Credit: Les Todd.
Credit: Les Todd.

The Classroom Experience Re-imagined

Transforming the classroom
July 24, 2013

Every meeting I have with Duke alumni quickly moves to the same question: “Are you giving away for free what Duke students spend tens of thousands of dollars to experience?" They ask this question because I offer course material in a free MOOC (massive open online course) through Coursera. My online class is "Introduction to Genetics and Evolution"—the same title and lecture content as my on-campus course.

The online problem sets heavily overlap the ones I use in my Duke class; I even give a few of the same questions on the tests. Yet, as those inquiring alumni noted, the vast majority of the enrolled online students don’t pay a dime, while Duke tuition is more than $40,000 per year.

I initially agreed to venture down this road specifically to transform the classroom for my Duke students, not for the online students. My Duke undergraduate class is a BIG class: For the past two years, more than 400 students have enrolled each semester. I would arrive early to answer questions, but with an 8:30 a.m. meeting time, such questions would be few and far between. The class period had me presenting concepts on the stage (literally; we met in the Bryan Center’s Griffith Theater) with the aid of PowerPoint slides and an occasional in-class problem for students to try. I’d get a question or two in the middle of my lecture (usually just asking me to repeat something), and a handful of students would come up to ask questions after class.

The real learning of the lecture material happened when students worked on assigned practice or graded problems at home, or when they interacted with teaching assistants in the associated laboratory and recitation sections. My job seemed limited to content development and performance.

It’s surprising to me that this inefficient arrangement largely defines courses, particularly in the sciences. Interestingly, in the humanities we often see a class framework that’s better geared toward learning through inquiry rather than through basic information transfer. Can you imagine a literature course in which the students arrive to hear the professor, every period, read three chapters of Shakespeare to them? The professor would be no more effective than a recording. Hmm—a recording.

MOOCs allow recorded video lectures to be presented asynchronously with interactive features (e.g., “in-video quizzes”). Students determine how well they understand the material through various assessments online. They can interact with other students through online discussion forums. Hence, well-constructed MOOCs offer significantly more than watching videos in, say, YouTube or Khan Academy.

For me, the "flipped class" concept is a conceptual extension of what happens in small humanities courses. My Duke students use my MOOC as a means of mastering the basic content before coming to my classroom. The video format allows me to tailor the material and make it far more approachable than through just textbook reading, and the online assessments help the students identify gaps in their comprehension. I add a question to the daily pre-class quiz specifically asking students to report concepts they found confusing. The night before the class, I receive direct feedback on student performance and understanding related to the basic class material.

So, what happens in my classroom? First, I focus on areas that students identified as confusing. Second, most of the class period is devoted to students working in small groups on additional application problems I assign; the teaching assistants and I walk around the room and engage the groups on their first impressions of how to answer the questions. Next, I go over the problems and my solutions, along with discussion of related questions or alternative possibilities. I conclude with a few minutes on a present-day research or public application of the concepts covered in the lecture. The class period is devoted to applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating course material.

This format offers new challenges. No in-class activities are graded (except midterms), and, unsurprisingly, a significant fraction of students don’t want to wake up at 8:30 for reinforcement when they had the raw information already. That decision is theirs to make (and they accept the consequences), just like students who fail to attend a standard course and rely on either lecture-period recordings or their friends’ notes. I also spend time preparing all the assessments associated with the format—pre-class quizzes, weekly problem sets, in-class problem sets, additional online practice problems, and test questions—and still get requests for “more practice.”

My tentative conclusion is that it’s worth it. The types of questions I get now are (almost) never about repeating something I just said, but more about placing the material into a broader context or tying it to other topics. I perceive much more higher-level thinking about the material, and I am able to have students grasp concepts with which I recall struggling even as a graduate student. The performance on most of the assessments has gone up. As one (slightly grouchy) student put it: “Of course we’re doing better. You’re making us work more on the same material.”

It may seem ironic that from leveraging a MOOC for Duke students, I have a deepened sense of the importance of direct student-teacher interaction: As all parties become more aware of gaps in comprehension, both teaching and learning improve. Increased interaction comes at a price. Most of my students this year (the one quoted above among them) did work harder than my students in previous years. And I worked harder than ever—across multiple platforms and in presenting material in different ways. My job isn’t done. I need to assess and learn from this first experience, and to continue to improve the class.

But I think this first experience has changed me. From this point, I’ll feel that I’m cheating my students if I give a class that is purely passive and lecture-based. If all I did was lecture, then I would be delivering little or no more value to these students than what they could obtain from something to which they have easy access—the evergrowing number of MOOCs.


Noor, who has been teaching at Duke since 2005, is the Earl D. McLean Jr. Professor and chair of biology. He has won various teaching awards over the years, including, most recently, the Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award. Noor has been elected president of the Society for the Study of Evolution and the American Genetic Association; he was awarded the Darwin-Wallace Medal in 2008, primarily for his work on understanding the genetic and evolu- tionary process of species formation.