Flipped Classroom

5 Keys to Flipped Learning Success

Flipping the classroom isn't easy, but many instructors have found it to be well worth the effort. Here's some advice for making flipped learning work.

Robert Talbert, a math professor at Michigan's Grand Valley State University, has been flipping his classes for seven years.

Talbert teaches Calculus I and a full-year course on discrete mathematics for computer science majors. For calculus, he is using a free, open source textbook written by one of his colleagues with flipped learning in mind, and his department has created a YouTube channel with instructional videos that faculty have recorded using simple screencasting software. For his discrete mathematics course, Talbert is finding and curating online videos that students can watch before coming to class.

In both courses, students are given a structured, pre-class activity that gets them familiar with the lesson's basic concepts, so when they arrive in his class, "they're ready to work at a higher level," he said. That's the essence of the flipped class model: Students learn the basics on their own, outside of class, so class time can be devoted to a deeper exploration of the content.

Back in the early days, when flipped learning was not very common, "I had to work very hard to get students to see that working in a flipped classroom was just as beneficial to their learning, and it was helping them out in ways they might not realize," Talbert said.

For instance, because students are responsible for preparing for class on their own, they are learning how to extract information from a textbook or a video. "These self-regulated learning skills are getting an intentional workout," he explained.

These days, Talbert finds his students to be much more receptive to the idea from the get-go: "Many students have had exposure to the flipped classroom before college, and so it's not a brand-new concept when they get here."

However, Talbert does have some students who still expect to be lectured to. That gives him an opportunity to have a conversation about the nature of education. "Generally, it turns out those students have real misconceptions about what college is even there for," he said.

It also turns out that flipped learning isn't such a hard sell, even for those students. "When I explain to them that the flipped classroom builds their communications skills, it builds their self-regulated learning skills and it builds their content skills in a much stronger way, they're very ready to buy into this."

In Talbert's experience with the flipped classroom, "I have more than enough time to adequately explore all the concepts that students need in class together, rather than sending them off on their own," he said. Students are learning at least as much content, "and very often they are much stronger in aspects of their learning that are not so easily measured, like their engagement with the course, their enthusiasm for the course, how hard they work and how well they communicate with each other and with me."

The nature of their questions changes pretty radically, too. "In traditional classrooms, I would constantly get students asking me questions like: How do I start this problem? In the flipped classroom, I'm getting questions like: What's a good resource to help me understand this problem?"

That's a very subtle but important shift in how students approach problem solving, Talbert said — and it's a direct result of learning in a flipped classroom.

Flipping your classroom isn't easy, but for Talbert and many others, it has been well worth the effort. Here is some advice for making flipped learning work.

1) What happens inside the classroom is more important than the videos.

"It's really, really important for professors to realize that flipped learning isn't about the videos — it's about what you're going to do in class that adds value and engagement for students," said Jon Bergmann, one of the pioneers of the flipped class concept and a board member of the Flipped Learning Network.

In higher education, "students tend to have a choice in whether they will attend class," Bergmann said. "So, you have to give students a compelling reason to go to class, if they're getting the content outside of class. You've got to really rethink class time to make it a richer, more meaningful learning experience, so students will want to come."

Maya Georgieva, associate director of the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning at New York University's Stern School of Business, said the flipped classroom should be a challenge-based environment, where students are using higher-order thinking skills to interact with the content at a deeper level.

"It's a much more active model that requires participation from both the students and the faculty," she explained. That requires faculty to spend more time "thinking through what happens in the classroom. It shouldn't be just a problem set."

Emory Craig, director of e-learning and instructional technology at The College of New Rochelle in New York, said one flipped learning strategy that his faculty have found to be effective is starting off each class period with a Q&A.

That way, "you get a sense of whether everyone has viewed the material online," Craig said. "You're able to do a quick in-class assessment of where everybody is: Did they understand the lesson? What kind of questions do they have from it?"

2) But when you do focus on the videos, make them short.

One of the biggest mistakes that Bergmann sees instructors making when they're first flipping their classroom is making their videos too long.

"They record themselves talking for 45 minutes, like they're giving their regular lecture," Bergmann said — but the videos need to be much shorter if they are going to keep students' interest. "The way to do that is to chunk them into different parts," he advised.

Georgieva pointed to research involving massive open online courseware provider edX, which suggested the optimal video length for student engagement is six minutes or less. "We try to keep our videos under seven minutes," she said.

It's also important to teach students how to watch the videos, Bergmann said: "If you don't show them how to interact with the videos very concretely, I think you're setting yourself up for failure."

If students are just watching video clips and taking in information, "it's a very passive activity," he explained. "You've got to build in some kind of interactivity, and then teach students how to respond to that."

3) Constant communication with students is critical.

"My No. 1 piece of advice would be, make sure you have open lines of communication with your students at all times about everything," Talbert recommended. "My past failures in the flipped classroom, and I've had many of them, have stemmed from some kind of failure to communicate with my students: Either I wasn't listening to their complaints, or I didn't communicate their role in the process clearly enough."

Although today's students were raised with technology and are constantly using their mobile devices, "their expectations of what goes on in the classroom are very much shaped by their high school experience," Craig noted. "And that's something that can range from being very innovative to very traditional."

So, managing students' expectations is just as important as communicating your own.

"You can't just entrench yourself in the classroom and say, 'This is how it's going to work, and it's my way or the highway.' It's a constant dialog, and you have to be willing to communicate clearly, listen and adjust to whatever the situation might involve," Talbert said.

4) Don't try flipping your classroom alone.

If you're in a department with another person who might be interested in flipping the same course, "get together and be partners in the process," Talbert advised. "It cuts the workload in half."

Plus, "if only one person in the department is flipping his classroom, he kind of looks crazy to students," he added. "If two people are doing it, it looks like a trend" — and students will be less inclined to resist this development.

5) Be patient.

"Give yourself time," Talbert concluded. "Spend the summer doing your research and building your courseware. Don't try to do this next week. Find a partner, read up, connect with other people who are doing this through Twitter or the blogosphere, and make the leap only when you're ready."

Flipped Learning Tips for Administrators

Flipping one's classroom requires a willingness to take risks and try something new — and faculty won't succeed without support from their institutions. Here are three ways that campus administrators can help.

Make yourself available to faculty. "It's challenging when you turn a traditional model on its head," said Emory Craig, director of e-learning and instructional technology at The College of New Rochelle. "And it can be unsettling when things don't go as planned."

That's why campus administrators must make themselves available to support their faculty. "You have to provide services on all fronts," Craig said. His institution has an open resource room where faculty can meet with ed tech support staff and get questions answered. "There are going to be initial glitches with this," he noted. "You want to provide the support that faculty need."

Celebrate success. Colleges and universities can encourage the use of a flipped learning model by holding up successful practitioners as examples for others to follow.

"Finding a way to celebrate and share success is important," said Maya Georgieva, associate director of the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning at NYU's Stern School of Business. "In many institutions, research is celebrated in a very particular way, and we need to be showcasing exemplary teaching as well."

Rethink classroom spaces. Many classrooms are not designed to support active learning strategies. "Faculty need to be able to move around freely," Georgieva said. "Trying to do that in a classroom with bolted chairs is almost impossible."

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