July 22nd, 2013

“I Don’t Like This One Little Bit.” Tales from a Flipped Classroom


The Internet flipped learning before instructors did. Want to find out something? Google it. Wikipedia it. Use your laptop or smartphone or iPad. That’s where the “answers” are. Some of us initially reacted to this cyber-democratization of information asserting, “This isn’t right! The Internet is full of incomplete and simply wrong information.” But the challenge to the classroom was more profound. It has raised questions among students and even administrators about the need for face-to-face classrooms at all, as if correct information and unchallenged “opinions” were all that was needed.

We can feel nostalgic for some lost past when students did their work because we assigned it, when we could espouse the importance of “learning for learning’s sake,” when our place at the lectern elicited deference. While those days, if they ever existed, are gone, the authentic values of the classroom encounter remain.

The state of affairs is disorienting, but it also can be energizing. To confront it, we need to move from implicit understandings of teaching to find explicit ways to put the information revolution at the service of what we know to be our core tasks. We strive to inculcate in our students the methods and values associated with our particular disciplines as well as the knowledge and understanding we seek to glean from information. We seek to create for them the passions that brought us to our work. We are no longer the sole sources of information and interpretation, but that only underlines the importance of engaging students in the process of critical thinking and interpretation. If we are successful, they will be better prepared for their own successes.

Flipping for Team-Based Learning
There are many wonderfully creative and effective ways to design classes that address this new landscape of learning. Many take advantage of a combination of online and in-class learning—using strategies that have variously been called flipped, blended, hybrid, disruptive, or, by the time this piece is published, some new term. Most aim to incorporate online and out-of-classroom tools (like the old-fashioned reading assignment) more powerfully into the learning process.

My “flipped” American history survey course is structured on a Team-Based Learning (TBL) platform, one that I developed in classes of 80 students but whose methods are scalable. Students prepare for class by reading online materials—sets of primary documents, interpretive pieces, study guides—and writing short online journal responses. This work arms them with at least a passing familiarity with key narratives, interpretations and concepts, and positions them for doing more difficult and interactive work in class.

In class, students gather in permanently assigned teams of six or seven where they discuss, probe, and build upon their recently acquired knowledge guided by templates I have developed. These templates ask students to, for example, rank sources according to their accuracy, or establish the three most important shared values evident in the documents that they read. Their conversations provide the basis for class-wide comparisons and conversations within and across the teams at various moments during class.

Splitting the learning venue between online and the classroom, and shifting the responsibility for learning the basic course information onto the student, alters the instructor’s role to that of setting the stage, not being on it. For some teachers, this is no small adjustment, but I’ve found two tricks to making it work. One, stake one’s expertise on assembling the materials and sequence, to “lay down the breadcrumbs,” that will allow students to pick up the trail. Two, participate along with the class. Be ready to give a five-minute flash lecture to address a confusion you discovered while circulating through the teams. Challenge one team to defend its conclusions against those of another. Build on the class’s insights by making a well-timed observation or summation that furthers the conversation.

Not surprisingly, students can be wary when they walk into such a class. No longer can they sit as passive observers of the learning process. They have to be actively involved, it’s more work, and it can be noisy. Since teams are constructed to reflect diverse thinking (a senior chemistry major and a sophomore fine arts major, for example, might end up on the same team), there are often disagreements. Disagreement is encouraged—and investigated. Memorization won’t solve anything—let alone ensure a good grade. One student summed it up when he announced at the beginning of the semester, “I don’t like this one little bit.” Yet learners often find the experience refreshingly challenging, engaging, lively, and thought-provoking. (That same student made a point to let me know at the end of the term that he had a much-improved view of the class and of studying history).

This is a just a brief explanation of one way to flip a class. There are many others. Yet the main elements are the same: 1) The instructor uses technology in some way—YouTube, PowerPoint, lectures, linked sources, etc. —to acquaint students with course concepts and content before they arrive in class. 2) He or she then uses class time to help students gain a deeper understanding of the material.

In the end, the benefits of the flipped approach are considerable. Students take more responsibility for their own learning. Working in class along with a master of the discipline (you), they learn to think more critically, communicate more effectively, and have a greater appreciation for the unique importance and logic of the subject. And they experience at least some of the satisfaction of learning how to think in a new and, in some cases, life-changing way.

Michael. Sweet, and Larry K. Michaelsen, eds., Critical Thinking and Engagement: Team-Based Learning in the Social Sciences and Humanities. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2012.

Dr. Penne Restad is a Distinguished Senior Lecturer in the Department of History at the University of Texas at Austin.

  • I have to be honest, as a UK academic I'm a bit puzzled by this idea of the 'flipped classroom' – outside of the aspect of recording of lectures to provide before hands (which in itself isn't that new), this just seems bog-standard academic practice to me?

    I feel like I am missing something obvious or some form of "ah-ha!" moment. Is there some about how US universities and colleges have taught in the past that I'm missing?

    • My favorite definition of the flipped classroom comes from Educause. In “Seven Things You Should Know about Flipped Classrooms,” they explain it this way:

      “The flipped classroom is a pedagogical model in which the typical lecture and homework elements of a course are reversed. Short video lectures are viewed by students at home before the class session, while in-class time is devoted to exercises, projects, or discussions. … The value of a flipped class is in the repurposing of class time into a workshop where students can inquire about lecture content, test their skills in applying knowledge, and interact with one another in hands-on activities. During class sessions, instructors function as coaches or advisors, encouraging students in individual inquiry and collaborative effort.”

      The full piece from Educause is available here: http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/eli7081.pd

      The University of Texas at Austin also has a good explanation, including a nice side-by-side comparison of how different activities are handled in a traditional classroom vs the flipped classroom. http://ctl.utexas.edu/teaching/flipping_a_class/w

      Mary Bart
      Editor, Faculty Focus

    • Indeed, 'flipping' or 'inverting' the classroom is often described in terms of students watching online videos of lectures (previously presented during class time), and using in-class time for more interaction and student participation. What is missing is the secret sauce: how do you make the online lectures cogent to the in-class activities, such that there is a fluid context that truly advances the students' learning — not just time spent watching videos online and then talking/communicating/interacting in class. This is where, like online learning, the need for others emerges — especially instructional designers who can support the development of in-class activities with supporting online videos. And like 'online learning', there is an obvious need for clear course goals and objectives, and the need for a high level of curricular organization and design. Without this careful approach and understanding, the 'flipped classroom' might well end up like the many failed attempts at creating a compelling online learning environment where students actually learn ….

    • "Flipping" is a big change from the standard way of teaching, which usually includes assigning readings, giving lectures, and giving exams, often with a little "discussion" tossed in.

      Flipping turns lots of things associated with that approach on their heads, including the relationship between teaching and learning, information and skills, what's done in class and what's done outside of class, who is doing what, etc.

      Now, all of these things have been done by effective teachers for a long time (and folks have certainly criticized "flipping" for not being new). But what's flipped is the standard way of teaching, not the current way. In other words, the idea of "flipping" is a relatively new way of packaging "old" effective practice and ideas.

      And this is a nice post describing some ways to do it.

      Paul T. Corrigan
      Teaching & Learning in Higher Ed.

    • Aylwin Forbes

      I tend to agree on your apparently being underwhelmed by the latest fashion raging in the US academic world. I had expected to discover some radical rearrangement, like perhaps students teaching the class to the professor. Really, is having them watch a few videos and read a few online things before class what all the fuss is about? Not exactly a million miles from preparing for class by reading a few books.

    • Rebecca Hartman

      I have to agree. This is the teaching model I have used for years for my US History survey courses. Whether students engage with the material digitally or with an old-fashioned book isn't really the issue. That's simply the method of delivery. If students read/watch/listen to material, they can then come to class prepared to probe, question, think, reflect and deepen their understanding.

      What this *is* different from is the lecture-based classroom. But I would say most of us teaching history have moved away from that model in the last 10-15 years.

  • Scott K

    @Charles, No, not really, what is being called a flipped classroom is what we have always called a seminar.

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  • Melissa Hudler

    One of the many things I love about this strategy is the dynamic environment it creates. A result of this environment is my learning from the students. I always get something from at least one student or group of students that I can share with the next class. I make sure to let the class know where the insight came from and then I let the student or group know that I shared their insight with another class. They react very positively to knowing they're contributing to the learning of not only their classmates but also to that of another class.

  • Kathryn Kemp

    What does a typical template look like? Are they specific to a topic, or are they generic? How long does it take to prepare them? How far in advance are they prepared? If prepared far in advance, are they revised during a semester? What do you actually do while the groups are working—is the fact that you are not dealing with most of the students at any given time during a class ever a problem? Do groups develop strong leaders who dominate their process while others just "ride along?" How do you assure that everyone does an acceptable preparation? Do you encounter persons who would prefer to study independently for various reasons? What problems do you experience in applying this method?

    • Penne

      My long reply to Kathryn's questions are in a chapter I wrote for the Sweet and Michaelsen book. Briefly, though: I used backward design to develop (reusable) templates for each set of assignments. My object was set up a situation in which the team had to reach a consensus (e.g. the U.S. should annex the Phlippines?, or Determine the three most notable values in 1950s tv ads). This provided a richer texture for classroom discussion. Circulating as the class worked gave me many good opportunities to listen for new ideas, confusion, misinformation–to share and to clear up. Yes, as everywhere, there are people who want to dominate and those who want a free ride. Peer evaluation has been a big help with this. As to the person who prefers to study independently–one of them provided the title for the essay. He still had to learn a lot of history the old-fashioned way (by reading and note-taking) but by working collaboratively, he was able to engage in the conversation–which reinforced his learning. Perhaps the best explanation was offered earlier in the thread… a flipped class is like a seminar–but with more structure and (often) more students.

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  • Harold Katcher

    At our largely online institution we used the flipped template exclusively – students are responsible for giving both individual and group presentations. When I first did this I was appalled at the nonsense and confusion of the presentations (I teach only STEM subjects) – but what would you expect? Later I learned that it was my job to keep everything honest – even if it meant saying – no you are wrong. That hurts people's feelings, but it's not your job to be a counselor (unless it is) – but you have to tell them. People begin shaping up. Group projects are hard to evaluate because not everyone contributes to the same extent, so you must decide on a method to measure that apportion a grade based on that – but in general people want to contribute- requiring student participation by requiring that student posts to the "classroom" be graded requires both the student involved to the extent that she knows she earning a grade on that post and can up it by thinking, or researching makes the good student do that, but everything in this new scenario depends on the instructor. The instructor must respond to each and every student post – and with the required 3 post per week and instructor with sixty students must make 180 post per week -and if that instructor is actually interested in instructing will write something like 90 or more pages each week – and that makes it extremely labor intensive. I do think however, using this system it's possible to teach critical thinking (to an extent), to find out what each student doesn't understand or worse, understands incorrectly – and make corrections – there, on the spot,a and ask students to respond to indicate their understanding. A guess then until robots get smart enough to grade essays and to guess what students are driving at and redirect them into more fruitful ways of thinking keep them thinking constantly, and made to use their imaginations, keep them asking questions, the present system will keep us online educators in beer and skittles

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  • Eugenia Giani

    I'm a 48 years old. My daughter's high school is implementing the "one to one" method, plus a program (Qino), plus a flipping classroom method… It is not effective all the time, with all the assignments, and it is not for all the students. Teachers are still confronting behavior problems, engagement issues, different backgrounds, it is too hard for them. In theory sounds great, but in the real classroom… It is not that great. Please, I'm asking the teachers and administrators to use common sense, at the end of the day we want better teachers and more educated citizens, the method is not that important.
    A very concerned mother.

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