How Do You Flip A Zombie?


It is almost Halloween and I can forgive you if the title makes you think about this type of flipping zombie.

I want to talk about flipping the zombie learner. Since about 2000, I have been implementing various techniques to engage students in the classroom. Initially I used a great number of relevant problems…modeling data to solve real world problems. This evolved into full blown project-based learning and eventually the happy place I now live and teaching in. The projects helped to add relevancy to the course and counter the “When am I ever going to use this?” question. The problem was that I was still lecturing on very basic algebra and calculus problems. And I had to lecture to cover the amount of material required by the syllabus. In my mind, the content had to come out of my mouth for me to hold them responsible for it and to assess them on it. When I look back on this, I realize that students were often absent or not paying attention. Even though it was coming out of my mouth, they were not tuned in. In effect, it was not coming out of my mouth for a large number of students.

In 2006, the Mathematics Department at Yavapai College began to experiment with MyMathLab. This gave students the opportunity to do homework and quizzes online. Their work was scored on the spot and they were given the opportunity to rework the problems. The system provided a huge amount of help in the form of worked examples. Suddenly students did not need to wait several days to have me score their work…it was done instantaneously. Not only did this lift a huge grading burden off of me, it also let me track how students were doing before the next class and deliver just in time advice on the problems. I could emphasize points the students were weak on and go more rapidly over the points they had no trouble with. This allowed me to spend more time on applications and using technology to solve those problems…but I was still lecturing. If I lost their attention during the lecture or they were absent, the information went into the void. I still had the glassy eyed stares indicating a lack of engagement.


Through the , I began to learn about active learning strategies that could be used to engage students in the classroom…techniques like collaborative learning, discovery-based learning, and hands on learning. These techniques turned my classroom in a student-centered classroom. Students were able to think more deeply about what they were learning. However, I still felt that content had to be delivered from my mouth to their brains in order for me to assess them on it. In that sense, I was still very teacher-centered.

At some point I began to make videos for my online students so they could watch the same lectures my face to face students attended. Initially they were a class period long. Now they have evolved to shorter 5 to 10 minute segments. I noticed that my face to face students used these videos a lot. In fact, I saw a decrease in class attendance because of the videos. They were able to get through the homework and quizzes using MyMathLab and video, but that is where their knowledge ended. My students were really good at solving standard problems, but they could not apply that knowledge to solve the projects that were really the most important part of the class. Hmmm. They can do the homework and quizzes without coming to class?

student_pic_1Perhaps my role as the holder of mathematical knowledge was in danger. Why not use the class time for active learning? Use the online materials to teach the basic concepts and then utilize the class time to apply the mathematics to solving interesting and realistic problems. Perhaps this had potential.


This was my flip of the classroom. My lectures are now designed to be watched outside of the classroom. Unlike the flipped classroom envisioned by many other faculty around the country, I do not bring in the homework in place of the classroom lecture. Doing homework in class is too passive. I wanted the students to be doing something real. Moving around the classroom. Talking to each other about mathematics. Working together to solve tough problems. If they are learning the basics outside of the classroom, it gives me time to dive into activities like Average Rates of Change at Verizon. Their time in class is interesting and adds value to the course.

Of course, there are logistics. And selling this format to the students. After at least twelve years of a traditional classroom, most students are not ready for the expectations a flipped instructor has. Luckily, most of them welcome the chance to do work online. I tell them that if they can master a concept online, there is no need to cover it in class. However, if they do have trouble we will attack it in class and make sure they get it. Typically about half of one class each week is dedicated to going over problems they had trouble with. flip_this_010Here is a portion of the calendar from my Survey of Calculus class. All of my classes work the exact same way. Look at Week 6 in the middle…there is a lot going on that week. Class meets on Monday and Wednesday at 2pm. That week they are covering Section 11.4 in the textbook and using video. I might give a 10 minute segment on what to expect in that section during Week 6, but not the standard one and a quarter hour lecture I used to give. They cover the content in Section 11.4 on their own during Week 6 and turn in the homework on Monday of Week 7. The class time during Week 7 is dedicated to answering questions on the homework and applying the concepts from the homework to real problems. At the end of Week 7, they complete a quiz on the Section 11.4 to demonstrate their understanding of the section including the applications.

Graphs together
An application where students model and compare health insurance plans.

Throughout the class, they complete technology assignments that keep them on task with their projects. That helps to ensure they are meeting intermediate goals on the project. If they get stuck, I can help them early on and not right before the project is due.

The downside of this type of flip is that it puts a huge burden on me to come up with interesting applications, worksheets, activities, ect. They must be engaging and give students a reason to come to class. Luckily, I enjoy creating these items and sharing them with the students. For instance, my students and I have worked on modeling health insurance plans this semester. With all of the currents events surrounding health care, it is fairly easy to engage them. Terms like deductible, coinsurance, and out of pocket maximum are completely foreign to almost every student. But learning what the terms mean and relating them to the mathematics they are studying seems to strike at their inherent curiosity. It also shows them how much they can save in premiums when they make healthy lifestyle choices. This will stay with them much longer that learning how to take a derivative or factor a trinomial!

Which is more important to you? The meaning of the mathematics and how it relates to healthcare or the details in computing the equation of a line? They are related…but I am guessing you would have an easier time with the details if you understood the big picture better. Thank you John Medina for alerting me to this notion!