Ohio Dominican University: Dr. Anna Davis and the One Room Schoolhouse

For many smaller colleges and universities, a well-known challenge has been finding a way to offer upper-level courses every semester even when enrollment is low. In order to remedy this problem at no extra cost to the institution, an associate professor at Ohio Dominican University developed a modernized version of the One Room Schoolhouse. Dr. Anna Davis has pioneered the ORS method of combining flipped classroom material with face-to-face instruction in a classroom shared by students from multiple courses.

Several years ago, Dr. Anna Davis was asked to investigate the use of video recordings as a viable alternative for students who had missed class. One of her earliest notes was along the line of how incredibly boring it sounded to watch a video recorded lecture, especially one that spanned an entire class period. She immediately decided that by eschewing the 50-minute videos in favor of splitting lectures into “easily digestible chunks” she increased the likelihood of maintaining a student’s interest and concentration.

She was also troubled by not fully serving the students who needed certain classes at certain times in order to graduate on time. She recognized that students had to “live on our schedules,” so she wanted to turn that around and make it work on their schedules. This is how the ORS method was born. So far, Davis herself has prepared most of the video lessons-in a library of over 300 videos.

Putting the ORS in Practice

As explained on their website, the One-Room Schoolhouse “is the name we gave our experimental practice of combining multiple low enrollment classes in the same classroom with the same instructor.

ORS is made possible by flipping the classroom.” Though flipping the classroom is becoming more and more common in classrooms across the nation, there are different approaches and ratios of in-class/ technology-based instruction.

For Ohio Dominican University, they use the flipped classroom to share short, focused lessons of only a few minutes at a time. Students watch those lessons on their own time and come to class prepared to move forward, using class time in a more focused and personal way to help engage with the material covered in the video lesson. Class time is then spent on meaningful interactions between instructors and their students and real-time problem solving, rather than sitting quietly while an instructor lectures on material.

Ideally, Davis wants others to engage with this method so colleagues, both within and beyond one university’s walls, can start sharing resources. That way, students are not the only ones collaborating and learning together, but their faculty mentors are showing that same spirit of collaboration and camaraderie. Developing a common database of short, focused video lectures would offer students a chance to learn from professors at institutions across the country.

Creating Pedagogical Materials for ORS Method

In creating their own materials, project coordinators were guided by the philosophy that students must read mathematics if they are to write good mathematics, which made the text component an essential part of any course. Yet, the videos supplement the written materials, so the text does not hold the entire burden for explanation.

They note, “The text should be rigorous and concise. The video is there to go behind the scenes of a concise write-up and to offer visual and conceptual insights. The video examines the thought process that goes into writing a proof. Text and videos should not be redundant of each other. They should complement each other.”

Though many teachers are doing video, Davis is writing “the whole multimedia bundle: text + video.” She designed the texts specifically for the flipped classroom.

A Swiss Army Knife of Schools

Dr. Theresa Holleran, Vice President for Academic Affairs at Ohio Dominican University, notes that Davis’s One Room Schoolhouse offers them the ability to offer students additional options when planning schedules while also allowing ODU’s Mathematics department to “plan future course offerings with more certainty.” Holleran adds that One Room Schoolhouse gives ODU students a chance to work more closely with their professors and develop relationships that offer students more chance for success. Mathematics majors also have a chance to complete their major in a shorter timeline, which means time to add an additional major or minor-or even graduate early.

Holleran notes, “Our students first read and watch the course content outside of the classroom. This gives them the ability to examine the material critically before seeking clarification from their professor. This allows for more focused dialogue when addressing students’ individual questions. Professors are also able to pace their instruction based on each student’s ability to grasp the subject matter.”

Associate Professor Dr. Timothy Walker is one of Davis’s ODU colleagues in the Division of Math, Computer and Natural Sciences.

Walker, who has worked closely with Davis for many years, believes Davis-more than any other faculty he has worked with-has a “fundamental drive to work creatively.”

Walker notes that Davis is “never satisfied with status quo pedagogy” and thus is always pushing boundaries. Though they came from fairly disparate disciplines, he adds that he and Davis tend to approach problems in a similar way-that is, to bring a practical context to all pedagogical efforts.

As a faculty member at a smaller college devoted to giving students everything they need, Walker adds their department has to be a “Swiss Army Knife” of sorts, prepared to teach a variety of subjects to students with varied interests and goals. He also believes professors who choose to focus on the practicalities and immediate benefits to students-as opposed to dwelling in more abstract scholarly thought-can be rare, especially in Davis’s discipline. “For her, it’s always about the students,” Walker adds. “It’s who she is.”

Student Feedback on ORS Classes

Beginning fall semester of 2012, Ohio Dominican University used the OSR method for 12 students, four in Foundations of Mathematics and eight in Elementary Topology. The next semester, they served ten students, 2 in Foundations of Mathematics and eight in Geometry.

The following year, they worked with another seventeen students, again in Foundations and Geometry. In 2014, they served nearly 30 students in Foundations, Geometry, and Abstract Algebra.

Responding to an anonymous survey, students ranked their experiences with the ORS method in overwhelmingly positive ways. They shared how much they enjoyed the environment and the collaborative work with their classmates, while still benefitting from having their instructor assist in offering guidance and answering questions. Students also reported enjoying the class materials and the combination of short videos with text.

They reported watching all of the videos and reading most of the text, which was really a bare bones version of the material. By using a “digital/paper workbook with embedded links and spaces for students to take notes in,” Davis avoided the pitfalls of using a traditional textbook, which would not work well for the nature of an ORS course.

Students also felt a sense of community by interacting with students from other levels and students with varied abilities. They also saw the interconnected nature of the course materials, when they would be working alongside students who were applying this year’s skills to next year’s problems.

Of course, students were very appreciative that their own scheduling needs were a driving factor in the experiment, as this lessens the stress for finishing required courses in order to graduate on time. Additionally, they are benefiting from having the professor focused on their individual questions and concerns, as their instructors are now focused on providing students with constant feedback rather than preparing general lectures or addressing the class as a whole.

Students Becoming Teachers

Davis also worked closely with two of her students one summer to further develop the plans, and she notes, “Students really bought into the idea.” After starting with some upper-level math courses for math majors, focused on very few students at a time, Davis soon felt ready to try a larger class with a mixture of majors. Certainly, one challenge has been in guiding students through this process. She adds that the first classes might introduce concepts that initially seem “really, really weird,” but students quickly adapted to the changes and recognized the benefits.

Alex Nikias, an ODU graduate who now teaches at Cincinnati’s St. Xavier High School, found the one room method to be very effective. Nikias shares, “Common fears regarding this model are that the class atmosphere would be chaotic and that the teacher would not be able to manage each class. In my experience, these fears couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Nikias recalls that he enjoyed a classroom dynamic that brought math foundations, geometry, and topology together in one room. He adds that students are unlikely to notice the work going on around them, unless there was a benefit to reaching outside of that circle. For instance, he shares that sometimes “things would align so that the foundations of math group was working on a proof that we were using or expanding upon in topology.”

As a budding scholar himself, Nikias appreciated the connections he saw going on Spotlight continued between students and between various coursework. He adds, “Even the younger students saw that what they were doing would be used later on in future classes.” In addition to students seeing what their future classes would demand of them, they also had a chance to learn collaboratively from one another, along with the comfort of having an expert in the room with them and knowing they could call on Davis for help when problems would arise.

2014 Ohio Dominican University graduate Gillian Roth currently teaches math at the eSTEM academy in Reynoldsburg. Having worked with Davis for four years at ODU, Roth had an opportunity to experience Davis’s teaching in traditional ways-such as direct instruction in upper level math courses-but also in exciting and innovative classroom models. Roth recalls that when she and her classmates constantly requested Davis each semester, Davis would remind them, “You guys are majoring in math, not Anna Davis.”

For her last two years at Ohio Dominican University, Roth experienced the “flipped classroom” for most of her classes. She shares, “Having a part time job, being on the basketball team, and any other daily demands often made it hard for me to focus on my classes all day. By having a flipped classroom, I could watch the tlight continued lesson and learn the material whenever, and however many times I wanted, which was very convenient.”

In addition to re-watching parts of some lessons repeatedly-which Roth utilized to prepare for tests-she also found the flipped classroom to be incredibly efficient. She explains that Davis created videos that succinctly covered important points, rather than offering longer videos that were less effective.

Roth adds, “It was also very efficient that we covered the topics on our own time. In class we had a group of six that worked together on a problem set at our own pace. When a student and I had to work at a slower pace, we were able to work one on one with Dr. Davis. By using the flipped method, we were able to practice and apply more, go deeper into material, and at the same time work at our own pace.

Advantages and Disadvantage of ORS

Perhaps the most clear advantage of ORS is that smaller institutions have the ability to offer a variety of courses on a regular basis, even when enrollment is low. Students aren’t forced to “sit out” a semester and hope the classes they need will be offered in time.

However, with this practical perk aside, there are distinct pedagogical advantages to this method of teaching, if the instructors take advantage of the opportunities to use class time in ways more conducive to learning than passively listening to a lecture.

Of course, the benefits from this innovative teaching method can also be a presumed disadvantage. Instructors new to a flipped format may find the method challenging at first. Classroom lecture is also incompatible with this pedagogical approach, so if lecture was the primary method for instruction, an instructor would need to radically reimagine his or her role in the classroom.

The Practicalities of ORS

During the early implementation stage at ODU, the average faculty to student ratio in any ORS classroom was 11:1, and they recommend the maximum number of students not exceed 16-20 for obvious reasons. They also had the opportunity to determine which courses might best be combined within one classroom.

They learned that the ideal combinations of courses involved a mid-level prerequisite as well as an upper-level course that requires that same prerequisite. Not only does that planning bring students from the same major together in study, but you avoid the risk of a student wanting to take both classes simultaneously.

Furthermore, though they have been focused strictly on mathematics courses for their own purposes of this experiment, they see no reason to believe this model would not work well in business, natural sciences, computer science, or for a variety of courses and disciplines.

Another practical concern, of course, was making sure students did their work outside of class. The project coordinators at ODU felt fortunate because their students are highly motivated, requiring little outside encouragement to keep up with their obligations outside of the classroom. Yet, they know not all instructors are as lucky.

If professors were dealing with less motivated types, coordinators recommend that students be required to note-take while watching videos, and for their instructors to spot-check those notes on occasion to be sure students are doing their part. They also suggest electronic quizzes that students would finish after watching each video but before the next c

About the Author
Rachel James Clevenger earned her B.A. and M.Ed. degrees from Mississippi College. After finishing her PhD in Composition and Rhetoric, she taught and served as the University Writing Center Director for Birmingham Southern College and University of Alabama at Birmingham. Most recently, she taught Business Communications at Samford University.