“Flipping” the Classroom in a Sensation and Perception Course

Cheryl Olman
Stephen Engel
Thomas Brothen

Our task in this chapter is to report an effort to change an intermediate psychology class by utilizing digital technology and an instructional technique known as flipping the classroom. In this model of instruction, described in outlets such as the Chronicle of Higher Education, instead of coming to class to have content delivered at them, students come to work with it. In that model, most of the content is delivered “outside” of class through a combination of written material and online lectures. Our project united technology and flipping to deliver course material that many students find more technical than they expected.

In this report, we describe our project to change Psy 3031: Introduction to Sensation and Perception from a lecture format to one that allows for increased small-group discussions and hands-on experiments utilizing computer technology. The major content of the course covers sensory physiology, organization of the sensory nervous system, and the role of our own experience and awareness in shaping our perception of the world around us. Key concepts include mechanisms of neural activation, neural networks, logarithms and non‐linear functions, and the importance of accommodation for individuals with loss of sensation. Central themes include developing an understanding that our sensory physiology extracts only some of the available information about the external world; that prior experience and expectation (top‐down effects) play as large a role in perception as our sensory experience (bottom‐up effects); and that attention and awareness play an important role in controlling what we see, hear or feel.
Delivering this course to its intended audience of freshmen and sophomores presented three major problems that were a major impetus of this project: student preparedness, the expense of technology required to provide an active learning environment, and the need to expand enrollment to serve a growing student population. As described in the following paragraphs, the flipped classroom addresses each of these problems by allowing the instructor to meet with small groups of students who have had a chance to prepare at their own pace for the week’s material.

First, many enrolled Psychology majors do not have enough background in math or physiology to easily understand the course material. Experience has shown that the class divides into two groups – the half that intuitively understands concepts such as the use of logarithms to understand sensory coding, and the half that is intimidated by math and biology to the point that they do not even attempt some of the assignments. Online delivery of lecture content allows students to learn material at their own rate, and review challenging concepts multiple times before coming to class. The online format also makes it easy to provide links to other resources – tutorials on neural anatomy or logarithmic functions – for students who have not had the relevant course work. Finally, breaking the class into groups of 6‐8 students and giving them time to work out problems collectively addresses the problem of heterogeneous backgrounds beautifully as the students readily engage in teaching each other how to solve problems.

Second, we faced a difficult challenge to provide the resources for technology‐based small group work in courses that seat more than 100 students. Many of the most meaningful demonstrations of laboratory techniques and psychological/physiological principles, particularly in the study of auditory and visual perception, require computers. Examples of in-class exercises are: working with partners to measure tactile acuity and plot corresponding psychometric functions, serving as psychophysical observers to perform an auditory masking task, or working in groups to develop neural network models that explain a visual illusion. One innovation in this project was to use the flipped classroom to allow the instructor to meet with a third or a fifth of the students at a time, so the purchase of just 6 computers would give all students access to computer technology through which the demonstrations could be experienced. Not only is this small group work vital for students to experience laboratory techniques, but success in these demonstrations requires students to work together and learn by doing and teaching.

Finally, the class size needed to expand to meet the needs of a growing number of psychology majors. The class covers introductory concepts and is intended for freshman and sophomores, but juniors and seniors register first and take 95% of the seats because they still need the class to fill graduation requirements. In addition, an increasing number of students, including those in the burgeoning Psychology BS program, will need access to the content of Psy 3031 in order to be successful in required advanced courses in the Cognitive and Biological area of psychology. We were therefore looking for a way to make the small‐group learning environment accessible for larger enrollments.  Accommodating larger enrollments while continuing to give students access to meaningful discussion with instructors requires increasing the number of instructors.  The flipped classroom allows us to do this by removing the burden of lecture preparation for faculty in the Cognitive and Biological area. Instead of spending the average of 100 hours per semester required to prepare lecture material for an introductory course like this, instructors can spend a fraction of that time preparing meaningful exercises for students and directly interacting with the students about content. The flipped classroom is a much better use of the expertise of faculty members, producing a more rewarding experience for student and teacher alike.

Our practical goals for delivering the course were achieved by having students complete weekly readings, view lectures, submit online responses to in‐class exercises, contribute to a discussion forum, and take exams. We integrated technology into each of these goals. First, to assess reading completion, we had students complete an online quiz covering the reading material before coming to the class based on that material.  Second, to access a week of lecture material, instead of coming to a large lecture hall, students watched recorded lectures online and studied the corresponding slides (12 8‐minute modules per week; modules were recorded during the Spring 2011 offering of the course and are scheduled for replacement at the rate of 12/year). Third, after completing a computer-based or other “hands on” activity during class time (during which the instructor and TA circulated through the classroom checking on progress, offering helpful hints, and answering questions), students entered short‐answer responses on the course website, which were graded for accuracy and completeness. Fourth, a portion of the student’s grade is derived from providing thoughtful contributions to discussion for each of the week’s topics. Fifth, students completed three computer-based multiple‐choice exams throughout the semester.  Only 50% of the final grade in the class is derived from the multiple-choice exams, emphasizing for the students the fact that learning requires participating in discussions and articulating new ideas as they are absorbed.
The above format has clear advantages and effectively reduces the student/teacher ratio without increasing instructional staff. Students spend more time with faculty and instructional staff engaged in research‐like activities where students learn from each other during discussion, and the additional scheduling flexibility of online lectures makes the material more accessible to non‐traditional students. However, the above format also presents significant logistical or technological challenges, and we worked this year to find solutions to some of the obvious ones. For example:

As we began planning for the hybrid online/discussion course described here, students hearing about it expressed dismay because their experiences had been that it is hard for them to stay motivated to follow online material. This hybrid format with the flipped classroom removes the stigma of online classes by offering a technology aided course that presents the material to the students in an engaging manner while optimizing their classroom experiences to receive real‐world training using research‐relevant computer‐based technologies. We did this first by making everything we did consistent with the content and goals of the course. Content was first and “technology” secondary to our development process, but judicious incorporation of technology gets students working and helps them learn more as they are actively engaged with the course material. In sum, we advise others to remember that technology is not the most important—what students do and learn is.

Cheryl Olman <caolman@umn.edu>
Cheryl Olman is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology. Her research interests include the biological basis of functional magnetic resonance imaging; modulation of low level visual responses by scene perception. Project role was as course developer and instructor.
Stephen Engel <engel@umn.edu>
Stephen Engel is a Professor in the Department of Psychology. His research interests include the cognitive neuroscience of human vision, combining functional MRI and behavioral data: perceptual learning, visual adaptation, color vision. Project role was as course developer and instructor.
Thomas Brothen <broth001@umn.edu>
Thomas Brothen is a Professor in the Department of Psychology. His research interests include the use of course management systems and other technology to improve post-secondary student learning; teaching of psychology; history of psychology and educational interventions. Project role was as consultant.