the flipped classroom

The Chronicle recently published an article about the pros and cons of the “flipped classroom.” Here is a description of the basic concept:

As its name suggests, flipping describes the inversion of expectations in the traditional college lecture. It takes many forms, including interactive engagement, just-in-time teaching (in which students respond to Web-based questions before class, and the professor uses this feedback to inform his or her teaching), and peer instruction.

But the techniques all share the same underlying imperative: Students cannot passively receive material in class, which is one reason some students dislike flipping. Instead they gather the information largely outside of class, by reading, watching recorded lectures, or listening to podcasts.

And when they are in class, students do what is typically thought to be homework, solving problems with their professors or peers, and applying what they learn to new contexts. They continue this process on their own outside class.

The immediacy of teaching in this way enables students’ misconceptions to be corrected well before they emerge on a midterm or final exam. The result, according to a growing body of research, is more learning.

I tried a flipped classroom two years ago. In an operations research, math, or engineering course, flipping can entail giving the lecture outside of class (using slidecasts) and then working problems in class. Thus, this post is part of my teaching with technology series.

When I flipped, I  started with a traditional lecture for two weeks, then flipped for 3 weeks. After 5 weeks, I let the students decide how to proceed. They voted for a mini-lecture at the beginning of class followed by working problems for the rest of class. I agree with the article: justifying the motivation to flip up front made a huge difference. Students may not want to change, but they are motivated by the promise of doing better on exams and in the course, so they were willing to give flipping a try. I find that students don’t complain if I reiterate the benefits from their perspective–but they still may not the changes. It’s easier to be passive in class.

The upside of the approach is more learning for the students. Some of the students only worked with their friends in class. Others made new friends, which then helped them do better on homework assignments.

The upside for the professor is knowing exactly what parts of the problem are hard for students and being immediately able to address problems.

The down side is lower student evaluations. According to the Chronicle article,

The average score on a student evaluation of a flipped course is about half what the same professor gets when using the traditional lecture, she says. “When the students are feeling really bad about required courses, it doesn’t seem like a good thing.”

Mine were lower than expected, but they weren’t that low. I busted a few cheaters in a small class that semester (I talked to 3 of 15 students face to face and made an announcement that implicated others). My teaching evaluations probably reflected their anger at me more than the flipped lecture. Still, the evaluations are a good time for students to gripe about whatever didn’t match their expectations.

There are other downsides.

Another big downside with almost all teaching with technology tools is that most of the work has to be done up front. With the traditional lecture, the professor can wing it, finishing lectures a minute before class. Not any more with the flipped classroom. Lectures need to be prepared, delivered, and recorded well before class. The slides need to be available for the students to review in class. In class examples need to be well-prepared to discuss when student questions arise in class (students have a lot more questions when they are working problems than when they are snoozing through a lecture). This is a huge challenge for research active faculty members. Traveling to conference, publishing, and working on proposals makes it hard for me to carve away time before every class. I notice that I have been spending an increasing amount of time prepping for the first day of class before the semester starts (starting a BlackBoard page, uploading documents, etc.) It is getting almost unbearable. With my research demands, I have been fantasizing about giving old school lectures and not maintaining BlackBoard sites.

Another downside is giving more power to the students in class. The results are dependent on the personalities in class. My flipping experience was a success because I had a few highly motivated students with strong personalities. They urged all of the students to buckle down and work on problems during class. I have found it much harder to work problems in other classes. I didn’t get the evaluations that I hoped for, but the learning and satisfaction in class was tangible. I have had a lot of trouble getting other classes to work on group problems in class.

I teach classes in computer labs, and it often is more than 80 degrees in my classrooms. It is really hard to do a flipped classroom due to the lack of collaborative desks and hot temperatures. Given that universities have built classrooms for lecturing and computer usage, I wonder if the desks no longer promote collaboration. Infrastructure is important! However, we rarely start discussions about infrastructure when it comes to teaching. I’ve mainly taught in computer labs like this. I’ve sometimes taught in old school lecture halls like this or in rooms with large immovable desks like this. All of these types of classrooms provide challenges. What is the best way to teach given the infrastructure at hand?

I am not an expert when it comes to education. For whatever it’s worth, I enjoyed the flipped classroom, but I wasn’t in love with it. It’s kinda like asking students to eat their vegetables (they won’t “like” it, even though it’s good for them) and it can be challenging with the classroom setup. I am more comfortable with a half-lecture, half-facilitation approach where I coach students through problems.




12 responses to “the flipped classroom

  • Paul A. Rubin (@parubin)

    Interesting timing: I was just discussing “flipping” with a colleague last week (she was doing a poster session on it at a tech fair). Your point about evaluations is interesting, and I wouldn’t write it off to just the cheating incident. When students write evaluations, I don’t think they’re particularly conscious of effort you put into prepping the class. What registers is how interesting and how clear your lectures are, whether you invite questions and answer in a way they find helpful … in short, things that they perceive as directly assisting learning. In a flipped class, those are replace largely with peer- and self-learning (give or take how many questions you answer in class), and the canned lectures are likely not to generate as strong a reaction as live lectures would. (How often do students rhapsodize over the wonders of a text book?)

    The instructor in a flipped class may be a bit like the home plate umpire in baseball: invisible when they’re doing their job well, Satan’s offspring when they’re not.

  • Tallys Yunes

    Very interesting idea. It was helpful to hear about your own experience with it. I think having videos about challenging topics is a good idea in general (so that students can watch them over and over at their own pace at home). I plan on making some videos myself as soon as I have a bit more time in my hands.

  • Betty Love

    I’m flipping one section of a linear algebra class right now while teaching a second section the traditional way (lecture, but with plenty of Q&A). My biggest challenge is getting the students in the flipped class to actually prepare before coming to class (their options are to simply study the section(s) in the text or my presentation slides or watch my screencasts for each section)! Many have been conditioned over the years to happily show up for class, not having a clue what today’s topic is, and be passively fed information. Moving away from that mindset is a huge challenge.

    I too have found that as the semester goes by, I start spending just a little more time every class lecturing in order to make sure that students know what they need to before starting to work on problems. I don’t like that because it reinforces not preparing. However, I agree that a mix of both might be the best solution. On the bright side, many students love working on problems during class and comment that class time just flies by.

    Overall, at this point in the semester (end not yet in sight), I find that I also long for the old days of just showing up in class and talking!

  • Jeroen Nieboer (@jeroen_nieboer)

    What you describe as ‘flipping’ seems to have a lot in common with Problem Based Learning (, a learning method I experienced during the whole of my undergraduate degree. It seems that you’re facing a couple of challenges here that the PBL method is quite good at avoiding:
    * If you are the only lecturer using a flipped approach, students will resist preparation on the basis that none of the other courses require this level of preparation – the ‘conditioned passivity’ argument mentioned above. Building more lecturer-student interaction into the curriculum as a whole might go a long way in combating the passivity.
    * If students are not evaluated on their effort in class, but only promised that the pay-off will come in the form of higher exam scores (all carrot and no stick), they might still not prepare. Giving students a leading role in the discussion might allow you to get around this and avoid having to call them out on their laziness.

    So the evaluations were lower – how about the exam scores?

  • Laura McLay

    Thank you for your comment, Jeroen. Excellent comments, indeed. I am familiar with PBL but have never seen it in action first-hand. I resisted PBL since it seemed so restrictive for me (the instructor!) But I knew to sell the new teaching style to avoid resistance.

    I had the students present the results of their in-class activities. They wanted to look smart in front of their peers, so they worked hard on their problems in class. I forgot to mention that. While no one else flips or uses PBL in the department, my colleagues aren’t pure lecturers either, which is helpful for those who wish to experiment.

    Some students clearly did not watch my lectures ahead of time. Others asked me about the sound quality in the slidecasts, so I know that they were at least watched by the top students.

    The top three students I have ever had in this course were in the semester when I flipped (I am teaching this course for the fifth time now). It did seem to help with exam scores.

  • David

    I think (as you, and several of your commenters have alluded to) that any approach to education has to be balanced. There’s definitely something to be said for peer-based learning (whether that’s “flipping” or “problem-based learning” or whatever you want to call it). It’s crucially important for students to learn how to interact with each other. These kinds of teaching methods also encourage critical thinking, of which there is a dearth in our education system right now.

    At the same time, I don’t think you can entirely replace lecture-based teaching with this method. Having someone more experienced than you stand in front of you and tell you how things go down is enormously beneficial to learning; you’re able to cover a lot more material that way, because the students aren’t muddling through on their own. Plus, some people do actually learn better that way.

    I guess the bottom line is that it’s a balance. Where exactly that balance is depends on the students, the teacher, the classroom, the subject being taught… it’s like a giant optimization problem!

  • Rick

    While I’ve not read the Chronicle article, it seems that “flipping” is a new name for a teaching method that has been around for a long time (e.g. at St John’s College in Annapolis since the1930’s.)
    While they have some experience with this technique in basic mathematics and science, using it for OR or advanced science is perhaps an innovation.

  • Rick

    Another, perhaps more relevant, example of the age of the underlying idea:
    When I was a grad student in mathematics, back in the ’70’s, there were rumors of a professor of mathematics at the University of Texas who taught topology using an unusual technique known as the Moore method (because his name was Moore.) I say ‘rumors’ because all I know is word of mouth.
    The Moore method did not rely on lectures by the professor. Instead, the professor would ask his students to demonstrate, in class, the various propositions. The overall result was that the students in his classes were exposed to fewer ideas, but knew those ideas better, than students in a standard lecture class.
    I imagine (but do not know) that such a technique was documented and analyzed in the mathematical journals of the time. If someone has access to an index of, say, the American Mathematical Monthly, it may be possible to describe better the ‘Moore’ method.
    It certainly sounds like ‘flipping’ the classroom.

  • Paul A. Rubin (@parubin)

    One of my profs in grad school (mid- to late-70s) also used what he called the “Moore” method (students proving theorems at the blackboard). He also lectured, though. One difference to today’s flipped class is that we didn’t work in groups; one student toiled at the board while the rest of us caught up on sleep.

  • Sanjay Saigal

    Since I’m now teaching as a primary activity (business executives in Delhi, and this summer, professional MBA students here in Silicon Valley), I’m usually on the prowl for discoveries in high-retention learning. I recently came across a paper in Science by a couple of UBC professors on active learning, which has aspects in common with ‘flipped learning’. The paper itself is behind a paywall (as is the Chronicle paper upon which your post is built), however it is covered on this blog:

    I’ve found that teaching execs (usually in their 30s and 40s) is a little difference from teaching the typical university class (folks in their 20s). In particular, with execs there is zero emphasis on homework, quizzes, and the like. Getting execs to do prep readings is also a challenge. Conversely, lively discussion, different sorts of positive feedback mechanisms, and competitive games are a little important than in the university classroom.

    I’ve had the chance to see in action a couple of (what I can only label) master exec ed teachers in my institute in Delhi. For instance, a key learning from their success at exec ed is that laser beam (embroidering one Big Idea) beats string of pearls (introducing multiple ‘equally important’ topics).

    How active learning (or ‘flipping’) can be applied in that situation, I’m think trying to work out.

  • Laura McLay

    Betty love shared a link about the flipped classroom on twitter that needs to be added to the discussion.

  • John Booske

    fundamentally, the issue is not “flipped” or not “flipped”. The instructional method should be understood to be means to an end. The best course designs (like any purposeful design effort) should start with the outcome objectives (learning outcomes in this case) and then design the instructional approach and course organization backwards. Similarly, select instructional methods based upon the scientifically settled understanding of how human learning actually happens. This field really does deserve the respect of being labelled a science and not “art” or “up to the intuition of individual instructors.” There are many excellent places to start, but my current favorite is “Make it Stick: the Science of Successful Learning” by Brown, Roediger and McDaniel. It’s written in a down to earth voice for learners. It boils down to several very basic principles that are unequivocal. Not debate-able. They are based upon the neurobiology of what is happening in the brain for EVERY learner. In these basic aspects, it is not true that some learn better one way and others another way. I hate to say it but although the lecture can be convenient as a way to transfer/introduce content, it’s true learning value is for the lecturer, not the listeners. The students don’t really start learning until they are doing something with the information as opposed to being told (or reading) how to do it. But…flipping can wait if you’re not ready for it. Instead try evolving, as Laura advocates (thank you!)…with lecture interspersed with think, pair, share, or reflective moments, or clicker votes/surveys of the main point, etc. For myself, I’ve had no problem getting large sections of students to do the assigned activities at the assigned times in flipped classrooms…but then I give low-stakes credit/grading to everything I want them to do, and put it on a timed window of availability through my course management system (and I got here after 10 years of experimentation). I don’t care that much that my evaluations went down some. I did some controlled (as best as possible) studies of the before and after and found definite improvement in the performance mastery of the students. That is enough for me. I believe that a significant fraction of the reason for improvement is that this flipped, controlled schedule approach “enforces” generally good learning methods onto the students. These are typically sophomores in this particular class. They are late stage teenagers where their brains are still rewiring and some days they make good time decisions and others they don’t. And NONE of them have received formal instruction in best study methods, even though the same science as quoted above has demonstrated what works. . Some have figured it out by trial and error and others not yet. My flipped class is probably ensuring that everyone is simply applying the best study methods. My structured flipped course probably tends to level the playing field in that sense. I’m okay with that. I don’t think it would be as profoundly superior for graduate students, for example, who have been self-filtered to admit just those who have self-discovered good study/learning methods. In any case, strongly recommend everyone get the “Make it Stick” book, read it, then consider themselves experienced enough in the universal basics (which allow multiple teaching methods to achieve these best learning methods–including but not exclusive to flipping) to articulate “conclusions” on what are effective teaching methods (anything that facilitates proven effective learning methods for the human brain is an effective teaching method…we all share the same basic neurobiological processes that learning happens by).

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