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Career Advice

How to flip your classroom

Goodbye, class lectures.


What is the “flipped classroom”? It’s shorthand for a radical concept in teaching, coined by Colorado high school teachers Jonathan Bergman and Aaron Sams in 2007: have students listen to your lecture at home, leaving the active learning that’s usually considered homework or group work for class time. That’s the flip: homework in class, class work at home. The flipped classroom attempts to make the best use of scheduled time and have students engage in the more challenging parts of learning with your guidance.

Instructors at the college and university levels are jumping on board with this trend in spite of serious obstacles. The physical structure of lecture halls doesn’t tend to foster collaborative work, students aren’t accustomed to the expectation that they do practical work in class, and resources to record and share lectures aren’t necessarily that easy to come by. But instructors are trying the flip, and many are reporting real success.

The first question about flipping the classroom usually concerns the recording of lectures: what’s the easy way? There’s a plethora of screen-casting software available, including Camtasia, Echo360, BB Flashback and Jing. All will capture your lecture, your face and your slides at the same time. You can also embed audio directly into a PowerPoint file or directly into a Prezi. You can record yourself anywhere – at the podium, in your office or at home.

However, lecturing to a camera at home, in addition to spending three hours in class every week, is incredibly time-consuming. Instead, you can opt to stagger the shift over a two-yearperiod by recording your lectures in class this year and using them as video “readings” the following year.

There is much debate about the “canned” lecture, as students don’t like being asked to settle for last’s year’s content. This debate generally assumes that the lecture is the only time a student has face-to-face access to an instructor, so swapping that for a video gets students up in arms. But, if the lecture is just another form of a reading that they do at home, and if you’ve replaced the live lecture with more of your time and attention in class, their experience is the opposite of canned.

What you will discover fairly quickly is that most of your lecture content has been designed to fit the scheduled time, so when you flip your lectures, you no longer need to adhere to time constraints. If the concept you’re trying to explain takes 20 minutes, then that’s how long your lecture-video should be. Many instructors, the second or third time around, want to break their video content into much smaller chunks that they can mix and match. You may discover that recording 12 weeks of lectures isn’t quite what you want or need.

Some instructors have discovered that most of the concepts they work with are best conveyed by writing. They’ve taken up PDF pencasts, created using a Livescribe pen. Pencasts are playable PDFs that show each penstroke, along with narration. This option has been especially attractive for math, biology, chemistry and language studies. One of the economics professors at my campus has discovered he can replace his whole term of lectures with a varied series of pencasts.

Many practitioners of the flipped classroom include online discussions as part of their model, but it’s not required. The flipped classroom is not the same thing as an online course. The point is to use your face-to-face time with students in ways that will be most valuable to their learning, not to put all interaction online. Still, you can include online discussions to catch those questions that come up during the lectures that students are watching at home; a basic discussion board or text chat for an hour a week can work wonders. You could even help students establish listening groups to get together online or in person to listen to your lecture and discuss it. You can facilitate any or all of these things, based on what works best for you and your class and what allows you to clear that coveted class time for the really valuable, collaborative and engaging work.

And there lies the biggest challenge: how to use your newly freed-up class time most effectively. It’s entirely up to you and your material. Challenge your students to make the most of the time they have with you and to engage in person with the material. The flipped classroom model insists that instructors get out from behind the podium, switch off the PowerPoint and engage directly with students in a hands-on, active, intensive and demanding way.

Rochelle Mazar is an emerging technologies librarian at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

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  1. Selman Hikarna / September 11, 2013 at 11:46

    Well, you ask the most important question at the end: what to do with freed-up time in the classroom. It’s one thing if you have a class of 20 students and can discuss the material at hand, but it you have a class of 20 students you probably aren’t lecturing in the first place. But seriously: what am I to do with my 255 1st-year undergrads in Media Studies? How can that be “engaging” “in person”? Too bad this article doesn’t answer this difficult question.

    The answers I’ve seen: “group work”; “team-based learning”; etc. etc. all involve an enormous amount of effort on the part of the professor and his/her TAs, effort and time that is supposed to come from where exactly? After doing several workshops on team-based learning, I am convinced it’s a great idea, but it’s one that every workshop leader confesses requires a huge amount of time investment — and not just to start it up. It requires constant maintenance, monitoring, change and innovation, all of which is great if you have the time and get rewarded for the effort.

    But, let’s be honest, most of us don’t.

  2. Rochelle Mazar / September 12, 2013 at 15:42

    Yeah, it’s genuinely a tough question to answer, because there isn’t one answer. It depends entirely on the material, the instructor, the level of the course, and what sorts of assignments you’ve got. And the goals of the program. In-class activity isn’t a single model you can employ in every single class; it’s different depending on a lot of factors. It’s certainly possible to do, but there isn’t a cookie cutter answer I can give. Honestly, you wouldn’t want a cookie-cutter answer. It probably wouldn’t work.

  3. David Calverley / October 7, 2013 at 10:55

    My comments pertain more to Arts/Humanities and Social Science courses.

    The flipped classroom has a lot of potential. However, I’m not entirely sure how it works with a large classroom. As we all know, some classes exceed 300 students. Western’s 1st year Psych class (I’ve heard) comes close to 2000. How does collaborative work happen in this environment unless there is a system to oversee this work and assess it? I’ve seen it work very well with smaller classes (20-30 students).

    It would require a fundamental shift in how large classes are structured. First, TAs need to be more involved. They would require real pedagogical training in teaching and assessment to run decent tutorials (not the typical approach of being thrown into the deep end of the pool and being told to swim). The 3 hour lecture would be abandoned, and the tutorial meetings with TAs lengthened. It is a bit ridiculous that an Arts student has 15 hours of classes a week but a science student has close to (or more than) 30 hours. Profs of large classes would have to become course coordinators, and would have to be visiting experts to the various tutorial groups to have contact with students.

    Given the growing proliferation of online courses (and complete degrees), I think the traditional class of several hundred students with a talking head at the front is going to slowly phase out. The flipped classroom has the potential to reinvigorate how humanities/social science classes are taught.

  4. Charles Krug / August 27, 2014 at 14:30

    Selman’s post is spot on.

    Plus: if my students are now watching 2 hours of lecture or whatever each week, when do they read? It’s already almost impossible to get them to do the assigned readings for the classes I teach; add to that 2 more hours of lectures? Not sure how that’d work.

    As someone who has tried to incorporate team-based learning into his classroom, I can attest to the vast amount of work it requires: not only to set up the TBL excercises, but each semester to train the TAs, to modify the exercises to accommodate new material, etc. And guess what: my university won’t provide any release time to allow me to do develop these materials.

    So the flipped classroom sounds just great, but once it’s over 30 or 40 students, it can be a grind.

  5. Robert Steacy / August 27, 2014 at 16:59

    The idea that students can, or will, actually find time to watch your canned lectures is just wishful thinking.