Inspired by one guiding question, “what is best for students in my classroom”, high school chemistry teacher Jon Bergmann, along with his colleague Aaron Sams, developed a teaching method now called flipped classroom or flipped learning. Jon defines it as “a pedagogical approach in which direct instruction moves from the group learning space (classroom) to the individual learning space (the student at home), and the resulting group space is transformed into a dynamic, interactive learning environment where the educator guides students as they apply concepts and engage creatively in the subject matter.” In other words, the learning environment in the class, as we know it, is flipped on its head.
Pedagogical tools like these can be particularly useful when the topic tends to be confusing for students — class time can be used for discussions directed at clearing their misconceptions. In fact, teachers who routinely flip their classes use this criterion in choosing whether or not to flip their classroom: which topics would be better covered if students are actively engaged in class?
Flipped classrooms have been tried effectively in many countries; at every class level, from kindergarten to college; in classes of all sizes, from a dozen students to few hundred (the largest count of students was 350 students at a university in Ohio, US). In following such a method, teachers provide resources to students to review before they come to class, where this prior knowledge is made use of in way of either discussions or activities.
Quite often, these are in the form of video lectures, either created by the teacher themselves or curated from one of the many popular lecture videos freely available online. Notable examples of such online portals include Ted Ed, Khan Academy, iBiology, etc. Interested teachers can also model their flipped classrooms after experienced peers, for example, Ms. M’s Biology class or Biological Principles course at Georgia Tech University. A ‘Quick Start Guide’ from the Center for Teaching and Learning, University of Texas Austin, recommends instructors make available 3 – 5 videos each week, each lasting only 3 – 5 minutes. Short videos are crucial so neither teachers nor students feel overwhelmed. Examples of tools to help teachers make their own videos include TeacherTube, Windows Movie Maker, and ScreenCast, to name a few. A collection of videos showing instructors using this mode of teaching in their classrooms can be accessed at http://flippedclassroom.org/.
Multiple tools are available for teachers to make the most out it when they choose to flip their class. One option for teachers is to use “guide questions” during recorded lecture. These questions can be dispersed at different points in the lecture video in a “scavenger hunt” sort of format. They are generally open-ended questions, meant for students to know what they are expected to learn in a given topic. For instance, a lesson in Genetics might include a guiding question “are your genes your destiny?” A lesson in Ecology might include a question as “Should endangered species be allowed to go extinct?” — questions where both sides can be argued.
Although video lectures are commonly employed, they are by no means, an absolute necessity to flip a classroom. Textbook chapter readings or pertinent references can be employed just as well when making or watching videos is not a plausible option for teachers and/or students.
During class discussions that follow, teachers can get valuable insight into student understanding (and misunderstanding) of the material covered. In discussing with their peers, and getting feedback from teachers, students learn more deeply. And teachers can reach students at different levels of understanding, and different styles of learning. Teachers experienced in using flipped learning insist that the success of these measures, and in essence, of flipped learning as a pedagogical tool depends on how closely the in-class discussion questions relate to the pre-class lecture material.
As a teacher, how do you know students are using the tools you make available? In one of the best examples of ensuring accountability than Bergmann shared with us, the teacher asked his students to complete an online quiz after watching video lectures. That made it clear to him which students had watched the videos, what they understood, and to what extent. Those who did not, or could not watch were set up in a separate group during class-time, and asked to watch it then. Those who scored 90% or higher in the online quiz were handed assignments, and those who had average or lower scores were given one-on-one time with the instructor. Jon Bergmann says the success of this approach hinges, to a large extent, on how a teacher uses class-time. “I would argue it (use of class-time) is not by lecturing. What exactly is done — activities, assignments or discussion — depends on the topic at hand. But it must be interactive”, says Bergmann.
Much like pre-class materials, low-tech options can also be availed to ensure students have completed the preparatory work. Examples include “entrance ticket” — assignments based on pre-class lectures, that students hand in at the time of coming to class. These can be tied to student attendance if need be — attendance is given to only those who turn in the assignment. Alternatively, the teacher can ask students to answer reflective, or thought-provoking questions at the beginning of the class.
What makes this form of teaching particularly appealing for classrooms in India is that it can make it possible for teachers to reach larger number of students in ways not possible following the traditional lecture format. For instance, a class of 150 students scheduled for three times a week, can be split three ways and each group meet only once for discussions on that week’s videos. Plus, teachers save on the time spent on grading student assignments, as what used to be homework assignments are done in presence of the instructor in a ‘flipped class’.
Pankaj Khanna, faculty at the Department of Chemistry at Acharya Narendra Dev College, New Delhi, actively uses recordings of his lectures. A big proponent of blended learning, he recalls how beneficial it was for him as a student to be able to watch recordings of his teachers’ lectures in his student days. Asim Auti, faculty at the Department of Biotechnology at MES Garware College (Pune) used flipped learning when his students along with students from Anna University (Chennai) and Osmania University (Hyderabad) participated in a short online course, “Frontiers course on Genomics, Proteomics and Ethics”. The lectures were conducted by faculty from Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio (USA), available for streaming or download.
“The experience was quite new for our students, and they really enjoyed that! However, internet connectivity was an issue for some of them. The thing about flipped classroom is that apart from role of the teacher, the nature of student participation also changes: it requires planning on their part to write down questions as they are watching lecture videos, because it would be 2 – 3 days till in-class discussion.” On the subject of student evaluation, he says “all students had the opportunity to interact with the teaching faculty (at Ohio State). They were graded on the basis of individual interactions, and final presentation that each of them made.” Zainab Khan was one of the students in this course, pursuing her MSc in Garware college at the time. She recalls, “it was highly enriching experience — many new topics came out of discussions with other students, even ones that happened virtually [with students at other centres]. The faculty made sure we were actively involved throughout. I always looked forward to the class.”
Thus, flipped classroom affords benefits of both extensive group discussion, and individual attention to students — to the extent that’s usually not possible within the traditional [lecture] setting. Going through the traditional learning system for years on, students at any level become experts at “playing school” — they are used to getting specific directions. This is not to make a case against giving them directions. But if they can effectively repeat back definitions from textbook or regurgitate teacher’s words from a previous lecture, does that mean they have learned? Are the students “playing school”, or actually learning?
Jon Bergmann’s lecture video on “how small is an atom”:
How to motivate students to participate actively in a flipped classroom: