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01-25-23-classroom-ipek-obek

Columnist Jack Lakis comments on Penn’s SAIL initiative. 

Credit: Ipek Obek

Last semester, I took a class called Introduction to Formal Linguistics (LING 0500) solely for the purpose of fulfilling my Formal Reasoning and Analysis requirement of the College of Arts and Sciences curriculum’s Foundational Approaches. Unbeknownst to me when registering, this course was taught entirely through online videos, rather than in-class lectures. During class time, we would then complete practice exercises in a group setting with our professor available for questions.

At first, I thought this class structure was indicative of changes made during the COVID-19 pandemic that had a lasting effect. Maybe the professor filmed lecture videos for asynchronous class sessions and simply felt like keeping the course in this layout. That was not the case. Rather, LING 0500 was really part of a broader trend at Penn: the Structured, Active, In-class Learning (SAIL) Initiative. The stated goal of the SAIL method is for students to engage with “the most difficult part of learning for students” while they have access to “guidance from instructors.”

Theoretically, it sounds very appealing. But in practice, I wasn’t quite convinced. The class struggled to stimulate my interests and, at times, felt structurally inept. After completing the course, I can conclude that I deeply resented each of my mornings spent watching a video lecture.

Penn has been a pioneer of flipped classroom learning, even as it continues to draw criticism from students. Many introductory math courses and other STEM-focused departments rely heavily on SAIL strategies. Ironically, a study on flipped classrooms by the Brookings Institution noted that they are least helpful for these subjects.

My course also used online quizzes, which were to be taken after watching video lectures. This meant that we were assessed on course content before ever having the opportunity to ask questions in person. The same Brookings study from earlier noted that “using pre-class quizzes” actually “produced lower academic gains” in flipped classroom environments. Alongside other examples, this solidifies that Penn is not executing the SAIL method very well. 

Yet, the entirety of the SAIL method’s success depends on how well it’s executed. Some instructors will significantly underperform in a SAIL setting than others. Because of this, I see our University’s use of flipped classrooms as an unnecessary risk, where only very specific subjects and professors apply the method effectively.

The SAIL method’s over-reliance on group work also missed the mark for me. In my class, it was usually one or two group members who led all of the activities and left others behind. There was little effort to enforce that students worked together. In fact, it’s not hard to realize that a shy member of the class might seldom ask questions in front of their classmates. This incongruence meant that the flipped classroom model didn’t help all of its students evenly and prioritized those who spoke up over those who didn’t.

Students struggling with class assignments would be more easily assisted by the personalized help provided by a professor’s office hours. All Penn instructors are required to provide time dedicated to helping their students. In my experience, these interactions are much more helpful than those of a 50-person class attempting to rely on the help of their instructor. It simply doesn’t make sense to put forth so much effort into planning and helping during class, when instructors could just use class time to instruct. While SAIL classes also have office hours available for students, traditionally taught courses prioritize that time for helping students and use synchronous time for lectures.

Here, we find that the SAIL initiative requires immense planning and precise execution to meet the level of efficacy that Penn has assigned it. According to many of its students, our school has completely failed to meet its own expectations for SAIL instruction. Additionally, it is a massive time commitment for both students and instructors to produce and consume all of the course material outside of class time. At Penn, we don’t need more reasons to be stressed out. 

In short, the SAIL method is an unnecessary evil for students. It’s just not worth putting up with when it doesn’t provide the intended benefits. For now, I would challenge Penn to move away from flipped classrooms until our methodology can be more effective.

JACK LAKIS is a College sophomore studying political science and communications from Kennesaw, Ga. His email is jlakis@sas.upenn.edu.