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.