Students, teachers, #flipclass and the transitive property

In math, it’s called the transitive property:

If A=B and B=C, then A=C.

And it jumped off my iPhone screen this morning while I was reading my morning stream of tweets on Twitter.

I spend a lot of time thinking about peer instruction with clickers, like this, this and this, which naturally leads to discussions about “flipping the classroom.” That’s when students do work before class, like reading the text in a  guided way or watching videos created of the instructor, where they learn the simple, background material. Then, they come to class prepared to engage in deeper, conceptually challenging analysis and discussion, often driven by peer instruction.

If you look on Twitter for #flipclass (that’s the Twitter hashtag or keyword the community includes in relevant tweets), it’s not long before you find Jen Ebbeler (@jenebbeler). She teaches Classics using a flipped class model. This morning, Jen tweeted

The last part, it’s “not about the videos but what the instructor does in class” evoked another quote familiar to most everyone involved in astronomy education research and teaching the introductory, survey course we call Astro 101. At the heart of the Lecture-Tutorials and subsequent work by Tim Slater (@caperteam), Ed Prather, Gina Brissenden (@CAEgina) lies this mantra

It’s not what the teacher does that matters; rather it’s what the students do that matters.

And therefore, by the transitive property, when it comes to flipping the classroom,

it’s not about the videos, it’s what the students do in class that matters.

Which is precisely what Robert Talbert (@RobertTalbert) concluded after he flipped in introduction to proofs class. When you flip your class,

  1. you have time in class to doing other things, like clickers, because you’re not wasting time going over the easy stuff anymore,
  2. the students are prepared to engage in the conceptually challenging, “juicy” stuff you want to uncover together.

It’s what you do with that time that matters.

My math teachers always said learning abstract relationships like the transitive property would come in handy in the future. Yep.

An astronomy education retreat

Last year, Tim and Stephanie Slater phoned me up and invited me to be part of an astronomy education research group they were putting together. I was flattered to be part of the Conceptual Astronomy and Physics Education Research (CAPER) team! Especially when I learned who else I’d be working with. I mean, check out the bio’s of these remarkable astronomy educators. I’ve got to admit, I was a bit overwhelmed by their experience (and publication records.)

We got together at a conference we all attended and meet via telecon regularly but this week was special. A group of us — Tim, Stephanie, Julia, Sharon, Kendra, Inge, Eric and I — got together in Colorado for an intensive, 3-day astronomy education research retreat.


We talked about this. We argued about that. We thought about this and that. And it was all about teaching and learning astronomy. Not marking or Little League or home renovations or all those other things that eat up our time. Just astronomy education. What a treat!

By the end of the 3 days, we’d developed a research project, from concept tests and interview protocols to IRB letters and pre/post testing schedules. And what’s it all about?

Understanding certain concepts in introductory astronomy, like the causes of the seasons and the phases of the Moon, requires students to visualize the Earth, Moon and Sun, from both Earth-centered and Sun-centered points-of-view. It seems likely, then, that students with better spatial reasoning abilities will be more successful. There are already  standard tests of spatial reasoning. And there are a number of assessments of astronomy knowledge, augmented by the one’s we created this week. Add some pre-/post-testing and a dash of correlation coefficient and see what comes out.

One of the concepts we want to explore is the motion of the sky, so we made up an assessment using this diagram.  (I’m using this example because *I* created this diagram with Powerpoint and a little help from Star Walk.)

Looking south at sunset. So many questions we can ask...

Like I said earlier, I was pretty overwhelmed by the calibre of the other people in the group. So it was very gratifying, good for my ego, to be able to contribute and realize that we all have strengths. Maybe that’s the humble Canadian coming through.  I’m excited about what we’ve done and what we’ll be doing. And proud I have knowledge and experience to share.

I can’t wait to see what we find. Stay tuned!