The Flipped Classroom

Dear [Chairman]:

As I hope you are aware, this semester, Professor Stokes has decided to try the “flipped-classroom model.” This involves the students practically teaching all the class material to themselves through the text reading, online “You-Tube” videos, etc. This also includes us (the students) being quizzed via online evaluations on the material before it is even mentioned in class. …

Sincerely, [Disgruntled Student]

I received this email last week, forwarded from my chairman. It is from one of my students in a large (~ 90) introductory statistics class. These students are typically young (freshman or sophomores), taking a required course, mostly to qualify to get in the business school.

The letter was startling to me, but did make me think about how different the vision of what teaching is to me and to some of my students. This student, and many others I presume, think teaching is synonymous with lecturing.  When I first became a professor, that’s what I thought too.

I had many role models of lecturers in my math and statistics training, some good and some not so good. However, they were all effective teachers for me. In graduate school especially, I typically didn’t have a clue how the lecturer got from one line to the next on the blackboard, but I knew if I copied it down, I could figure it out later when I had time to think carefully.  My ritual was to recopy my notes, with the rule that I could not rewrite a line until I understood it completely.  This would sometimes take hours for one class (I especially remember this part was true for my complex variables course with Professor Wally Smith who was a flamboyant, entertaining lecturer).  When I finished, I had a beautiful set of notes and a deep understanding of the material. I developed the confidence that I could figure out most any well written technical document, and that the key ideas needed to work any homework problem were in those notes somewhere.

When I first began teaching undergraduates, I used the lecture model too. As the years have rolled on, I have lectured less and less in my introductory undergraduate classes, and replaced it with having them “do things” in class.  My journey to this point started when I became aware of an NSF funded research group who articulated a body of knowledge and skills that a person educated about statistical thinking should master. They also developed an assessment of this fundamental knowledge in the form of a test.  This test covered concepts, not computations, and often the concept was couched in a real world application; that is, it was one step away from the actual statement of the concept. Since my course covered almost all of those key ideas and more, and I had the Powerpoints to prove it, I felt confident that my students would do well on the assessment.  . I began giving that test at the beginning and end of each semester. Surprise!  My students’ scores were not impressive at all. They scored at or slightly below the national mean.  Even worse, their change from pretest to posttest was modest at best.

How could it be? Aren’t SMU students better than the national average? And aren’t I a better than average teacher? (Don’t we all live in Lake Woebegone?) I came to the realization that teaching my students to do the computations was the easy part and I was effective at conveying that information to them in lecture format, for the most part.  Providing them with definitions and basic facts that they use for problem solving was also efficiently and fairly effectively done in lecture. But teaching them to select which of the computations or facts to use in any situation, or exactly what the computation was telling them about the world, was not getting through to a lot of them by listening to me say it or seeing it written on a slide.  Furthermore, the homework problems I had carefully selected to provide them the Eureka moment, while they sat alone in the comfort of their own dorm rooms, about how to use those concepts and what they meant, wasn’t working either. Most of them apparently don’t have the same ritual of recopying their notes that I did, and why should they? They are much less experienced students (not in grad school) and not training for a career in a mathematical field.

So I decided to see if giving them a guide (me) while they worked on a problem would help.  I began trying to select exercises for them to do in class. The difficulty here is that it takes longer for students to work through problems than for me to do it, and crowds out lecture time. What to do?! I began requiring that they read the book before class so that they would be familiar with the computations, the simple definitions and facts ahead of time. This saved class time for the more complex ideas, and for practice on how to use them, and for me to connect the dots afterward if the Eureka moment didn’t come to them on its own.  The way I chose to make sure that they had prepared was the aforementioned “quiz before the material is mentioned in class.”

I have been using this method for several semesters and have noted a small increase in average scores on the assessment; they now score slightly better than the national average.  But I’m hoping for more. This year I am in the teaching with technology learning community and had my consciousness raised about what technology tools I might use to improve student learning.  I decided to see if I could find a tool that could help deliver the class preparation I was hoping they would get from the book (let’s face it—many students do not enjoy reading their statistics text). So this semester I have provided links to You Tube videos covering the reading material. I selected videos for material that I believe is efficiently covered by lectures—how to do computations, basic definitions and facts.

Does this add anything to student learning? I don’t know yet, as the semester is still young.  I do know from the email that at least some of my students don’t like this way of doing things. They believe that I am not really teaching when I serve mostly as their guide, hint-giver, and dot-connector while they attempt the hard work of arriving at a deeper understanding of the material themselves.  I’ll know more after the posttest and will report back. Stay tuned.

I am on a panel in CTE’s Higher Education in the Crosshairs symposium this Friday.  The topic of this conference is what it is that we, as a private university especially, provide that is worth the money we cost.  I believe that there is some knowledge (e.g., how to do a computation) that can be delivered equally effectively by a lecture watched on You Tube, in a classroom of 500, or a classroom of 30.  Delivering this material is not where SMU has a competitive advantage. There is other knowledge that most students can acquire only through challenging themselves to do their own knowledge acquisition. We can provide the guidance, hand-holding, and interpretation to make this process less onerous to students.  This is one place we should excel, when compared with cheaper education delivery models. Another part of our value should come from our ability to select or develop materials for our students’ in-class experiences that elucidate the difficult-to-grasp concepts. We should also be able to adapt or replace these materials when they are not having the effect we want, or when some contemporary connection with the world can be incorporated. This is where most of the intellectual content of the flipped classroom model arises. It is also what is hard to do cheaply, since it cannot be “installed” and reused indefinitely.  Good teaching is always a work in progress.

About Lynne Stokes

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6 Responses to The Flipped Classroom

  1. Nathan Huntoon says:

    This post raised a lot of questions for me. I have been an advocate of non-traditional teaching methods for years. I have focused more on project based learning and real world experience over the flipped classroom concept, but many of the ideas are the same. As a member of CTE I get involved in lots of conversations about teaching methods and this is the first time I’ve heard someone bring up the preferences of the students.

    I occurs to me that I may have forgotten that teaching requires two side, a teacher and student. To teach a class I have to reach an agreement with my students that I will teach and they will learn. This agreement is often assumed and not clearly defined, but I think successful classes have it. If the students aren’t willing to change the terms of the agreement as required by some of these non-traditional methods, we may need to evaluate some things.

    I firmly believe that things like flipped classrooms and project based learning can provide better learning experiences than traditional lectures. Before we (the faculty) jump in with both feet though, we may need to ‘sell’ the ideas to the students. And I thought selling these ideas to other faculty would be hard…

  2. Meghan Ryan says:

    Do you (or anyone else) have any advice for *untenured* professors who are interested in experimenting with alternative teaching techniques, such as flipping-the-classroom, but who are hesitant for exactly the reasons that your post reveals: student disenchantment and push-back? Thanks!

    • Lynne Stokes says:

      I don’t think I would recommend this for an untenured person in my department right now, as it is risky the way we evaluate teaching here. There is one untenured faculty member who may be able to tell you more about this, as he is trying it. He is in math and his name is Scott Norris. Perhaps he can chime in.

      If tehre were more of a culture of using this type of teaching here, then I believe students would be less surprised and resentful. Or if the instructor took more time to explain why they are doing what they are doing, it is possible that would help (though I’m not confident about that.) If I get evidence that it is helping students learn and present that to students, that will be persuasive to some, I think.

      • Meghan Ryan says:

        Thanks Lynne!

        • Brandy Stigler says:

          I am an assistant professor in the math dept and I have been using the “flipped” model for all of my upper-division undergraduate courses and all my graduate courses. What I use is an inquiry-based model for the classroom environment: students read a topic, write a summary about the topic, and work on problems related to the topic outside of class, all before we formally discuss the topic in class; on a subsequent day, I give a mini-lecture based on their questions in their summaries; on a subsequent day, they present homework problems and compare and contrast their solutions in class.

          Most students really appreciate this model over lecture. A consequence of this type of environment is that they feel I care about them more than if the course had been lecture based. They also recognize that they have absorbed much more than if I had lectured: they feel they “own” the material.

          I recall one semester where I had two classes: one was lecture and one was “flipped”. There was such a difference in the level of engagement of the students. Most students in the lecture-based class took on a glassy-eyed appearance the moment I approached the board with chalk in hand, whereas in the inquiry-based class most students were fully engaged for the majority of the time. Over the course of that semester, it became clear to me that the students in the lecture class weren’t actively learning in class; instead the active part happened later when they struggled through the homework. The following questions arose: What did they get from my lecture, was it conducive for their learning, and was it efficient use of our time? On the flip side (pun intended), the students in the inquiry-based course were actively engaged in my mini-lectures as well as in the student presentations.

          At this point, the main complaint I have received is related to the organization of the class: I don’t give them enough time to work on the assigned problems. This is an easy fix.

          It is interesting that the ONLY real push-back I’ve received was from a 3-yr graduate student: she didn’t buy the idea that she needed to own her education. She felt that it was more important to see more information than to understand it: it’s clear she missed the point of doing graduate work and I could not convince her otherwise.

          While I still struggle with the flow at which we move through the material in an inquiry-based course, I still very much enjoy the classroom experience over lecture-based courses. (With some topics we can move quickly and with others it may take a few class periods; by contrast, in a lecture-based course I can ensure that a new topic is covered every class period lecture regardless of the students’ ability to keep up). I have a greater ability to assess their progress and maturity as I see every student at the board at least once a week for smaller classes. This active learning environment also helps me gauge where they need more help.

          I feel I am more effective as an educator in an inquiry-based course. My students walk away with a greater and deeper understanding of the material. They also develop some level of independence which is crucial in learning to become a learner.

  3. Barbara Whitehead says:

    Lynne, I’m so glad you shared the student’s response. Many of us are uncomfortable admitting that something wasn’t well received in the classroom, even though we know we aren’t alone in experiencing push-back on occasion. Everyone can improve by sharing struggles and solutions. Thanks for you candor.

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