Flip the flip for optics

Ah January. The time when I start to plan my spring courses and use this space to brainstorm. I probably won’t have as many posts as last year, but I do like using this blog instead of scratch sheets of paper.

I’m thinking of “flipping the flip” for my optics course. What I mean is to continue to provide resources that I need my students to engage with outside of class (in order to be ready for their assessments), but not have them engage before class. Instead, what would the course look like if class time was the first time they engaged with material? I’ve done this before, but that class wasn’t for majors and didn’t really have a clear set of material that I had to cover (physics of sound and music). This one might be one of the better major classes to try since it doesn’t act as a prerequisite for anything. I’m not sold on doing this, but I wanted to get the pros and cons down here to keep thinking about it.

One major reason for considering this is the crabbiness I always have about unprepared students in class. A few come having really studied the advance material, ready to engage more deeply, but a few come as blank slates and make interaction with the others hard. In the past I’ve been heard saying “oh well, sucks for them” and “I’ll just make those students work together rather than dragging the others down,” but I have to say that my recent class didn’t have any of that crabbiness in it.

Another reason to consider this is the great admiration I have for people who teach with the modeling pedagogy. I’m sure they nod their heads vigorously to the notion of having students interact with content before doing any homework with it. I’m trying to see if I can capture some of that spirit here.

The big downside, of course, is the potential to go super slow, doing things in class that could have been outsourced to resources like screencasts or textbook assignments. Mostly I’m worried that I’ll just go back to lecturing, which, to be honest, is a trap I fell into a bunch of times last semester.

What I want: The best days in my sound class were the ones where I’d show them something (a demo or a simulation) and they broke into groups trying to make predictions about what was going on. Things like “if you make the wave faster, we bet we’ll see more nodes” etc. We’d spend the day exploring things like that, and then we’d decide the learning goal of the day (“I can explain standing waves” or whatever). After that we’d decide what resources they’d need to be able to do well on an assessment of that learning goal.

So what does that look like in optics? Well, here’s a few examples of learning goals from the last time I taught the class:

  • I can explain the plane wave solutions of the wave equation.
  • I can derive the form of the complex index of refraction and the Lorentz Model for index of refraction.
  • I can discuss the foundations of, usefulness of, and ramifications of the evanescent field in total internal reflection.
  • I can calculate the polarization state of light after passing through an interesting system using Jones vectors and matrices.

I grabbed those because the verbs “explain, derive, discuss, and calculate” are the most common verbs we use. So how would I run a non-lecture class period that tackles those? Last time I put together chapter readings and screencasts that I wanted them to study before class so that in class we could do some examples, connect it to earlier work, plan lab etc. Now I’d want to do something like say “so what do you think a plane wave might be” or something so that we could dig in. I suppose I could have them work through the book’s derivation of something, and have them figure out where they get stuck. I’d either unstick them or we’d add it to the list of things they need resources for.

I’ve often gone to see the view counts of my scasts. It’s always interesting to see number like: N/2 views (where N is the number of students in the class) before class, 3N views before a big assessment. They use them, claim to learn from them, but don’t seem to always see value in doing it before class. Now, of course, I could do a better job of making class useless to them if they’re not prepared. But I know that just makes me crabby, and I’m always trying to reduce that.

So, an example. Let’s take the evanescent field (the field that exists on the other side of a total internal reflection barrier). In the past I’d do a scast and reading assignment showing the details of how you do the derivation. Then, in class, we’d do some calcs about how much light makes it to the other side. We’d also try to figure out more of the harder parts of the derivation. So now, here’s what I’m envisioning:

  1. Prior to that class, just do something like show a vid of frustrated TIR. That’s it. No expectation that they do more than just think about it.
  2. In class, ask what their thoughts are. I would hope to hear things like:
    1. “How did the light know the other surface was there?”
    2. “Every time I do TIR calculations my calculator barfs”
    3. “Can you see the light between the two surfaces?”
  3. I’d then ask what the mathematical foundation would be. They’d be familiar with the boundary conditions necessary, so I’d likely ask them to set those up for this situation.
  4. I’d want them to play around with the math to see if they can figure out how the frustrated part works.
  5. <not sure about this one> I’d show them a full result so that we could do an example or two.
  6. We’d figure out the learning goal of the day
  7. We’d figure out what resources they’d want.
  8. I’d prepare the resources and post them

As I’ve written this, I’m getting more excited about this approach. Being there to diagnose what they’re struggling with (especially in a derivation) is likely much better than me guessing what they’re going to struggle with. I think I can keep us from falling behind by just saying that they’ll have to be really careful about what resources they want.

So what do you think? Here’s a few starters for you:

  1. This is a good idea. I think you’ll especially be pleased with …
  2. This is a dumb idea. Students have to come prepared in a flipped class because …
  3. I thing the think you’ll be crabby about this time around is …
  4. I’m signed up for this class and now I can’t wait. I’m especially excited about …
  5. I’m signed up for this class. Where can I get a drop card?
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About Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist

Associate professor of physics at Hamline.
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8 Responses to Flip the flip for optics

  1. Sarah says:

    I’m a lazy-make-you-crabby type of student. I have other classes to focus on, usually homework from them. So having a simple idea/video/demonstration to watch attentively seems much more appealing than becoming fully prepared with the material before class. (ideally) Bonus because I would (hopefully) become excited to learn about this fascinating new topic and not dread all of the math that goes behind it. Getting that interest piqued then learning would probably work better for my type of student.

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      That’s an interesting take, Sarah. It could have a lot to do with laziness, but I think the notion that students figure out that there’s no need to be prepared is the larger issue.

  2. bretbenesh says:

    We’ll have to keep comparing notes this semester. I have always flipped the flip for a geometry course (although I didn’t realize until just now that I was flipping the flip), but I am switching this semester to having them prepare for class.

    We will compare.

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      I guess I hadn’t thought of what you were doing in this light, but it makes sense. Let’s try to have lunch some time to compare notes!

  3. Perhaps there is a middle ground? When I taught Classical Mechanics this past fall, I used one day for each chapter to serve as a bridge between what the students already knew and what they would be learning in the coming days. I started by asking the types of questions that students should be able to answer from their intro courses, then I scaled up the difficulty until they reached a point where they no longer had the tools to solve the problem. The idea was to refresh their memories and also to motivate the new material. It sounds somewhat like what you are proposing, except the exploration doesn’t occur every day.

    For a pace reference, I used a little less than an hour out of almost four hours per week to do the exploration. We used Taylor’s Classical Mechanics, and we got through the first twelve chapters (up to chaos). This required cutting some material out of several of the chapters. I often found those exploration days to be especially enlightening, and I felt like the students learned a lot on those days.

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      It’s funny, my partner always accuses me of being all in or all out. I like this notion of a middle ground. I think I could certainly look at what the material is before making a decision.

  4. Pingback: flip squared check in | SuperFly Physics

  5. Pingback: Flipped flip debrief | SuperFly Physics

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