Flipping Your Class

At the 2nd Annual Johns Hopkins University Symposium on Excellence in Teaching and Learning in the Sciences, we heard a lot about flipping the classroom.

From lecture hall to interactive learning - two images with arrow connecting.

The term, flipped classroom, might bring to mind an anti-gravity experiment, but it actually refers to a different way of thinking about teaching and learning. In a traditional pedagogical model, a faculty member is a “sage on the stage,” lecturing to students (who are frantically taking notes in an effort to capture all of the professor’s pearls of wisdom).  Assignments – readings, problem sets, projects, papers – are all done outside of class, often with little or no direct guidance from faculty.

In the flipped classroom (also called the inverted classroom), the process is turned around. Instead of doing problem-based homework outside of class and coming to class to hear the professor lecture, the student watches a version of the lecture content online, and comes to class to work on problems in an interactive, collaborative setting. The faculty member becomes a “guide on the side” or a coach, perhaps injecting a mini-lecture when needed to help students struggling with a common problem.  The focus shifts from teaching to learning.

This is not an “either/or” or an “instead of” situation. Students view the online content at their convenience, do the assigned readings, AND come to class.  They must come to class because that’s where the active learning will happen, where they are going to work on problems individually or in groups, and perhaps most importantly, where they will develop skills that will enable them to be life-long learners, not only in the discipline that you teach, but in any subject. Some professors choose to insert quick (graded) quizzes at the start of the flipped class as a further inducement to attendance.

Two high school teachers, Aaron Sams and Jonathan Bergmann, are credited with developing the model for the flipped classroom in 2007. Sams was awarded the 2009 Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching, and he and his colleague have written extensively about this model and its evolution. See the blog post The Flipped Class: Shedding Light on the Confusion, Critique, and Hype; an article available as a PDF for JHU affiliates, Before You Flip, Consider This; and their book, Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class Every Day.

One quote from the blog post describes the classroom scene and is particularly compelling:

As we roam around the class, we notice the students developing their own collaborative groups.  Students are helping each other learn instead of relying on the teacher as the sole disseminator of knowledge.

One of the greatest benefits of flipping is that overall interaction increases: teacher to student and student to student.  Since the role of the teacher has changed from presenter of content to learning coach, we spend our time talking to kids.  We are answering questions, working with small groups, and guiding the learning of each student individually.

When students are working on an assignment and we notice a group of students who are struggling with the same thing, we automatically organize the students into a tutorial group.  We often conduct mini-lectures with groups of students who are struggling with the same content. The beauty of these mini-lectures is we are delivering “just in time” instruction when the students are ready for learning.

Changing the focus in the classroom from the faculty teaching to the students actively learning may prove to be challenging to the instructor used to actively teaching. Terry Doyle, a professor and author of two books on learner centered teaching, tells us, “It’s the one who does the work who does the learning.” [Helping Students Learn in a Learner Center Environment: A Guide to Teaching in Higher Education, Stylus, 2008, p. 25].

Robert Talbert, who teaches mathematics at Grand Valley State University in Michigan and writes for The Chronicle of Higher Education, has posted about his experiences with flipping his classroom on his blog, Casting Out Nines. His posts speak honestly about his experiences including receiving pushback from some students. One of his recent pieces, We Need to Produce Learners, Not Just Students, looks at the concept of producing life-long learners mentioned above.

On the practical side, there are DIY guides. Julie Schell, a post-doc working with Eric Mazur – the Harvard University physics professor who developed Peer Instruction, a research-based, interactive teaching method – has created a Quick Start Guide to Flipping your Classroom with Peer Instruction. Closer to home, JHU Associate Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Michael Falk, has been flipping his classroom since 2010. In an article for the Innovative Instructor Pedagogy Forum entitled Lectures on Demand, he outlines the technology solutions he has used to produce the video content.

Faculty writing about the applied components of the flipped classroom agree that using shorter, topic-focused videos for the out of class content is more effective than video-taping their traditional 50 minute (or longer) lectures. As was discussed in our post on micro-lectures, students’ attention begins to wander after 10 minutes. Professor Falk notes in his article that creating the online content requires thought and up-front time, but pays off later, as this content can be reused in subsequent offerings of the course. Faculty can use video-recordings of themselves explaining key concepts or problems, borrow from Khan Academy or similar materials available on YouTube educational channels, offer animations or other didactic resources.

Faculty who have made the flip are enthusiastic about the benefits for their students. After the discussions at the GSI Symposium, we hope to see more flipping at JHU.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Microsoft clip art edited by Macie Hall