How to Flip a College Classroom

This article first appeared on LinkedIn.

Flipped ClassroomHigher education is rapidly expanding into the online teaching space, creating both opportunities and challenges for instructors looking to integrate online activities into their courses. But simply pointing students to online videos or quizzes does not automatically lead to successful learning experiences. If you are ready to experiment with a “flipped” classroom in your teaching, here is what to keep in mind: A successful flipped classroom starts by planning in-class activities to engage students in active learning, and then organizes online content and activities around that learning.

The concept of a flipped classroom involves a blended learning approach where students are exposed to knowledge-based content outside of class so they can spend more time inside class actively engaged in higher-level analysis and problem-solving activities. Or, as the Flipped Learning Network defines it, flipped learning involves

a pedagogical approach in which direct instruction moves from the group learning space to the individual learning space, 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.

The main motivation for flipping the classroom is to open up more class time for active learning. After all, we learn best by doing, rather than by passively receiving information (as with the traditional college lecture format). As Charles Bonwell and James Eison (1991) emphasize, active learning “involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing.” It involves higher-order thinking—analysis, synthesis, evaluation—and the exploration of attitudes and values. It involves the prized critical thinking and problem-solving skills required to participate in society and succeed in today’s fast-paced, technologically-driven workplaces. The flipped classroom harnesses class time to engage students in active learning.

Humanities seminars have long utilized a type of flipped classroom approach before the term was coined, dedicating class time to lively discussions in which students and the professor discuss and critically analyze texts. But even large lecture-hall classes—typically associated with introductory courses in math or the natural sciences—benefit from bringing higher-level analysis and problem-solving activities into the classroom.

When flipping the classroom, start with what you want to accomplish during the face-to-face class sessions to engage students in active learning aligned with the course’s learning objectives; then work backward from those in-class activities to create the online content and activities that help students prepare for class.

In designing your in-class activities, ask yourself: During what activities will students benefit most from having an expert present? During what activities will students benefit from having peers present to actively discuss concepts, critically evaluate ideas or solve problems? In other words, what activities do you—the teacher—need to be present for to best support active student learning? What problem-solving activities work best when students engage in peer-to-peer interactions in the presence of you, the expert? Once you answer these questions, you can plan your in-class activities and design appropriate online content and activities to support that in-class learning.

Creating a successful flipped classroom experience for students requires integrating their online work with their in-class work. This keeps students motivated to do the online work because they see the connection with what they will be doing in class, and it helps direct and scaffold their studying and preparation for the class meetings. Considering the online activities and the in-class activities as integral pieces of a holistic learning experience also allows you to more effectively move students toward mastery of the course’s learning outcomes.

To further motivate students to do the online activities before class, create a pre-class deliverable that students must complete as a ticket to class. For example, say you want students to watch a short video lecture before class so you can dedicate class time to activities that apply the concepts from that lecture. To keep students accountable, you might require them to complete a short online quiz that acts as a low-stakes formative assessment (i.e., knowledge check). Allow students multiple attempts at the quiz and assign the quiz a low point value or base the grade on participation to encourage students to view it as a studying tool. Many learning management systems allow you to see commonly missed questions from online quizzes, providing you with insight into areas that might require more focus in the class activities. This works especially well for math or science courses where students often struggle with misconceptions.

Another example might require students to post a comment or question to an online discussion board before class. This can be done after having students watch a video lecture or complete a reading assignment. As with the formative quiz in the previous example, students must complete this online activity as a ticket to the class in which they will be expected to dive deeper into activities based on what they read or watched. Integrate responses from the discussion board posts into the class discussion, challenging students to help each other answer questions or elaborate on ideas from the posts. This works especially well for discussion-based seminars in the humanities or social sciences where students are expected to contribute and evaluate ideas during class. 

As illustrated in both of these examples, be sure to leverage the online activities during class. This is easy to accomplish when the online activities and in-class activities fit together like two complementary pieces of a larger whole. That larger whole, of course, encompasses the learning outcomes you want students to achieve.

Educational technologies open up numerous opportunities for teachers in higher education. Learning management systems allow instructors to harness the power of everything from online discussion boards and quizzes to screencasting tools and video editing software. When flipping your classroom for the first time, it can be easy to get caught up in or even overwhelmed by the technology. But remember, technology is merely a tool for planning and designing online content and activities that ultimately support your in-class focus on active learning. Keep that in mind and you will be on your way to successfully flipping your classroom.

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