready when it comes time to join a group to start working on problems in class.” Before the class for which the video is assigned, students must take an online quiz on the content, which is worth a few points. “When students don’t watch [the videos], their grades suffer and they realize they need to come to class more prepared,” she adds.
5. Have resources ready in addition to the videos
Even though each video works for most of Leatherman’s students, she has found that sometimes her explanations do not gel for an individual. When that happens, she encourages them to read about the topic in another source, such as the textbook, or ask for a TA to explain it in their own words during class.
“To understand a difficult topic, sometimes you need different explanations,” she says. “It really depends on what is going to make sense to the student. It’s about how their brain works and how they think about things.”