To flip, or not to flip

Apr 06 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

Over the last few years there has been a trend towards increasing the amount of ‘flipped’ undergraduate level courses. The idea is that class time is better spent using instructor-facilitated active learning activities, while relegating ‘passive’ aspects of learning, such as listening to a lecture, to outside of class time. While there are many different ways a class can be flipped, for example check our Dr. Isis’s post, there seems to be a more or less "standard model" that’s emerged. In this model the instructor prepares some material in advance that the students access before class. This typically involves recording the instructor giving a lecture and putting this lecture online, as well as providing other resources for the students to explore before class. The instructor then evaluates how effective this pre-class material was by administering a short quiz at the beginning of class to assess how well the students understood the basic concepts. Class time is then spent doing problem-based activities in small groups of students, facilitated by the instructor and the teaching assistants who walk around interacting with the various groups. In this way students get much more direct instruction from the professor and spend the class time in active learning.

There has been quite a lot of research that shows that this approach leads to better outcomes in terms of students performing better on exams, and showing greater comprehension of key concepts. That said, this approach is also a lot of work for a professor, since preparing various sets of quiz questions for every lecture, as well as meaningful in-class activities can be time-consuming and not necessarily very rewarding, as has been written about before. Flipped courses also require a lot of resources, especially if you have a large class, since it is difficult to find the space to do small group work when you have a class with over 100 students. It also requires a lot of TAs since the instructor won’t necessarily have enough time during a class session to do individual work with all the groups. In a large class it is also hard to monitor the dynamics within the small groups to avoid having certain students dominating the group and silencing others, but that is a topic for another day.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking very hard about whether a flipped model would be appropriate for one of the courses I teach. This is a fairly large (100+ students), mid-level neuroscience lecture course. One of the reasons I've been hesitant to give up the lecture, and relegate it to online pre-class material, is that one large emphasis of my course, is teaching students to understand scientific methodology. So for every concept that I introduce, I also extensively talk about the type of experiments that were performed (some classic experiments, some current ones) in order to support the concept. This requires talking a lot about primary data, and going over various figures from papers in a step-by-step way. Often when I'm lecturing I’ll show part of a slide, ask several questions to the students, let them ask questions, and only when I'm convinced the fully understood that part, move on to the rest of the slide. By taking this step-by-step approach I can monitor how well the students the following and whether I need to repeat the concept again, or explain it in a different way using the blackboard. If I relegate this whole thing to an online lecture, that the students may or may not be watching before class, I really have no way to gauge whether the students understood all the nuances involved. And personally I would find it hard to assess, based on a quiz, whether this level of comprehension was achieved. I admit that with 100+ students making this assessment is difficult, no mater how you slice it. Secondly, the class to me seems way too big to perform small group work, and still be convinced that all the students are receiving adequate instruction, especially since an auditorium configuration does not lend itself to this kind of work, and it would require a lot more TA's than I presently have. Finally, another reason I'm I'm hesitant to let the lecture go, is that consistently when looking at student evaluations they almost always say that for them the best part of the course was attending lecture.

Over the summer I participated in a workshop at my university about flipping courses. One thing that I learned is that in fact, there are many different models for flipping a course. And that flipping is not necessarily an all-or-nothing proposition. This means that you can flip certain aspects of the course, where it makes the most sense, and leave other aspects in a traditional lecture format. I've also read a couple of articles that suggest that the reason that flipped courses work so well for improving student learning is simply because you're just increasing the amount of active learning that students are engaged in, and also making them perform more work before class. So the key would be to find a way in which to incorporate a greater amount of active learning, while still preserving the overall lecture format. What I've done in redesigning my course is to intersperse certain aspects of active learning within the lecture. The solution I found is as follows: Before coming to class students are given a "neuroscience question of the day". These questions are open-ended questions that require the students to explore the key topics that will be touched upon during the next day's lecture. Students can use any resources they want to answer the questions, and are encouraged to discuss and work through the question with their classmates before class. Students have to write up the answer to the question in an index card which they bring the class (and turn in at the end of class, in order to keep track of attendance). During class there'll be key moments where I try to tie in that day’s question with the lecture. And at that point I will pause and allow the students to discuss in small groups their answers to the question, and then I call in various groups to share their answers with the class. Also interspersed with the lecture, are various times when students do work in small groups (basically their immediate neighbors) to come up with answers to problems or thought experiments that I put up in the board. Simply interspersing these types of activities within the lecture keeps the students alert, allows them to pause and internalize what we just talked about, and also gives them confidence to speak up in class since they have had a chance to discuss the answers with their peers. To complement the lectures and neuro questions of the day, students also have to complete a series of online virtual labs that are tied in to the lecture material. Sometimes these are completed after class, and sometimes these need to be completed before class in order to answer the question of the day. The labs usually consist of online activities that require running some type of simulation or using some other kind of digital resource, that helps them explore the concepts covered in class. In addition to this, students can attend weekly review sessions where TAs further answer questions and go over problem sets.

So how has this worked out? While I have not systematically evaluated the effectiveness of this approach other than looking at midterm grades (which have improved), what I do see compared to other years is that the students are far more present during lecture. Normally I think I’m pretty good at getting students to ask questions during class, but this semester I've noticed a huge increase in participation, and more importantly participation from a much larger and diverse group of students than is usual. I'd like to think that having a chance to prepare and discuss the class material in advance, and during class, gives the students a certain amount of confidence that they would not necessarily have had they been learning the material for the first time during lecture, or not interacting with peers. When I was in college I love to going to lecture, to me that was one of my favorite aspects of of going to class. So I disagree that lecture is necessarily passive learning, I think that if the instructor is good enough or creative enough they can stimulate as much active learning as you would during a flipped class. Also, there’s not just one way to flip a class, any change that stimulates active learning can only have a positive impact.

4 responses so far

  • Natalie T says:

    This is a great addition to the conversation. I also have a partial lecture/flipped model for my 60-100 student upper level course. There are short pre-class quizzes (some fact based, some concept/"thought" questions) and then throughout the semester I do two lectures (with some think-pair-share type questions) then the third lecture-slot is broken into small group discussions with full a class discussion of those in the last 30 or so minutes. These can be problem solving, concept questions, explicitly linking concepts. We use this to practice problems, integrate concepts across different lectures (LTP and behavioral studies to talk about memory consolidation, for example) and across different topics (e.g., discussing neurological disorders of memory).
    I really enjoy having both the lecture components and the discussion components of class. But it does demand a lot of interactions (which I happen to like, but is exhausting). And I've learned a LOT about the kinds of topics they generally struggle with. They are much more likely to say "I don't know how to do this" when working in groups of 3 than in the lecture format (and sometimes more than coming to office hours).
    I have seen over the last couple of years that students are more willing to ask questions in lectures when they are used to discussing the ideas in class, and are definitely more likely to bring up a broader question on the topic they are curious about. They also (seem to) write better answers to the discussion questions in the final. I'm curious to go back and look at these metrics in more detail this year (at some point).
    Some students really like the discussion days, and I hear from some students that they really do like lectures, that they don't know how to study the discussions we have in class (I'm learning how to address these concerns too).

    • namnezia says:

      How do you monitor the discussions? What kind of space (physical space) do they take place in? How much time do you spend with each group?

      These are all things I've been struggling with.

      • Natalie T says:

        These are always an issue. The physical space is in our regular classroom. I requested a room with flexible seating, so students can shuffle chairs around, and that works pretty well. Turning around in lecture seats is definitely less good. And it's hard to walk around there too.
        I monitor discussions a couple of different ways: for accountability, each group types in answers via an online system (google docs works - one page per question, but all groups answer on the same page; or I've been using which is integrated with course software and makes easy to have all the answers up on the board during class discussions, I can go and look at the answers later, but also keeps answers independent).
        During discussions I walk around the room. I often don't interrupt unless they ask a question (and walking nearby helps with that), if I hear a group struggling then I'll ask if I can help and set them up to solve the problem (or sometimes pull up a chair and work through it, but that's rare). Later in the semester, the questions are often broader about a connection with something from another class, or "what if the experiment looked like this?" and if it's close enough aligned I'll then bring that up with the class group.
        The other time I step in if someone is excluded or not participating. I'll listen, then ask questions of the group, then of individuals within the group. I also encourage people to shuffle groups between classes - but by half way through the semester they pretty much sit in the same place every time which makes that harder.
        At the end of the class we either go through answers, or more commonly talk about different outcomes/ways of getting to the same answer/the different groups experimental design for a problem.
        I believe there are plans to build more interactive classrooms. I don't know what they will be like though...

        • namnezia says:

          I like the idea of all the answers being projected on the screen. I think we have access to echo360, this might be useful.

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