Flipping the Classroom

Brian Thomson, College of Engineering

Have you ever walked into your classroom with the utmost confidence during exam day, thinking “My students are going to do great on this exam.  We covered all the material so they are prepared.” Then, when grading the exam, you are shocked by the poor performance in the class as a whole. You think “Didn’t we cover this?”  I am sure after chatting with some of your colleagues you realize that you are not alone.

Active learning

There are so many skills students are asked to obtain and use during a single course.  In my circuits course, students need to sharpen their critical reading skills, learn how to identify circuit elements in a diagram, determine the desired outcome of each problem, and learn how to accurately use all the tools necessary to solve the problem (software, simulation, calculators, etc.). 

The bottom line is students learn these skills best when applying them with appropriate feedback, or in other words by doing active learning.  There is a wealth of literature that states the benefits of active learning. Even if you haven’t read the literature I think most faculty would agree that those “light bulb” moments typically occur when students are doing active learning.

Flipping your classroom as an active learning solution

There are many effective and simple approaches to active learning.  One particular approach I am using in my circuits course is the flipped classroom.  The concept is simple. I created videos for students to watch before class. These videos prepare students to do active learning in the classroom.  In my case, students were solving their homework problems during class, which makes it easier to sell to students. This model accelerates the student learning process.  They figure out what they don’t know during class time and can ask me questions to get immediate feedback. In the past, students would figure out what they don’t know at home when working on homework.  And if you students are like mine, this tends to be the night before the assignment is due.  

To make navigating this new learning format easier, the schedule for students was shown on the course homepage so they could easily find the videos and associated assignments.

The results have been more learning and better questions during class time.  There are so many small issues (How to find a component in simulation, how to run a simulation, etc) that we address early in the semester that opens the door for more thought provoking questions by the students.  By the end of the first semester, students were working together in groups organically without me organizing them! Click on this link to see my flipped classroom in action.

So what are the challenges?

By this point you may be thinking “Wow this sounds neat, but I can think of a lot that could go wrong with that approach.”  Believe me I was reluctant too, but here are my responses to some of the typical hesitations for implementing a flipped classroom.

1)  What if my students don’t watch the videos?

This was probably my biggest fear.  There is always going to be a crop of students who don’t watch the videos, just like there are some who don’t do assignments properly.  I think students are more likely to watch the videos if you demonstrate its value and hold the students accountable. You can demonstrate value by making sure the videos are important and closely connected to the classroom activities.  You also do not want to do a lecture that repeats information from the videos. Students can be held accountable through some sort of pre-class quiz or another exercise.  

2)  Will this be double the work?

As long as you stick to not lecturing and keep the videos short, the workload can be very similar to a typical course prep.  See my tips below for more information.

3)  But I can’t cover all the material.

Is it better for students to know fewer pieces of information very deeply or know very little about a breadth of information?  If students learn core critical thinking skills, then they are more likely to transfer those skills to new applications or material.  Therefore I trim my course content and focus of teaching students the core fundamentals skills and theories.

Tips for getting started on your flipped classroom.

  • Don’t flip your classroom if you have not tried active learning first.  There are plenty of simple and easy activities to try in Teaching and Learning STEM by Felder and Brent.
  • Keep the videos short.  I recommend six to ten minutes. If necessary, break up larger concepts into several smaller videos.  Students have been clear that they prefer watching three six minute videos over one eighteen minute video.
  • Choose the right recording tool.  For me it is best to use a tool with screen sharing and video editing so I can cut parts where I make a mistake and pick up where I left off.
  • Limit your class prep time.  Felder and Brent (link above) recommend two hours of class prep time for each hour of class time.  Do the same with creating videos. Resist the temptation to make the perfect video at the expense of long prep time.  Our lectures aren’t always perfect so videos don’t have to be either.

A flipped classroom may not be for everyone, but I would encourage you to consider some active learning in your classroom.  Even some simple exercises that promotes active learning can really benefit your students. I do believe that regardless of what is done in class, the best learning happens when students (and expert learners) do preparation work prior to class time.  That may take the form of a flipped classroom or some other format.

Thanks for being here.  Feel free to contact me at brian.thomson@temple.edu and I’d be happy to offer any support in your teaching endeavors.

[Editor's Note: Temple Faculty interested in flipping a course, unit, or even a single lesson are always welcome to contact us at the Center for the Advancement of Teaching.  We'll be happy to help!]


Yael Branscom | Eric Horvath | Jeff Rients

Brian Thomson is Assistant Professor of Instructor at Temple University's College of Engineering and a recent graduate of the Provost's Teaching Academy.

Backflip image by Barney Moss released under Creative Commons 2.0
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