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5 Reasons Flipped Classrooms Work

Turning lectures into homework to boost student engagement and increase technology-fueled creativity
University Business, December 2012
Even in a large lecture hall environment, it’s unlikely that professors using a flipped classroom strategy will see anyone dozing off. Part of the class time in a flipped classroom often involves the use of student response systems. As students respond to a quiz, the instructor gets instant feedback on what aspects of the lecture video assigned for homework may need to be reinforced in class.
Even in a large lecture hall environment, it’s unlikely that professors using a flipped classroom strategy will see anyone dozing off. Part of the class time in a flipped classroom often involves the use of student response systems. As students respond to a quiz, the instructor gets instant feedback on what aspects of the lecture video assigned for homework may need to be reinforced in class. (Photo Courtesy of Turning Technologies)

By now, most of us have heard the term “flipped classroom” and learned that the concept is not as aerodynamic as its name. But it is becoming a movement. In this type of learning space, lectures and other traditional classroom elements are swapped out in favor of more in-person interaction, like small group problem solving and discussion.

Instead of being a central feature of a course, lectures are delivered outside of class via some type of streaming video, and students are expected to watch them on their own time. The model may well be paired with student response devices (“clickers”) from companies such as i>clicker and Turning Technologies—or a web-based system with student response capabilities like Echo360’s LectureTools—that allow instructors to get real-time answers to test questions or to drive discussions in a certain direction.

A professor might start a session with a five-question quiz on the lecture students were asked to watch before class, gathering responses through clickers. If most of the students indicate not understanding a specific aspect of the lecture—for example, correct responses on one of the quiz questions could be very low even though students ace the rest of the quiz—the professor could gear class time toward increasing comprehension of that aspect of the material.

Instructors use flipped classrooms in myriad combinations; one professor might integrate reading material and online chats into the nonclassroom work, while another could offer only a block of video without any supporting materials. No matter what the elements include, though, there are several advantages to the larger model itself. Here are five reasons to consider doing a flip:

1. Increases student engagement

Currently, there are no hard numbers to track the level of student engagement in a flipped classroom versus a traditional, lecture-based classroom. But there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that students respond well to using classroom time in a way that’s more geared toward discussion.

“The difference between my classroom before flipping and after is dramatic,” shares Michael Garver, who teaches marketing at Central Michigan University. “The students are fired up now. They’re just devoted to active learning during the entire class period. It’s wonderful.” Like many professors using the flipped strategy, Garver breaks his lecture into short podcasts that accompany written or online materials. He begins every class with a brief quiz to make sure everyone is at the same level of comprehension with the material, and then, as he says, “the real learning begins.”

Students use clickers as part of competitions, which Garver finds to be hugely popular. He might give them a real-world marketing scenario and ask them to make a decision based on 10 possible options. Given a short amount of time to “click in,” students work in teams to come up with the best answers, and Garver tends to hear very lively debates during the process. “When I hear some good, solid arguments, that’s when I know they’re learning, and they’ll retain the information,” he says.

About 70 percent of his classes use these types of competitions on a regular basis, and often during class, the level of emotion and intensity is compelling. “When there’s emotion, there’s lesson retention,” Garver says. “Students love this system because they’re not listening to some old lecture. They’re interacting and debating, and that makes them feel involved.”

2. Strengthens team-based skills

The group dynamic that Garver creates is an important part of many flipped classrooms. Although lectures are watched individually and tests still measure each student’s comprehension level, teamwork is an integral part of in-class discussion.

As the Millennial generation and those that follow work their way through K12, team-based approaches are likely to be even more important for higher education. The increasing use of technology in K12 classrooms is also prompting more collaboration-based projects, according to James Ponce, superintendent for the McAllen Independent School District in Texas, in which Ponce recently gained attention for developing a major mobile technology initiative.

“Classroom technology isn’t about teaching students how to use mobile devices,” he says. “It’s all about interaction—with teachers, with content, and with each other. We’re creating a collaborative generation, and using technology for that effort.” Ponce’s students, and those across the country who participate in similar K12 initiatives, will likely expect higher education to deliver the same type of team-based, interactive approaches they experienced throughout their school lives. Flipped classrooms tend to give them that environment, believes Sean Brown, vice president of education at Sonic Foundry.

“The Millennials are asynchronous kids when it comes to education,” he says. “They’ve been raised in a world of interaction and communication, so asking them to sit and listen to a lecture, and then do homework on their own somewhere, is foreign to many of them. That’s why higher education is succeeding with flipped classrooms, because it adjusts the delivery style to the students.”

With the access that today’s students have to information, making class time more effective through team-based activities also tends to make students feel like showing up is worth the effort.

“People are much more sensitive about this issue than they have been in the past,” Brown notes. “There’s kind of the question of ‘Why should I haul myself to campus?’ But if they know their team is depending on them, they’re more likely to be participatory.”

3. Offers personalized student guidance

According to Roger Freedman, a physics professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, professors are at their best when they can provide students with an active learning experience. “That means giving students personalized guidance about what they do and do not understand and personalized assistance with improving their understanding,” he explains.

Freedman asks students to watch a video lecture the night before class, as well as complete two or three simple homework-type questions based on assigned reading and the video lecture. Each student can also submit a question to Freedman about something from the lecture or reading that they don’t understand; he gives them homework points for submitting the question. Before heading to class, Freedman looks them over and chooses two or three of the most common queries to answer in person.

“Class begins with me giving the answers to the student questions I selected,” he says. “You can hear a pin drop during this part of the class, because the students are so interested in knowing the answers to their own questions.”

In large classes, it can be challenging for professors to keep track of individual student progress in terms of comprehension. But because data in a flipped model is collected and presented in a straightforward way, instructors are able to provide personalized instruction to some degree. “Clickers shine in the classroom because they offer students instant feedback about their understanding, and give instructors insight into the often surprising kinds of misunderstandings that students harbor,” Freedman says.

4. Focuses classroom discussion

Students expect a higher level of discussion and technology usage than they did in the past, and it’s likely that those expectations will only increase, believes Tina Rooks, vice president and chief instructional officer at Turning Technologies. “Kids don’t want to power down their devices just because they’re walking into a classroom,” she says. “They know they have access to knowledge because of technology, so now they’re looking for teachers who can coach them, and help them understand that information.”

That prompts more focused discussions, she notes, and the delivery of immediate feedback through the clickers helps to provide a track for each class. The clickers can collect responses from quizzes, for example, and display the results (anonymized or not) on a screen in front of the class. Professors can also create multiple choice discussion topics and poll the students to see what type of direction they’d like to take.

Marsha Orr, the distance education faculty liaison in the School of Nursing at California State University, Fullerton, notes that clickers create a Socratic environment that allows students to think more deeply about the material, or to address the material from a particular viewpoint. Since some of her classes have students already in the nursing field, discussions might veer toward real-world experiences, for example, as opposed to more theoretical discussions among those who haven’t worked with patients before.

Utilizing a variety of tools in this way—including not just clickers but also online video and discussion boards, printed materials, discussion groups, and peer review of written assignments—fosters more comprehension across multiple learning styles.

“We’re not just presenting information and then testing them on it,” she says. “Flipped classrooms and interactive materials let us increase the complexity of what we’re teaching, because we have a stronger understanding of what they’re learning and what they’re not.”

5. Provides faculty freedom

For courses taught by multiple professors, having an online lecture series can be valuable for delivering information in a standardized way, believes Bob Brookover, director of the Clemson International Institute for Tourism Research and Development at Clemson University (S.C.). In his department, he’s found that professors often cover the same material in unique ways, especially for introductory courses.

Rather than have each professor record lectures that cover the same material, Brookover creates the lectures, allowing the professors to concentrate on in-class rich learning activities. The system provides flexibility, because comprehension might be higher in one class than in another, and the professor can hone in on specific areas where there’s confusion.

Brookover’s team meets on a weekly basis to decide on in-class activities, but there’s freedom to be creative for each instructor, based on the discussions that come up in class. That structure of providing standardized lecture materials and more collaborative environments in class works well, Brookover notes.

“Professors appreciate the way they can take one topic and lead the students in a productive discussion for that particular group, in a way that’s not based on lectures that take up class time,” he says. “Students and faculty find the flipped approach to be very rewarding.”

Ready to Flip?

Although flipped classrooms have numerous advantages, they’re not for everyone yet. As Roberto Torreggiani, director of sales for i>clicker, has seen, adoption tends to be on a professor or a departmental level, rather than as a strategy for an entire institution. Also, professors who have limited time and technology resources may not be ready to create the type of online lecture materials that are necessary for a flipped classroom.

But as success stories keep accumulating, it’s likely that more classes will get flipped. “We’re seeing very enthusiastic professors and extremely motivated departments,” Torreggiani says. “This is an area where the technology development is very rapid, and the adoption is very much on the upswing.”