The “Flipped Classroom” is Not The Solution For Crappy Teaching [Opinion]

by Nicole Barbaro [~2,000 words]

If you pay even the slightest attention to college teaching news, you’re familiar with the term “flipped classroom”. The “flipped classroom,” aside from being the latest teaching trend in higher education, is a teaching strategy in which the ‘content’ part of college classes is moved to outside formal class time, whereas the ‘homework’ part of the college classes is moved to the formal class time — hence “flipping” the classroom. The idea being, that, students get the basic content knowledge that was traditionally delivered via lectures on their own time outside of class, and the in-class time is devoted exclusively to activities, group work, and interactive discussion.

Whereas a “traditional” college class may include long-winded lectures, some over-crowded powerpoint slides, and a youtube video link that may or may not work, the “flipped” classroom may include recorded lectures to be viewed at the students leisure (outside of class), in-class jeopardy, and group activities where you make life-long friends and learning is awesome. In other words, “sage on the stage” is out, and “edutainment” and “active-learning” are in.

The flipped classroom strategy is not without good intention, and there are aspects of the flipped classroom that I use myself and encourage others to use as well. Most importantly, there is good empirical evidence that active, engaged classrooms are indeed more effective for promoting student learning and positive student outcomes than lecture only classes. Why? Because students all learn the same way: by doing things.

Because students learn best by doing, class time should be focused on doing things, often in groups, with the opportunity for the instructor to assist when needed. Students can then ask questions, get clarification, and engage with the material more deeply during class time. Gaining the content knowledge via reading or recorded lectures can be done on the student’s own time outside the classroom. If students learn best by doing, then instructors should be teaching students how to do things in the classroom.

Although each discipline is going to “do” things differently, across the sciences at least, active learning classrooms appear to show increases in student performance. Students, on average, score nearly half a standard deviation higher in active classrooms, as compared to passive lecture classrooms. And, fewer students fail in active classrooms — important especially for foundational gateway STEM courses.

Source: Freeman et al., 2014

Active learning, and “doing things,” however, is going to look very different depending on the discipline that you’re teaching. Learning, especially in the social and behavioral sciences (I am a psychology instructor), is going to primarily include having a foundational base of content knowledge, and then being able to use that knowledge to build models, think critically about theories and their hypotheses, and evaluate the merit of other research. For upper-level students of psychology, this “doing” should include mock clinical practice if clinical focus, hands-on research experiences, and doing statistical analyses.

All of these “things” that we want students to do (assess research, build models, run experiments, conduct analyses) can, and should, be broken down into concrete skill-based activities — activities that you can build into your courses. In my psychology courses I have students read published research articles, learn to read tables and figures that I pull from actual research articles, build models, communicate ideas with each other, and evaluate the merit of hypotheses in the literature.

Rather than walking through every table and figure (e.g., the axis labels, the keys, the statistics, p-values, etc) as I do now, I could just tell them the finding in a single sentence on the slide, but then how are they going to learn how to read an article if we don’t walk through the skills needed to do so?

Many things I hear instructors complain about with regard to their students are things that instructors routinely fail to actually teach their students. Oh, you want your 3000-level students to find five research articles in reputable journals, read them, form insightful conclusions, and then convey all of this information in a logically organized and neatly formatted term paper? Well, did you — or anyone else in your department — teach them how to do any of the skills required for these tasks? Did you teach them how to use the university library system or Google scholar? Did you teach them how to identify appropriate articles? Did you teach them how to read a scientific article? Did you teach them how to infer conclusions from tables and figures? Did you teach them how to organize the content in a paper? Did you teach them how to summarize information? Did you teach them how to format their paper? Perhaps you should. And you can do all of these things in the classroom, in addition to teaching the necessary content knowledge.

So, should we all completely flip our classrooms, so much so that we have the desks on the ceiling and students are prepared for pure physical learning during class?

No, not fully, in my opinion anyway.

Why not? Because the flipped classroom is not a solution for crappy teaching. A flipped classroom is not going to magically save unenthused instructors who aren’t putting effort into their prep, or who aren’t interested in teaching students skills (the job market today wants skills, not only content knowledge). Just because you give an activity doesn’t make it useful. Just because your classroom is flipped, doesn’t mean it will be effective. And, just because you lecture, doesn’t mean it’s bad (or good).

“A flipped classroom is not going to magically save unenthused instructors who aren’t putting effort into their prep, or who aren’t interested in teaching students skills.”

Here is an example of how an activity can be useless. A key idea in science is that it’s important “to know what you don’t know”, or what is referred to in the educational literature as “metacognition”. What is a (poor) way to have students learn what they don’t know? By asking them to reflect on their knowledge.

The activity can go something like this: 1. Ask students what they know about a topic at the beginning on class (because they were supposed to read before class); 2. Lecture on the topic for bit; 3. Give them an ‘activity’ where they fill out a form about the new things they learned, and how confident they now feel about the topic; 4. Bonus points for class discussion on what students learned. An instructor could fill up a solid 15–20 minutes of class time doing this (which would qualify as an “active learning classroom” by most research metrics). Is the activity useful though? Is it reflective of what we do as scientists?

How can we foster a sense of knowing what one does not know, while also teaching discipline-relevant skills? In my introductory courses I have students make concept models in every class. We cover a topic during interactive lecture (more on that below), then students have to make a concept model to work everything together. These models need to include arrows indicating relationships between components, and actions or descriptions of the nature of that relationship. The best part about this activity is that it allows students to see how much of the material they really know, despite them often thinking that they know it really well because we just covered it in lecture.

An example of a concept model from Lifespan Developmental Psychology.

Every class I do this, and every class students are asking questions and getting clarifications about the material. Students are encouraged to work together if they want. I then strongly nudge them to “share and compare” their models with other students. During this sharing portion, students can see how others have related concepts and learn something new.

Students in Lifespan Developmental Psychology “sharing and comparing” their concept models.

A key to learning is reworking and reorganizing information, and connecting concepts together in meaningful ways. Students get a grasp how concepts work together theoretically, practice communicating their knowledge to other students, and get the benefit of teaching something new to other students. In my smaller courses, students get to draw their model on the board and present it to the class — a low stakes way for students to practice their presentation skills. This activity typically takes about 15–20 minutes, teaching students what they don’t know, and gives them practice with discipline-relevant skills.

This is just one example of how two activities that are intended to teach students what they don’t know can be drastically different in effectiveness. Both qualify as “active-learning” and take up the same amount of class time, but which do you think is more useful? Which is more enjoyable for the students? Which is more likely to help them learn the material better?

But do I still lecture? Yup, most of the time, in fact, I am lecturing in my introductory level courses. Why? Because in my discipline it is relevant. But just as there are good and poor ways to implement activities, as I described above, there are good and poor ways to lecture, too.

I have been striving for “interactive lectures” across my courses — big and small. What this means is that I am regularly asking students questions during lecture. Questions about material that is on the slide (!). Questions about material from a previous class. Questions about material that is from a prerequisite course. Questions about their predictions given information I just shared with them. Questions about their experiences, or thoughts about something that we’re talking about. If you’re not asking questions then you are not engaging your students. And, that is boring for you and the students.

“If you’re not asking questions then you are not engaging your students.”

Also, I find a fully flipped classroom, where students are getting hours of recorded lectures or mountains of reading outside of class, is well, rude. Students work, have lives, and more than you and your class to worry about. We all agreed to be here at a specified time for a specified duration of time. Let’s make the most of it. Most importantly, I should be doing my job while in the classroom. That, is, I should be teaching. I do, of course, require my students to read before class and be prepared — especially in my upper-level courses that are discussion-based and rely on fully constructed interactive lectures with students (there are no slides). A reasonable amount of reading outside of class, however, is far easier to manage than recorded lectures with a full life schedule.

I do my very best to make my psychology courses as interesting, engaging, and practical as possible. And I am working every single semester to improve. So, no, I don’t think we all need to flip our classrooms upside down. But crappy teaching from instructors, when it is literally your job to be teaching students, is inexcusable. Teaching at a university is not a hassle.

“But crappy teaching from instructors, when it is literally your job to be teaching students, is inexcusable. Teaching at a university is not a hassle.”

So, what do I propose? A happy medium. Keep the good aspects of the “flipped” classroom as appropriate for the course level and discipline, while making your class inclusive, effective, and engaging.

DO have engaging, interactive lectures in lower-level courses

DON’T lecture in upper-level courses that are more suitable for discussion

DO expect students to read before class

DON’T assign hours of work outside of class

DO include active learning activities in your courses

DON’T include activities for the sake of including an activity if you’re not enthused or just trying to fill time

DO encourage students to work together

DON’T force students to work together for the sake of doing group work

DO put effort into your class prep and in-class time

DON’T be disengaged, unenthused, and ineffective

DO reduce breadth, but increase depth

DON’T be a “fire-hose” of information

DO come to class prepared and engaged

DON’T expect your students to put in more effort than you do

DO work to increase the effectiveness of your courses

DON’T keep doing the same thing repeatedly with no change

DO have high expectations of your students’ abilities, and help them achieve them via scaffolding

DON’T have low expectations of your students’ abilities, don’t help them, and then use that as confirmation that your poor class outcomes are your students fault with no responsibility of your own

And if you’re uninterested about teaching and doing anything besides only passively lecturing, then, it might be better, in fact, to just stick to the lecture.

Nicole holds a Ph.D. in psychology & is currently a Research Scientist at WGU Labs. I’ve moved my writings to my personal site 👉🏼

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