Learn by doing inside out

For some industrial and manufacturing engineering classes, it’s like falling down the rabbit hole — lectures are done at home, homework is done in lectures.

The new class structure focuses on a better way of learning. Several industrial and manufacturing engineering faculty, including associate professor Lizabeth Schlemer, have turned their focus to improving the traditional teaching structure to enhance students’ learning efficiency.

“We’re trying to shift what we are doing in the classroom,” Schlemer said.

The department is calling the new style of teaching the “inside-out course.” The traditional layout of the class is reversed: Students view recorded lecture segments outside of the classroom, while classroom time focuses on interactive homework, problem sets and hands-on learning.

“If you think about it —the way teaching is now, where someone stands in front of the class giving information to students in desks — that has been around since the Middle Ages,” Schlemer said. “My thought is that we are somewhat behind in the way we do classroom activity.”

The inside-out class structure is aimed at addressing the educational objectives of better student learning in the form of active, collaborative hands-on learning experiences, Schlemer said.

Additionally, the course structure addresses teaching faculty’s on-going challenge of improving teaching efficiency, industrial and manufacturing engineering professor Daniel Waldorf said.

Waldorf brought the concept of the inside-out course to the department. A professor working within the small manufacturing engineering program, Waldorf was looking for the next step toward improving his students’ learning experience while at Cal Poly.

“It came to me in the middle of the night: ‘I want to be more efficient,’” Waldorf said. “I woke up thinking, ‘There’s got to be a way to be more efficient — that I could handle more than my two or three classes if I could some how be more efficient.'”

Waldorf realized changing the way a class is taught could change how often classes were offered, he said.

“I was thinking, ‘Is there a way I could teach five or six classes?’ Or, instead of a certain class only offered once a year, maybe now we could offer it three times a year; wouldn’t that change the way students have to deal with how they get classes,” Waldorf said.

Waldorf realized recording lectures would be the key to this effectiveness, he said.

Aside from minor updates, Waldorf’s class lectures were essentially the same from quarter-to-quarter. Capturing these lectures and using them in the future meant preparation time for lectures would be less, and therefore, there would be more hours for meeting with students.

“I didn’t want to reduce the face-to-face time,” Waldorf said. “That aspect is good for the student-faculty relationships. However, too much of that face time is wasted on this one-directional lecturing. Students sit there and listen and faculty talk. That could be better recorded on video.”

Waldorf’s idea that night is now a reality within the department. In classes that follow this structure, students are required to view four to six short lecture videos a week, which usually run 10 to 15 minutes in length.

The segmented, digestible chunks are designed to be taken at the students’ pace as a way to improve their engagement and learning efficiency.

“Students can watch the lecture while eating breakfast or late at night,” Waldorf said. “They can watch it twice, or if they are already familiar with a certain part, they can skip through it. These videos let them be in charge of what content they receive.”

Professors use interactive lecture videos that usually feature the professor talking as they would in a classroom setting. The ability to pause, rewind and fast forward allow the students to remain engaged in the material, Waldorf said.

“My videos are on my classes’ YouTube channel,” Schlemer said. “On the video I move the mouse around to show what I’m talking about, or I write down equations on the screen.”

But the lecture doesn’t end there. After the assigned videos are viewed, students are required to fill out and submit a small quiz. The short, graded assignments serve as incentives to keep students current in the material, Schlemer said.

Although students are given the freedom to view the material on their own time, the fast-paced advancement of the curriculum and the peer-based learning environment encourages students to watch the videos and do the assessment quizzes before they come to class, Schlemer said.

Industrial engineering graduate student Stephen Gilmore said he recognizes that in order to get the most out of the time in the classroom, students must prepare at home.

“To keep up in class, you have to follow along at home,” Gilmore said. “You can get by not doing it once or twice, but it is tough keeping up because you will have no idea what’s going on.”

The value of the inside-out course is seen during classroom time, Waldorf said. The formal lecture setting is transformed into a collaborative working environment where students work together and with the instructor to complete problem sets and homework.

The group setting helps students learn the material in more ways than one. Collaborating in a group not only helps students apply the lecture segments to their homework, but Gilmore said teaching one another helps students understand the material better.

“With teaching in general, you have to know it in order to teach it,” Gilmore said. “Teaching someone helps it to really stick in your brain.”

Learning aside, the collaborative environment also works to prepare students for the working environment they will experience once they step into the engineering field, Waldorf said.

“In the real engineering world, few people are tasked with solving problems alone. In engineering, you are really expected to work in groups,” Waldorf said. “Companies really appreciate the value of a diverse group and how they solve problems, and that mimics what we are trying to do with this class.”

Although the inside-out structure is still in its adolescent years in the department, faculty members feel like this is just the beginning.

“There is no question that this is going to be the future of education,” Waldorf said. “The technology is there now. The time is right. The time is ripe. What woke me up was that in five or 10 years, you will be behind if you don’t embrace change.”


Deb says:

So, an old fashioned lecture is, say 150 minutes a week if it is a 3 credit class. The old expectation was that students would then spend at least twice that amount of time outside of class preparing and doing homework. So they, in theory at least, would spend 150 minutes a week listening to a lecture and at least 300 minutes outside of class digesting the material for a total of 450 minutes at a minimum.

The inside out classroom has students listen to four to six short lecture videos a week, which usually run 10 to 15 minutes in length, which means that they are getting 40 to 90 minutes of lecture material per week and they spend 150 minutes digesting it in class. This means that the expectation of the student is that they will spend at most (not counting re-viewing time and short quiz time) 240 minutes per week compared to the old fashioned 450 minutes.

I suppose we must somehow adapt to the student’s reduced attention spans, but 10 – 15 minutes? Really? For a college student?

Will they ever have a problem to work that might take more than an hour to solve?

Steve says:


Most engineering classes are 4 units and many have 3 hour labs in addition to 3 hours of class a week. In a normal 50 minute class, how much of that time do you think the teacher uses teaching new material, and how much of that do you think they use explaining old material or answering questions? These are not 300 person lecture classes, but 20-30 person engineering courses. There is quite a bit of review in most classes. 40-90 minutes of pure lecture would feel to be the norm for most classes.

Teachers in our department are underfunded, overworked yet still working as hard as they can to better serve their students. As a graduate of this department I am very excited they are using this style of teaching. The practice of “flipping classrooms” has been proven to be a better use of student and teacher time. Article here- http://tinyurl.com/66bdt4r

When students are at home and have questions on HW, they have to ask a friend/classmate/internet or wait for office hours. By coming into class with a basic understanding of the material, class time can be used to dive into problems.

And I have no idea what your degree is in, but a problem more than an hour long? We do have 3 hour labs and quarter long group projects, but a single HW problem that would take more than an hour is ABSURD.

Steve Sharer
IE Class of 2010