For the most part, the classroom learning experience on traditional college campuses has remained relatively the same for the past century. Of course, there have been lots of technological advances to help professors, but in most classrooms it’s the Sage on the Stage – the faculty member lectures and students listen and take notes. But […]


For the most part, the classroom learning experience on traditional college campuses has remained relatively the same for the past century. Of course, there have been lots of technological advances to help professors, but in most classrooms it’s the Sage on the Stage – the faculty member lectures and students listen and take notes.

But in an age of ubiquitous wireless devices on campuses, professors are competing for the attention of students in class more than ever. To improve student learning in the future, the pedagogical foundation of some classrooms will need to change.

One interesting concept that has received a lot of attention recently is Flipping the Classroom. The underlying premise is that students review information outside of class through videos or other materials, and the in-class time is reserved for debate, discussion, and review of specific concepts.

What’s so new about that, you might ask, given students have been reviewing materials for generations before class. Sure, they have, but the idea behind Flipping the Classroom is that technology, such as the Khan Academy and iTunesU, makes this easier to achieve. I’ve talked with several college professors, department chairs, and deans who have succeeded in making this change to several courses over the last year and here are some of their initial findings:

  • Student resistance. Students may say they Facebook in class because the professor is not interesting, but give them an alternative format and they’re likely to resist. Departments that didn’t advertise in advance that a particular course would be taught in this new fashion faced several course sessions of skeptical students. But eventually the students who stuck it out reported in evaluations that they enjoyed the class more than any other in their college career.
  • Makes students more accountable. My reaction to this idea when I first heard about it last spring was that it replaced real teaching. I’ve also been in plenty of classrooms where it’s obvious the students didn’t do any of the assigned readings. But professors who have tried this method say that students are actually better prepared for class because the materials are more engaging and they know that the class will be structured around the information assigned in advance.
  • Not ideal for all disciplines. Some disciplines, math and economics in particular, are better suited for this type of teaching than others. Innovation in teaching should be encouraged, but a one-size-fits-all approach across the entire university is just as bad as keeping outdated teaching methods in place.

Making such a sweeping pedagogical change is not easy on any campus, but creating a more innovative teaching environment might be a magnet to attract students in the future and help them improve their learning in classes.

 


9 Responses to “Flipping the Classroom”

  1. Kevin says:

    The best teaching has never been something that simply reading a book could replace. Of course, there has always been portions of the teaching that exists that was not even as good as reading the book.

    Good teaching is always an individualistic mix of mentoring, inspiration, insights and even performance. And in complicated subjects, this can only work well when the students will work hard outside the classroom, reading and discussing, so that there time in the classroom can be used to their benefit.

    In fact, that is how I teach my courses, though many students initially have a hard time with the idea of reading the book, of me not just spewing it at them. But those that do accept the task of reading before coming to class enjoy it and get a lot from it. Part of this was simply the practical fact that the time in the classroom is not enough to write the book on he board AND give them insights, connections, points of emphasis, and — increasingly — the kind of guidance in how to reason, study, navigate. Since the last pieces are by far the most important and not obtainable from a book, I concentrate on those tasks.

    Actually, I can’t think of a subject that involves books and reading that isn’t better when this is practiced.

    Now a story: quite a while ago, in the midst of meander through schools and jobs, I spent some time getting a graduate degree in applied physics. (Was to be a PhD, but couldn’t abide my advisor so quit with a masters.) I was taking a class in solid state physics from material scientist. The theory is fairly mathematical and that was my forte. One day in class I realised that I understood some of the mathematics and the professor didn’t. But it wasn’t long before it became clear that this was not relevant — at all. Why? Because when we got to the behaviour of real materials, the innovation of new semiconductors, it became immediately clear that this guy was a genius, a maestro who could feel what the materials were thinking, who knew intuitively how to operate in the world of materials. It was wonderful to sit back and watch someone with a deep, intuitive connection to the real thing operate. And after all, that was what the class was really about.

    One more story: years ago, when a mentor of mine (John Erdman) was spending a year in Chicago, he sat in on a class being taught by Felix Browder. He said that Felix would get up the the board and work through pieces of the material, make mistakes, rework things, get stumped and then find his way again — and he found himself wondering what in the world he was doing. After all, this was a famous guy — why stumble around so much. One evening in a bar, when John had lost enough of his inhibition to ask Felix a question his asked something like, “what the heck is up with this class you are teaching — I am having a hard time following it and writing notes.” Felix responded, “Oh, you can have the book I am working through. I decided to teach this rather cold so that the students could see what it was like for a pretty good mathematician to learn a subject.” With that insight, John went back to the class and sat completely fascinated watching the process.

    Personally, I think regurgitation of the book is always a waste of the opportunity to do much more, to experiment, broaden, inspire, enliven.
    And I think students are poorer for the lack of people willing to individualize, to challenge the students in real time, to engage and mentor. (Part of the reason for this is the unreasonable, counterproductive operational dichotomy between teaching and research. Even though great teaching and great research have always been in harmony, the current modes have made it hard to realize this harmony in practice — but this is another subject.)

  2. Jeff Selingo says:

    Kevin,

    Thanks for reading and the comment. One problem is that the focus on research in hiring, promoting, and tenuring professors is that good teaching is often overlooked and innovation in teaching methods is not encouraged at most universities.

    -Jeff

    • Kevin says:

      I claim that this problem stems from the lack of reflection, the prevalence of greed (in all its many, diverse forms), the addiction of universities to grant funding, and a misunderstanding of what real relevance and healthy progress are.

      Regarding the lack of reflection: see: http://youtu.be/KHGcvj3JiGA This is a Google Tech talk by David Levy, titled “No Time to Think”.
      I think the problem he addresses is a big one.

      Greed for more papers, more money, more fame, etc. etc. is also a big factor. In the extreme cases, almost everybody agrees something is very likely out of balance. But the academic environment encourages greed in many, many more “moderate” ways, even while it makes believe it cares about the poor, in all senses of the word poor. In the mean time, we short-change students and ourselves. We end up missing the inspiration that would keep our research and teaching fresh, original, and deep. And we arrive at the place we are now, where we mistake technical complexity and intricate filigree for depth and originality.

      How do we combat this? Change the incentive system. How do we change the incentive system? That, I think, is very difficult.

      I suspect that it takes new beginnings — like a new university — to do that with any real success. One could imagine a few departments here and there, in very special colleges or universities, being given the permission to experiment radically. But institutions are conservative by nature, so it seems this will be rare.

      The flip side of positive change are the scenarios in which radical change is imposed from the outside by those that misunderstand things just as badly, though differently. That doesn’t work any better, and often what was good in the old system is destroyed. The understanding of all this is greatly complicated by the fact that the effects of changes are seen at multiple time scales, some rather long.

      I suppose that it seems to you that I am a pessimist — how can there be any way to change things? Actually, I think starting new things is not as unobtainable as it sounds. And in fact, motivated by my obsession with environments for creativity and excellence (for my program in very technical mathematics), I have been mulling over how one would start a college/university for some time. The more I think about it, the more I think that it is not all that unobtainable, challenging as it would be.

      But one doesn’t have to start a university to begin experimenting with the ideas on a smaller scale. There is the “corner where you are” model — make things very nice in your corner, make it inviting to be there, win over by attraction. You can create corners that are remarkable for their demonstration of an alternative. And in the discipline required by this model, the participants keep themselves in shape to be serious contributors to new universities or whatever, when the bigger opportunities arise.

  3. [...] new ways to reach students. One concept that has received a lot of attention in recent months is “flipping the classroom,” where students review information outside of class through videos or other materials, and the [...]

  4. [...] new ways to reach students. One concept that has received a lot of attention in recent months is “flipping the classroom,” where students review information outside of class through videos or other materials, and the [...]

  5. [...] new ways to reach students. One concept that has received a lot of attention in recent months is “flipping the classroom,” where students review information outside of class through videos or other materials, and the [...]

  6. Varnessa says:

    I agree with your strategies and efforts. Change in the college classroom has been a challenge. Student- centered learning continues to be a struggle for instructors. The most successful classes I have ever taught were the ones where the students actually engaged in the discussions of the topics. I find it very difficult to just present a bunch of facts in a traditional lecture format. I like to hear the students talk about the content and make sense of it. And, yes, I also feel that collaborative learning must be applied in the appropriate setting or during appropriate time.

  7. [...] Education as a Form of Paid Entertainment–Interesting stuff on “flipping the classroom,” [...]

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