The Flipped Classroom FAQ

Flipped ClassroomTwelve months ago, had I asked just about anyone on my campus about the idea of the “flipped classroom,” they would have looked at me wondering what I was talking about.  A lot has changed in the last year, however, thanks in large part to stories in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the flipped classroom approach and related technologies.  Now I regularly have faculty members bring up the idea and ask me what I think about it.

However, there are many who haven’t heard about the flipped classroom, and many who have heard about it have a particular set of misconceptions about it.  I would like to address both groups in this blog post through a FAQ about the flipped classroom.

What is the flipped classroom?  This term describes a teaching approach in which students get a first exposure to course content before class through readings or videos, then spend class time deepening their understanding of that content through active learning exercises.

Why the term “flipped”?  In the traditional approach to college math and science teaching, students come to class to get a first exposure to the material through lecture, then try to make sense of that material through problem sets and other activities after class.  The “flip” involves shifting the first exposure to outside of class and the deeper learning to class time.

The usual approach:

The flipped approach:

Why flip one’s classroom? Some argue that of these two parts of the learning process—the transfer of information and the assimilation of that information, to use Eric Mazur’s terms—it is the second part that is more challenging for students.  Why not have them engage in that part of the process during class when everyone in the learning community (peers and instructors) are available to assist?  Students don’t need to be physically in each other’s presence for the first stage, but they really benefit from the feedback and collaboration that the learning community provides during that second stage.

Another argument for flipping is from the perspective of instructors who want to include more active learning exercises in their classes, but worry they can’t find the class time.  The flipped classroom approach gives these instructors a model for making more class time available for active learning.

How do you make sure students come to class prepared?  Our colleagues in the humanities have for years (decades even) asked students to “do the reading” before class so that they can discuss the reading during class.  However, these colleagues also frequently complain that students don’t actually do the reading.  The flipped classroom doesn’t work if students don’t come prepared.  Most flipped classroom practitioners use two approaches in tandem: (a) giving students in-class or online reading quizzes (usually with at least some participation points on the line) and (b) actually teaching class as if students had done the reading.  If students know they’ll get a recap of the pre-class work from their instructor when they arrive in class, they’ll be less inclined to do the readings or watch the videos. They’re busy people, these students, and they’ll save time where they can.

What technology is required to flip one’s classroom? None, really. At least nothing we usually think of as technology.  I’ve been flipping my math classes for years by having my students read their textbooks before class.  Many flipped classroom practitioners, however, prefer to have their students watch videos before class, either videos they create themselves or ones they find online (such as videos from the Khan Academy or MIT’s OpenCourseWare or from a MOOC platform like Coursera).  The main idea is to give your students a first exposure to the day’s topic that sets them up for deeper learning during class.  I’m also a fan of online reading quizzes to hold students accountable for the pre-class assignments, and that requires some technology, too, of course.

What do you do during class time?  Something different!  If class time looks the same as a “traditional” class, then you haven’t finished flipping.  During class, you want to limit the amount of time you lecture, and increase the time students spend applying the day’s material to interesting problems.  Leverage the fact that everyone is in the same place at the same time by asking students to work collaboratively on problems, giving each other support and feedback.  Give yourself opportunities to circulate among your students to check in on their understanding, answer their questions, and prompt them to think more deeply.  There are a variety of active learning approaches that work for this.  I’m a fan of teaching with clickers myself, but see my 2010 blog post on active learning in mathematics for some other ideas.

You keep using the term “first exposure.” Did you make it up?  No, I have to give credit to Barbara Walvoord and Virginia Johnson Anderson for that term.  They use it in their book Effective Grading which is (a) excellent and (b) about much more than grading.

You haven’t said much about lecture videos. Isn’t that what the flipped classroom is all about? No, but that’s a very common misconception.  The lecture video portion of the flipped classroom approach gets a lot of attention because it’s the piece that involves shiny new technologies, but it’s the pedagogy that drives the flipped classroom, not the technology.  If all you’re doing is posting lecture videos online, you’re not flipping your classroom and, more importantly, you’re missing out on the learning opportunities the full model provides.

The term “flipped classroom” bugs the heck out of me. Can I call it something else?  Yes!  I actually prefer the term “inverted classroom,” coined by economics professors Maureen Lage, Glenn Pratt, and Michael Treglia back in 2000.  But I use “flipped classroom” because that has become the more popular term.

Okay, I’m in.  How can I learn more?  Some starting points: This blog post by the University of Colorado’s Stephanie Chasteen, this resource guide from the University of Indiana at Bloomington, the K12-focused-but-still-helpful Flipped Learning Network, and the weekly #flipclass Twitter chat.

Image: "final exam," dcJohn, Flickr (CC)


The real redesign is the classroom time...

In teaching discussions, I am interested that the part of flipping classrooms that gets the attention is how to create the first exposure (as you say, usually videos, but sometimes other information dissemination approaches).  I think the really challenging part of flipping your classroom is developing meaningful and engaging activities for the assimilation portions.  With a flipped classroom one cannot "get away" with an occasional hands-on, interactive element to the classroom--it is all hands-on.  Done well, this is where the real radical and creative redesign comes in.

This is a great opportunity to do all that fun stuff that one does not usually have time for.  But it also demands that you come up with a solid and effective set of classroom activities that really reinforces the learning that students are doing in the first exposure.

Another Method for Students to Come Prepared to the Classroom

"JiTTs" (just-in-time teaching) is another, albeit less common, method the helps students be ready for class in the inverted classroom. Briefly, the instructor assigns an in-depth question or two in the course LMS and they're graded before class. But, instead of grading for correctness, they're graded on how well students use the readings or videos in their answer. The instructor also asks what the student found surprising or challenging in the preparation material. The instructor thus gets valuable feedback on what the students find challenging and the class is oriented around those points. Often instructors be surprised by the student responses, as I have been. They provide a very valuable window into student thinking.

For more on JiTTs, see "Just in Time Teaching (JiTT)" or Just in Time Teaching: Across the Disciplines, and Across the Academy (New Pedagogies and Practices for Teaching in Higher Education), Simkins and Maier, eds.

Thanks for sharing this,

Thanks for sharing this, Bill.  I'm a big supporter of JiTT.  I use a version of it in my math courses, asking students to respond to a few open-ended, online questions about the reading before they come to class.  I grade the questions on effort (if it looks like it wasn't typed by a monkey, it gets full credit), but when I read them attentively, it's clear that maybe 80-85% of my students get something of value from the reading.  And when I have time before class, I'll scan through their answers and tweak my lesson plan accordingly.  The process helps me tune my instruction to my students' particular learning needs, and it motivates the students to come to class ready to get more out of our classroom interactions.

Does flipped means getting rid of lecture?

Thank you for a great post, Derek!  I do think that in order to really invert the classroom, one must use videos; not readings.  At least if one is inverting a classroom that had been using the traditional lecture for classroom activities before being "inverted".  If not, then the traditional lecture (again, a feature of the traditional classroom) has been deleted and hence the classroom has not really been “inverted”; but it has been changed.  I actually came to this conclusion after reading Richard Mayer bible on Multimedia Learning.  In it, he describes many years of research that support the thesis that in many disciplines students learn much better by watching movement accompanied by audio (animation, videos, etc) than by reading.  Interestingly, this simple fact had been pointed out to me by my students after I tried to “flipped” my own classroom without using videos ( I used to assign readins instead).  Their typical complaint in student evaluations was: “I like the active learning in the classroom, but I really miss the lecture.

Very interesting, Jose.

Very interesting, Jose. Thanks for sharing this perspective.  Thinking like a mathematician, yes, you're right that if the lecture is transformed, then one hasn't merely inverted the instructional order.  But I think that often the in-class lecture and pre-class readings serve the same purpose of providing students that first exposure to the material.

Perhaps the value of a multimedia pre-class assignment is that students come to class more prepared to engage in deeper discussions than if they had merely completed a text-only reading.  I'm with you that if Richard Mayer makes the case, it's one worth paying attention to!  However, I find that some instructors aren't excited to take the time to prepare pre-class videos for students.  For instructors willing to make that jump, they'll likely find value in it.  But other instructors can still see some of the "flipped classroom" goodness by leveraging existing text-based resources.

That said, with all the open online courses and other open educational resources available to faculty now, it's becoming increasingly possible to point students to multimedia content created by others!