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How to Make the Most of the Flipped Classroom

Last semester, the Vanderbilt University (TN) Center for Teaching's two most popular workshops were "Flipping the Classroom" and "Leading Classroom Discussion."

"A few years ago if I had said flipped classroom to them, most faculty would have given me a blank stare," said Derek Bruff, director of the center and a senior lecturer in mathematics. "Now they are coming to us wanting more detail. The speed of that change and the pervasiveness of the interest has surprised me."

Indeed, a November 2013 survey from the Center for Digital Education and Sonic Foundry found that half of university faculty members have flipped their classroom or plan to within the next year. Despite that enthusiasm for the model, though, the truth is that many faculty members struggle with making their lecture-free classroom time interactive and engaging.

One problem may be that many higher education faculty members have never taken a teaching methods course, said Jackie Gerstein, who teaches education and educational technology courses at Boise State University (ID) and Western Governors' University (online). "The ones who are using the flipped classroom, in my perspective, are the ones who have experience with more two-way communication with students and interactive activities in the classroom: former K-12 teachers and scientists who are used to labs."

Flipping is not an excuse for twice the amount of lecturing, Bruff noted. He tries to get lecturers to bring traditional out-of-class student activities into the classroom. "Rather than students working on solving problems by themselves," he asked, "how can we optimize that 75 minutes we have together? That synchronicity becomes a strength."

CT asked several professors how they make their classrooms more participatory. Here are their best practices:

California Lutheran: Creating an Arena of Inquiry

David Marcey, Fletcher Jones Chair of developmental biology at California Lutheran University, stressed that he doesn't merely put lectures on video for convenience' sake -- the classroom activities are the primary driver of his flip.

"I wanted to turn the classroom into an arena of inquiry," he said. He is continually testing out new classroom activities in his course "Metabolism, Genes and Development," which usually has 20 to 40 students. "It is not easy to do well," he warned.

Marcey calls his flipping model "CLIC" -- for Cinematic Lectures & Inverted Classrooms. One approach he has taken involves using clickers to get at higher order cognitive questions. He has students click an answer and look at the results together. Then they talk in small groups and vote to answer again, which generates a conversation, he said. "We get to peer-to-peer learning and start to get at the meta-cognition, so students start thinking about what they know and don't know. That is overlooked in our lecture-based classes."

Marcey noted that some students take well to synthesizing information from lectures and readings and applying it critically. "Of course, with other students we are disappointed that they didn't seem to grasp the concepts at a deeper level. But this practice in the classroom helps them identify and work on what they don't understand."

Other classroom activities include building plastic models of DNA molecules, constructing concept maps or researching a topic online during class and making a presentation. "I get a little pushback from some students who prefer the more passive mode," Marcey said, "but many more students enjoy it and the classroom is more vibrant, more engaged. I am committed to continuing it."

Duke University: Flipping Large Classes

When Mohamed Noor, Earl McLean Professor and associate chair of biology at Duke University (NC), created a MOOC on Coursera, he specifically planned to use it to flip his large on-campus course, Biology 202L: Genetics and Evolution.

"Once I put the course on Coursera, I felt that I would be cheating my students at Duke if all I did was give the same lecture that anybody can see on the Internet for free," he said. "Of course, there is more help available on campus, such as lab sections and question-and-answer sessions," he added, "but I want to continue to look for ways to make the classroom time more valuable, to maximize student success."

Noor said he already had a few interactive elements in place such as pre-lecture quizzes on what students had already read. Students provide feedback on the videos they have watched, and he spends the first 10 minutes of class clarifying any concepts that were confusing.

Now he is trying to add more participatory activities in his classes. Some of the topics are amenable to group problem-solving, and he asks students to work together as he and his 10 teaching assistants walk around the room offering help. After students have worked on a problem, he uses Poll Everywhere to get a sense of students' grasp of the concepts.

But for the later elements of the class, there is not an obvious set of problems for students to work on together, so Noor is still trying to decide how to make those sessions more interactive. He also is working on being responsive to students who struggle with the new model. "It definitely puts more on the shoulders of the students," he said, "and some do better than others at staying up-to-speed with the video lecture materials."

The Center for Instructional Technology at Duke holds "Flipping Fellowship" meetings every other week for faculty members and it has been useful to see what other faculty members are doing, Noor said, although what is possible in a class of 30 students isn't as easy to do in a class of 400.

'Speed Dating' at George Washington University

For Lorena Barba, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at George Washington University (DC), her interest in flipping stems from evidence about the ineffectiveness of the lecture method. "That is really not a question anymore," she said. "Lecturing is one-sided and not effective. Students tend to tune out. There is not much point in it anymore. The content is everywhere."

Like California Lutheran's Marcey, she said that some people have a misconception that moving the lecture to video is the point of flipping. "The main ingredient is the meaningful activities you develop for class to help students assimilate new knowledge they've been exposed to in that content."

She said that flipping is also a discovery process for the instructor. "There is not a formula," she declared. "I try to think about the projects I used to assign as homework and the ways that students would struggle with those individually at home, and think of a way that they can work on those problems collaboratively in class, with me there to guide them, ask questions and steer them."

Barba, who recently moved to GWU from Boston University (MA), described a Computational Fluid Dynamics class at BU that involved creating coding programs to solve mathematical and physics problems. "Traditionally, I would present a theory and methods and students would take notes, then I would assign a project for them to do outside class with computing programming tools. Now they watch videos of the lecture, then work in class on projects, asking each other questions if they get stuck. "It really is magic because it starts building a team environment," Barba said.

In one class, she decided to try a "speed-dating" idea with the class split in half: one group seated and the other standing. The ones standing up would rotate desk to desk, while the seated person would explain his techniques and solution. After three minutes, they switched. "Then I had them vote for the best solution, and took a consensus," she explained. "The winner put his solution up on a projector, described it and answered questions."

Barba, who has been flipping since 2011, recommended being prepared for unexpected things to happen and being ready to adjust. Some activities you might expect to take very little time will take much more, she noted. Others you expect to take a whole period may just take a few minutes, so you have to have other activities ready. "You are giving up control, so you have to be emotionally prepared for that. But it is a good thing. It depends on how students respond, and you can't control that 100 percent. Be flexible. Let them guide the learning."

Although she has heard of other professors meeting with resistance from students, she said her students say they are never bored, they get to talk to each other during class and they get support from her in a personalized way.

Flipping the Medical School at Vanderbilt and Stanford

One of the places flipping could have its biggest impact is in medical school, where traditionally the first two years arelecture-based and heavy on content.

With the biomedical revolution, there are too many facts for students to remember, said Charles Prober, senior associate dean for medical education and a professor of pediatrics, microbiology and immunology at the Stanford University School of Medicine (CA), which has begun experimenting with recorded lectures. "I would rather have them taught fewer facts and focus more on how to do quality searches to access the facts."

At Stanford, first-year medical students in biochemistry watch mini-videos, and then break up into groups of seven. They are presented with a clinical problem that underscores the biochemistry pathways they have been studying. The faculty member makes this a competition between the tables to come up with an answer, which Probers said makes it more exciting and more engaging. In another example, students in an endocrinology course might watch a video about certain diseases. They then see clinical examples, including labs and x-rays, and in groups of four to five go from station to station studying the cases until they have worked through the end of the cycle. Then they are asked to describe one of the cases, and the faculty member is there to address any misconceptions.

But Prober admitted that the transition from lecture to activities has not been an easy one. Faculty members are used to one model of teaching and they are reluctant to give it up. "The question -- what am I going to do in the class if not lecture -- is a very serious one for them," he said. "But we are making resources available for those who want to experiment and innovate." There are grants available on campus to provide funding assistance. In the latest round, there were 22 applications, half from the School of Medicine.

The Vanderbilt School of Medicine is revising its curriculum so that the first two years of lecture-based courses are condensed into one year before students move to a clinical setting. Creating shortened and flipped molecular biology, genetics and biochemistry courses required actively taking things out, said Tyler Reimschisel, assistant professor of pediatrics and neurology and vice chair for education in the Department of Pediatrics. "One key to flipping is that less is more," he said. "You can't ask them to watch the video outside class, participate in class projects and then assign more homework. You have to narrow down to what is most crucial for them to focus on. So you may have to take some content out."

Reimschisel's students watch four to six videos each week of 10-15 minutes each. In class he gives them 10 multiple-choice questions that they answer individually and submit electronically. Then they break into 13 groups of eight and answer the questions as a group after discussion and consensus. "We have a Smart Board in class with screens at each group station. We can all see and discuss the results," he said. The questions are quite difficult. "I try to make it so they all miss two or three. Otherwise, they would have nothing to discuss. I tell them I am comfortable with their frustration." The team discussion is part of their learning, he added. They talk for 45 minutes in class and then present their team answer, and the class members vote for their favorite answer, which leads to interesting discussions.

Reimschisel said flipping requires getting students to think differently. "We have taught students to be sedate and to absorb information like a sponge. It softens the brain. They are also still used to competing for grades. But we are more interested in having them learn how to learn. This is what they will do as clinicians. You have studied something, now you have to apply it."

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