Student Autonomy: The Missing link – CanFlip14 Presession Materials

Here are a couple things that would be helpful for you to check out prior to attending my upcoming CanFlip14 session:

1. Watch the short clip I created (embedded below or linked here) on the key theory of autonomy that I draw on in my work on student experiences of flipped classrooms. We will use this as a basis for some of our discussions around classroom practice.

If you want more details on the theory, you can see my blog post here.

2. Read Dan Meyer’s blog post on the painted cube problem (found here) and consider how cognitive autonomy is being elicited by his approach.

3. If you still have time, think about what sorts of activities you can think of using in your classroom that give room for cognitive autonomy.

I look forward to seeing you at my session! See you at CanFlip14!

Personality in the Online Environment

As you may know, I’m teaching two online mathematics upgrading courses this term. It’s been quite an interesting journey in transforming my ‘regular’ classroom into a ‘flipped’ classroom, and now into an ‘online’ classroom. Essentially, I use my flipped classroom videos, and assign unit projects and online discussion boards. For the most part, it works well, but I still have to find a way to nail down increasing discussion board usage. Anyway, the main insight I recently discovered was the element of personality that students normally get when in a face to face class. You know when you don’t realize you have something until it’s gone? Yeah, well that’s how I came across this.

Normally, in a face to face class, there are so many more side conversations that build trust and community aside from the curricular content. In the online environment this term, I have found that some students still seem to lack trust in sharing their issues on the discussion boards (it’s already a month into the term). Many post, but there are some who will email me and tell me that they aren’t sure if they should post their question publicly. Others will post a question, and then a few minutes later, as if in shame, say that they are sorry for posting because they figured it out. My response is to ask them publicly to explain how they figured it out, because it will be helpful for others to see. Overall, I’ve seen some great posting going on, and awesome discussion among members, often leading to strong mathematical questions. However, there are still those who seem uncomfortable sharing in the online environment . . . and I can understand that too.

So, without thinking about any of this, I sent out a message to all my students yesterday telling them how I got sick this weekend and have fallen a bit behind with marking (an apology letter). The response to this was interesting. Because I shared something personal, I got several personal responses back!

This brings me to the question of how much personal sharing is necessary and appropriate, and how does one encourage students to develop an online persona as well?

Where to find the activities?

So often I have found myself marvel at how some teachers find the best activities. I always ask them, where did that idea come from!?! Recently, I discovered that there are SO MANY SOURCES OUT THERE! . . . and this is only because teachers take the time to share their ideas with the global mathematics teacher community online. I would like to see more connection between these seemingly single bloggers. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a cohesive list of all the math bloggers? Well, it looks like someone’s already done that! I was so excited to find this link where there is a comprehensive list of mathematics teacher blogs! This means that at this point, there are 347 blogs chock full of potential teaching ideas. So why is this not visible to the average teacher, and why is it that teachers (like me) don’t have the ‘time’ to go through them? It’s overwhelming for me to think that I may never absorb all of those ideas that are out there.

However . . .

The time is now . . .

It’s time to be inspired.

In addition to the above link to blogs, here are some of my current favorites for teaching ideas:
Peter Liljedahl’s Teacher Resources
Dan Meyer Blog
Andrew Stadel’s Estimation180
Robert Kaplinsky’s Problem-Based Lesson Search Engine

Feel free to post your favorites in the comments bar:

Combating the constraints of time in the implementation of a flipped classroom

I have just embarked on a new term. This term I am teaching a fully online mathematics course for the first time, as well as a new course I haven’t yet taught before. I wanted to flip the new course, but with so much more on my plate this time around, I found myself short for time in making videos (in the same manner I made videos for my first flipped class). I have also received many comments and questions from other instructors about how much time is needed in developing a flipped class. At first, I did not think much of it, but now that I am in the situation myself, I have been forced to come up with a solution:

The solution is simple, I can still teach in the “guide on the side” manner without full blown videos! This is because I can give students the power to ask me to make videos for the things they need help with. The method I have implemented this term looks like this:


Student are given activities to work on in groups as well as assignments they can complete individually or with peers. They are also given opportunities to ask questions during class discussions about topics they have engaged in.


Students have access to content materials out of class time in an online environment. These materials include lesson summaries, photos taken from board work during class, links to recommended videos, and self-test online quizzes.

The videos are now much shorter than my first round. I usually go through one example per video, and I tell students to tell me which questions or concepts they would like to see explained in a video. This focuses my time on specific student needs rather than making everything available all at once. I post my videos on YouTube, so if you like, you can check out my YouTube Channel. I also sometimes link to videos made by others if I agree with their approach. Finally, I have also found it useful to record an example that I explain during class and post it on the course page.

These are just some time-saving measures, and I will post back in to let you know how it goes.

So far so good!

Student Autonomy in Flipped Classrooms

I was cleaning out my car yesterday, and I found a slip of paper from the ETUG presentation that someone had written on in response to my question of what teachers SHOULD be doing with class time.


Yes! Students often come with the expectation that they will be told everything and that they will figure it all out when they leave. I know I used to think this way! However, class time could be used so much more efficiently if students did the figuring out part during class instead of out of class. This is essentially the concept of a flipped classroom.

As I am just wrapping up my masters thesis on experiences of a flipped classroom, I am drawing more and more attention on analyzing the autonomy that students are provided in class and how that either motivates them to learn or motivated them to slack off.

In my research, I have found that autonomy can be classified into procedural, organizational, and cognitive autonomy. This classification is introduced by Stefanou, Perencevich, DiCinto, & Turner (2004) as shown below.


Stefanou et al. (2004) found that cognitive autonomy support was essential in student engagement. Further, Jang, Reeve, & Deci (2010) determined that not only is cognitive autonomy essential, but it should be paired with teacher provided structure. Structure, as defined by Jang et al. (2010), is a way of maintaining control over the procedural and organizational dimensions in an autonomously supportive manner.  This means that teachers should provide guidelines for these dimensions in order to maintain student engagement in course content. This is not to say that these dimensions should be controlled in a controlling manner, but rather in a manner that  leaves room for student input.

My current research has provided further evidence of the importance of cognitive autonomy in student engagement and how it is most effective when organizational and procedural dimensions are structured in a student friendly manner.

The implication here is that flipped classrooms should not be seen as ways to allow students to do anything they like. The role of the teacher as a facilitator rather than a dictator is absolutely crucial in fostering student learning. In essence, fostering student learning should be the number one goal of teachers. However, with a variety of external pressures, it is understandable that it is a difficult goal to pursue.

My research has also provided evidence that not all students desire a deeper understanding of the material. These students may not engage in meaning making activities no matter how interesting they are. However, providing opportunities for developing deeper understanding and eliciting cognitive autonomy in students allows those who strive for understanding to be able to attain it.

So, what will we do next to try to turn our students’ brains ON?

Jang, H., Reeve, J., & Deci, E. L. (2010). Engaging students in learning activities: It is not autonomy support or structure but autonomy support and structure. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102(3), 588–600.

Stefanou, C., Perencevich, K., DiCinto, M., & Turner, J. (2004). Supporting autonomy in the classroom: Ways teachers encourage student decision making and ownership. Educational Psychologist, 39(2), 97–110.

Canflip13 Kelowna – Inquiry Based Learning

I have just returned from another great conference in Kelowna. It wasn’t just about flipped classrooms, but rather about making learning meaningful. Many of my preliminary research findings were prevalent. Flipping is not about making videos. It’s about putting the ownership of learning onto the learner. However, as I am finding in my own research, learners should not be given complete freedom of learning because then they will not have any motivation to be engaged. They need to be given some structure in order to capture their attention and make them want to put the effort into learning. this was evident in Ramsey Mussallam’s Keynote at the conference as well as his TED talk:

At Canflip13, Ramsey conducted a session on inquiry based learning with technology. I observed him using quite a bit of classroom structure. As I have discovered in my own research, such procedural and organizational structure can be provided as long as it is supported in an autonomous way. However, the key is to provide students with cognitive autonomy. This means that students should be given opportunities to create meaning in their own ways. I believe that this is the key to any good teaching model, and the flipped classroom in particular allows for this. Nonetheless, this is still a difficult feat to achieve. How do we catch our learners attention, and even further, how do we KEEP this attention? I find that it is relatively easy to hook students into an idea, but it seems as though too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing because students get used to our ‘hooks’ and become immune to their stimulative powers.  I guess what I mean is that it is a challenge for any teacher to keep their course interesting the whole way through. The key to this is changing things up and bringing in elements of surprise. When people are surprised by something, they engage in it. I think we don’t just need to spark student learning, but we need to find ways to continue building interest. In his keynote, Ramsey brought attention to the lens of Bloom’s Taxonomy. We need to find ways to lead students to higher order thinking. Flipping a classroom needs to have this very purpose in mind, and just making videos does not cut it. We need to utilize the extra time in an engaging manner. That is the goal.

I do not claim to have the answer to this goal, but it is what I strive for.

ETUG Presentation: My Flipped Classroom

I had a great time at ETUG Spring 2013! Check out this link to find the ETUG session description and slides.

This was my first ETUG experience, and I must say I was blown away. All the ETUG members were fascinating. I had a great time chatting with several ETUG members about various topics in teaching and learning. Most importantly, I found that the ETUG community is deeply interested in engaging learners. This was evident by all the great ideas the members at my session came up with when I asked them to brainstorm what we SHOULD be doing with our in-class time if we didn’t have to worry about ‘covering’ the curriculum:

·         Ask for ideas from students on previous topics
·         Open conversation
·         Teaching each other
·         Brainstorming
·         Creativity
·         Re-visioning our practice
·         Bring in experts virtually or in person to discuss our subject area
·         Shared activities
·         Instructor listening
·         Solve a really cool problem (case study type) together
·         Application of concepts
·         Peer feedback
·         Dialogue and interaction with peers and facilitator
·         Encourage students to learn from each other
·         Case studies
·         Set up an environment for the learners to teach each other and myself
·         More work with real data – application of theory
·         Facilitated discussion
·         User-generated content
·         Interest sharing
·         Discussions between peers (peer feedback)
·         Create a discussion
·         Problem-solving
·         Applying concepts
·         Share more problem solutions
·         Work on student generated problems/projects
·         Real world applications
·         Students having time to explore
·         Encourage learning from each other and not just from the instructor/text
·         Practice/play with ideas
·         Explore
·         Apply the ideas in practical ways
·         Freedom to explore
·         Answering real questions students have about the subject matter
·         Practice use of specific tools
·         Design course delivery with focus on outcomes
·         Engaging activities group work
·         Practice
·         Make it a group session
·         Ask students what they want to know

This two-minute brainstorming session was very productive. It was done in a way that I hadn’t ever tried before – getting members to write their ideas down on little 3 by 3 inch pieces of paper and passing them around continuously so that others could see their peers’ ideas! This way, when I asked members to call out some of the ideas they liked, they could use either someone else’s idea (which would have honored the writer of the idea) or they could have used their idea. I’ll be sure to try this method again! The list that was generated as shown above is full of student-centered teaching approaches.

I’d like to repeat a quote I read out loud during my session:
“Why is it, in spite of the fact that teaching by pouring in and learning by passive absorption, are universally condemned, that they are still so entrenched in practice?” – John Dewey,1926

The main point of my session was to drive home the conception of actually using class time for student-centered teaching by removing passive lecture and placing it in an online environment where it is readily accessible out of class time.

Before I was even half way through my presentation, members couldn’t hold back asking questions. There were so many great questions being asked. I know there will be a live audio recording of the session that will be posted on the ETUG website in the near future. However, if you are reading this, and you have questions about the flipped classroom and how it works, please do not hesitate to comment and ask. I do not claim to be an expert, but I am willing to share what I have done and what I have found to be both successful and not-so-successful.

Group Problems on Tests

This term, I have been giving group problems on my tests, and it has been fruitful.

Giving group problems as part of an assessment helps students treat group work during class time more seriously. In the past, I have tried to get students to work on problems in groups during class time, but they most often gravitated to working individually in the groups. This was because they knew that in the end, they were going to be tested individually.

This term, I noticed a point in time when there developed a resistance against group work. A colleague suggested that I try putting a group problem on a test to show that I value group work. I tried it, and it worked! No longer do I need to convince students to work in groups. Sure, there are still a few who just want to work on their own, but the majority have come to value working together and learning from each other.

I am still tinkering with the logistics. I have tried giving a problem for them to work on and then getting them to come up and ask for the rest of the test on which they will then write up the problem they solved together on their own. I have also tried giving a similar problem as the test for them to work on right before the test so that they will be ready for it when they complete their test. Finally, I included a group problem on the last midterm as described below:

Students were to in groups build a three dimensional object out of parts that I provided. They would then each describe and draw the object on their papers and give the object to another group to work on. The other group would then describe and draw the shape they received, and then work together to find the volume and surface area of the shape. Each student would then hand in a write up of the activity and then complete the rest of the midterm. The activity was graded as one of the midterm questions.

In giving such a task, I worried that students would just come up with simplistic objects in order to take the easiest possible route. However, the drive for most groups was quite the opposite. They challenged themselves with the most complicated shapes they could come up with! They even surpassed the outcomes of the unit in creating shapes such as:


Because they had created their own shapes, they had this drive to engage themselves in figuring out the volume and surface area regardless of how complicated it got! Many fruitful ideas and questions came out of their discussions.

If the stage is set right, group work can be very productive. However, I am constantly searching for new ways to switch up my group work strategies because too much of a good thing can take a hit. I have found that if I organize my class in the exact same way too many times in a row, students lose interest and it is no longer a novelty.

“Keep it fresh” is the advice I like to follow and remind myself of every time I plan a lesson.

Student Generated Examples

Since I have much more class time available for students to engage in learning material, I have been playing around with various types of tasks. One of which is getting students to generate examples of questions they may be asked. Any teacher who has developed their own questions knows that doing this is more difficult that it seems. A lot of knowledge is required to make a question to which a solution may be found using prerequisite knowledge. I was teaching a unit on using properties of exponents to simplify exponential expressions. I asked students to generate a question in groups and give the question to another group to solve. I also asked them to create a potential unit test in order to build study skills. I was afraid that students would choose to create extremely simple examples and that they wouldn’t learn enough from the task. However, I didn’t realize how difficult it can be for a student to create a “simple” example. In order to know that it will be simple to solve, they need to be fluent with their knowledge. In my class, all the students decided to try to make the most difficult problem they could think of! I was shocked. It led to a lot of good discussion and I was able to clarify several key points to them through analyzing how they would solve the problem. For example, a lot of them threw in addition signs but didn’t realize how much more difficult it is to simplify rational exponential expressions with several terms in the numerator and the denominator! This stemmed from the fact that they were still unsure of the difference between multiplying exponential variables and adding exponential variables. Other nuggets came out as well. This task was so useful that I ended up putting a question on their unit test to create an example and solve it. The fact that they had to solve it themselves forced them to try to stick to using properties they understood.

I’d like to share my favorite student generated example from the group work activity:


This is truly brilliant. Is it not?