The Backwards Classroom

Stacey Roshan teaches math to students at Bullis School.

The Backwards Classroom

At Bullis School, some math students do homework in class.

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Bullis School teacher Stacey Roshan worried that her Advanced Placement calculus students were getting too anxious trying to master all the material for the fast-paced course.

“They felt terrible and I felt terrible about it,” she says.

Since stressing out over schoolwork is not part of the educational philosophy at the Potomac private school, Roshan decided she needed to come up with a way to help her 10 juniors and seniors learn more effectively.

So she turned to technology. While trying out screen recording and video editing software, she hit upon an idea: Why not videotape her lectures so that her students could watch them at home?

The idea blossomed into what Roshan, 28, refers to as her “backwards” classroom: Students are assigned lectures to watch at home and then spend class time doing homework with Roshan available to help when needed.

What a radical idea.

Instead of lecturing students who may or may not be absorbing the material, Roshan talks to her computer instead. Students then download her recorded lectures from her class Web page or iTunes, and watch them as many times as needed, pausing to jot notes and questions on a hardcopy PowerPoint that Roshan provides.

When they come to class, Roshan has plenty of time to answer questions while students work on what would normally be homework problems.

It’s a system that’s working for Roshan and her students.

The new format has “definitely cut down” on the amount of time that students are coming in for extra help, Roshan says. And students are “doing better on tests and quizzes” this year.

Junior Julia Brady is a big fan. “I really, really like it,” she says. “It helps me a lot to hear her lectures over and over again.”

Roshan’s not sure the idea would work with all of her math classes. After all, students must take on the responsibility of watching the lectures at home, something she knows that her AP students are mature and motivated enough to handle.

That’s exactly why the video lectures appeal to senior Daniel Gray. “It forces you to try to figure out as much as you can on your own. We’re taking ownership of our learning,” he says. “This class is much more like what I have heard that college is like.”

And Gray likes that the format reduces his nightly homework load. Another plus? Students can stop the video and rewatch anything that they didn’t catch the first time, something that doesn’t happen in a fast-paced class.

“Listening to the video is easier for me,” Gray says. “I have the ability to go back, which I wouldn’t in class.”

While watching a lecture video might not appeal to all, Roshan’s obvious passion for math and engaging manner can’t help but hold students’ interest.

Her mother, a math teacher at The Madeira School in McLean, helped instill that passion. “My mom is the one who taught me math growing up,” says Roshan, a graduate of the science, math and computer science magnet program at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring. “I always had a math book with me in the summer.”

So, can Roshan’s backwards classroom serve as a model for a better way to teach math?

It certainly seems to have potential. I can’t count the times my middle schooler has sat at the kitchen struggling over algebra or geometry homework because she hadn’t understood part of a class lesson and there wasn’t time to ask questions.

But there are some issues, including those of personal responsibility and of access to technology. Kids who don’t attend private school may not have the technology available to watch the lectures at home. And what about larger class sizes? Would Roshan be able to help her students as much if her class were double its current size?

Still, the backwards classroom may be an idea whose time has come for our tech-savvy kids. Who wants to give it a try?

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