Instructor Insights

Flipping the Classroom

In this section, Jeff Gore shares his insights about flipping the classroom in 8.591J Systems Biology.

Detailed mathematical derivations and calculations are essential components of Systems Biology, but, in my teaching, I favor the conceptual side of mathematics. I try to help students understand the interesting behaviors that arise in systems and how we can gain insight into their origins. My interest in promoting students’ conceptual understanding of Systems Biology is partly why we’ve added flipped classroom components to the course. Specifically, we require that students complete readings and respond to short-answer questions using Google Forms™ prior to coming to class. For example, we ask questions, such as, “Why might a cell actively degrade the protein that it just made?” We expect students to answer these questions in one to three sentences. Of course, there are always students who want to write more, and Google Forms allows for that, but we’re really not asking students to write essays. Instead, we’re interested in knowing if students understand key ideas (Mazur, 1997).

"My interest in promoting students’ conceptual understanding of Systems Biology is partly why we’ve added flipped classroom components to the course."
—Jeff Gore

I don’t expect students to have fully digested the material prior to class, but I do assume students have interacted with the material by doing the readings and answering the reading questions. This assumption allows me to focus on more interesting concepts during the lecture and to use class time for active learning. One of the things I tell students at the beginning of the course is that reading before class will not only help them, but will also help their classmates, because they will be discussing concept questions in pairs and small groups. If they don’t do the readings, they’ll be limiting the learning experiences of their classmates.

We don’t assign students grades based on the quality or correctness of their responses to the reading questions. Some educators might worry that students will go online and compose responses without really thinking about their answers. But, in practice, that rarely happens. Students are embarrassed to write nonsensical answers. There are always some incorrect answers, but I feel these errors reflect honest confusions.

Reference:

Mazur, Eric. Peer Instruction: A User’s Manual. Benjamin Cummings, 1997. ISBN: 9780135654415.

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