Flipping the classroom: making our classrooms more like labs


The UC Davis Graduate Teaching Community discussion series is in full swing again this quarter. Our topic:  students as partners in learning. This week I will be presenting a workshop focusing on a new and exciting trend among educators: flipping the classroom.

The aim of flipping the classroom is to reverse the traditional teaching paradigm. Instead of a teacher giving lectures in class and assigning homework, basic introduction to knowledge and concepts is done at home by students through readings–or increasingly through online prerecorded lectures in the form of videos, podcasts, or screencasts. This allows classroom time to be for more “homework-esque” exercises such as group projects and problems sets, except that now students have the aid and immediate feedback from their peers and teachers. For those of you familiar with Bloom’s taxonomy, the flipped classroom is essentially inverting the normal pyramid scheme of teaching. Students do the foundational but lower-level learning tasks at home (knowledge, comprehension), then come to class where exercises and discussion guide them to achieve higher-level learning goals (application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation).

The benefits of being flipped: There are some impressive statistics out there showing that the flipped classroom can have a big positive impact on student grades, as well as overall retention and graduation rates. The key to the success of the flipped style is the encouragement of active-learning in the classroom. Teachers usually spend all their class time lecturing, covering basic concepts, then send students home to apply this information through homework assignments. Most teachers would agree that students only really learn the material once they review it and apply it in these homework activities. However, students have many activities and distractions vying for their attention outside of the classroom. In addition, it is very easy for group-work to turn into copying without teacher supervision, and confusion about material may take a while to correct if the student encounters the problem outside of the the classroom.  Instead, when students are doing problem sets and working in groups in the classroom, the teacher can manage the time and attention spent on each exercise, provide immediate feedback, and make sure that all students are progressing in their individual understanding.

Integrating technology: One of the major reasons that the flipped classroom style is taking off is due to the increasing wealth of resources available for educators and students to make and access learning materials online. As an undergraduate at Cornell and a graduate student at UC Davis, I have taken multiple classes where all introduction to concepts was done via screencasts (powerpoint slides with the prerecorded lecture synced) or a combination of assigned books readings and video lectures available online. Some of these resources were created by the lecturer themselves, while others were links to freely available material such as Khan Academy videos. After I felt confident with the basic concepts in these online materials, I would proceed to the more “hands-on” portion of the coursework–labs supervised by instructors and TAs or guided practice problems.

The importance of partnership: On one hand, flipping the classroom  requires students to take a more active and equal share in their own learning by doing the required readings and viewings before class. Students that do not come prepared to a flipped classroom will not be successful. They will not be able to ask questions about concepts they didn’t understand, apply information, or achieve the more advanced level of understanding teachers are aiming for because they are missing the basic foundation. In a normal classroom, students usually do fine in the classroom whether or not they have done their homework, since the homework doesn’t affect their ability to sit and listen to the next lecture (although their chances of understanding the new material and getting a passing homework grade are still in danger). 

Secondly, since educators aren’t spending all of the class time lecturing, the flipped classroom gives teachers more opportunities to involve students in the classroom learning process. Depending on the type of course, grade level of students, and creativity of the instructor, this partnership could take a variety of forms. Perhaps each student is required to present a 5 minute summary of the homework readings and watchings to the class during the course of the semester. Or maybe students are broken up into groups to discuss questions expanding upon the concepts in the reading, while the teacher moves between groups to facilitate discourse and challenge ideas where necessary. In-class debates, experiments, skits, reenactments, and demonstrations with students as the primary participants and the teacher as motivator and facilitator become possible.

Flipping it in the sciences: As a scientist and science educator, I think about how the concepts covered in GTC meetings apply to the type of courses I have taken in the past and will teach in the future. Interestingly, I realized that most lab-based course components are essentially already flipped. In the typical chemistry or physics lab, the student is expected to master the scientific concepts outside of class (usually through readings in a lab manual). Labs are obviously all about practicing and applying concepts–higher-level learning that follows from basic understanding. At the start of class, a TA or professor  reviews and clarifies the activities to be performed, but then students are set loose on their beakers and force-plates, asking questions to the roaming instructor as necessary.

The comparative vertebrate lab that taught last year was also flipped; students were expected to read the lab manual ahead of time to become familiar with the structures and creatures that they would be dissecting in great detail during the course of the lab. At the start of each class, I would provide a brief overview and outline the objectives for the day’s dissection, but the real learning took place as the students did the dissections. Even though I refrained from protracted lecturing, I believe that I was still an important part of their learning experience, not only by pointing out structures and correcting them when they were wrong, but by challenging students to make connections between labs and different structures while I was moving around the room. The flipped set-up also encouraged students to work together to identify structures and reason through problems.

Therefore, it seems to be that flipping the classroom is really about making classrooms function more like labs: places for experimentation, collaboration, practice, and problem solving. That being said, I am not sure what this means for courses that have separate lab components. Do we do away with the lectures entirely? In many cases, these courses keep lectures because of the amount and complexity of the material, but students may learn more in the long run by doing the reading at home and reserving class for problem-solving and discussion.

It will be interesting to see how people feel about flipping the classroom and turning the traditional teaching paradigm on its head. Hopefully I will see you there!


About sarahjlongo

I'm a first year graduate student in the Department of Population Biology at UC Davis. Broadly, I am interested in studying both the patterns and processes of evolution in actinopterygian fishes.
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