Innovator of the Week: Srinivasan Keshav

Class Flipping with a Twist

You hear a lot about Internet-based cheating and lower standards these days. Let’s assume for the moment that the laments are true. What would it take to raise standards? How about an old-fashioned, newfangled, paradoxical pedagogical approach.

Srinivasan Keshav does the paradoxical part well. He’s an expert on wireless networks, but he threw away his smart phone. He’s a dedicated instructor, but he quizzes students on the course material before he teaches it. He’s an inventor with a wealth of experience in academia and industry who testifies before Congress, but his most important advice (which he ought to give to Congress, come to think of it) is “know what you don’t know.”


S. Keshav, as sketched by his daughter

Keshav, who teaches at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, is developing an innovative instructional style that embraces technology but feels old fashioned in the “damn, profs meant business back then” kind of way. He encourages students to use all of the online resources at their disposal, including collaborating with their peers on Piazza. But he gives more homework than just about anyone, and his classroom meetings are strict and rigorously focused on working through the hardest problems.

Keshav’s description of many college classes makes Canadian undergraduates sound like the Sweathogs from “Welcome Back, Kotter.” You can almost feel the paper airplanes whizzing by your ear. “If you go to a class where people are watching YouTube, or they’re on Twitter, or eating a burger, they aren’t learning,” he told us. “I demand complete attention, and in return I give students complete dedication. That encourages a higher level of engagement. Nobody complains about having 32 homework assignments, and I don’t complain about grading them.”

If Keshav’s students are paying attention, it may be because they’ve been slapped in the face, metaphorically speaking. Prior to the class meeting, each homework assignment includes three questions that students can potentially answer from the course materials, but not without the kind of struggle that built character back in the slide-rule era. “You can think of this as a sort of ‘quiz before the lecture,”’ he told us. “I grade all of them and they count.” (This term the class has no assigned text, so homework is due after class)

Keshav takes it for granted that his students will use the Internet to try to answer the questions. But this isn’t the kind of homework you can download from the Evil House of Cheat or dig up from the fraternity file (unless frats in Canada are radically different from the ones we have here). That’s where Piazza comes in. “Having a system by which students can collaborate effectively outside of class makes it possible to ask more of them because I know that they have ample resources to answer challenging questions,” Keshav explained. “On Piazza, students can ask conceptual questions or refer to outside materials to make things clearer.”

All of this is designed to mess with students’ brains. In a good way. “People work best when they know what they don’t know,” Keshav said. “If you think you know something, you don’t pay attention. But if you have no idea what’s going on, then you’re disoriented. You want to be in the middle — where you know what you don’t know.”

The “traditional” large lecture format — which was perfected at about the same time as the assembly line and was similarly effective at keeping participants’ minds engaged — seems quite antiquated these days, given that students can watch videos not just of their own instructor, but of any instructor teaching the same material. Keshav’s model of engagement, along with other “class flippingexperiments, seems to point the way toward a model of pedagogy that moves beyond the traditional lecture format while retaining an important place for face-to-face learning.

In case you’re wondering, Keshav’s classes have dozens of people, not just a few. It’s not the size of the class that matters – it’s the expectations that students have when they walk in the door.

But what about cheating? “I am fully aware that people sometimes cheat,” Keshav admitted,­ “But even the fact that people are writing the answers down teaches them something. And my surveys showed that the students like this approach, and that they felt that the material sank in.” Grades on exams were better than they had been using a traditional approach.

So what about you? Can you demand more from students now that they have virtually unlimited access to information and an always-on connection to their classmates?

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