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The Ahead Journal

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A Review of Inclusive Education
& Employment Practices ISSN 2009-8286

The Flipped Classroom: Rationale and Approaches for Higher Education

Dr Michael K. Seery

School of Chemistry, University of Edinburgh

About the Author

Flipped learning has emerged as a popular teaching strategy in higher education in the last five years. Like many educational innovations centred around technology (e.g. MOOCs and ‘clickers’), hype and enthusiasm can help spread the idea widely to the education community, often overselling the potential of the innovation without firm evidence from the literature to back it up.

Flipped learning has developed out of the classroom and education researchers are catching up to evaluate its impact on learning and explore its use as a teaching method. In this paper, I intend to explore the concept of flipped learning so that educators who may wish to implement the approach in their own practice can make some informed decisions about how they might use it in their own curriculum. In doing so, the paper will:

  1. Draw on the literature beginning to come out on flipped learning to provide a rationale for the approach.
  2. Use literature reports and experience from my own use of flipped learning to highlight typical approaches educators take.

With a surge in interest in flipped learning, definitions of what ‘flipping’ actually is abound. The Flipped Learning Network sought to formalise the definition of flipped learning so that the the model would be maintained when thekey components of approach was adopted by educators (http://www.flippedlearning.org/definition).Central to their definition is that as well as moving the ‘direct instruction’ component of a lecture to before the lecture (by way of students watching videos or doing some reading in advance of the lecture), the lecture environment itself becomes much more flexible, consisting of group activities, presentations, problem solving,or other student work. In other words, the presentation of material in advance of class allows the teacher to move away from the traditional lecture setting and facilitate a more active learning environment.

Rationale for flipped learning

Flipped learning has emerged as a classroom innovation by teachers ‘at the chalk-face’. In general, those who advocate flipped learning argue that it allows students to approach new material in their own time at their own pace in advance of class, allowing the class time today with difficulties in understanding, address misconceptions, and generally push towards a deeper understanding of the material (O’Flaherty and Phillips, 2015). Students have a more active role and assume responsibility for mastery of the material.

But with any change to educational practice, we have a moral responsibility to address the question: is there evidence that the learning is at least the same as the method which has been replaced? Furthermore, is it possible to align the new teaching method within an educational theory?

Much of the literature on implementing the flipped learning approach in classrooms focussed on student evaluations of the approach. These are overwhelmingly positive. For example, Smith published results for his implementation of flipping introductory college chemistry and reported that students found the prerecorded lectures useful, and agreed that the class time was more engaging. A majority of students found that the in-class work helped them with their subsequent study and homework (Smith, 2013). More recently, Fautch has reported her use of flipping in a mid-level chemistry classroom and considers it that it may help students take more ownership of their learning (Fautch, 2015).

With an increasing number of reports on the implementation of flipped classrooms in recent years, attention turns to grounding the approach in an underlying theoretical framework. An obvious one to consider is cognitive load theory. A criticism of the traditional lecture is that a lot of new information is presented to learners in a short time, and it is difficult for the working memory to process this information and relate to what they know. Even in active learning classes, information for consideration is often presented for the first time. With flipped learning, providing students with material in advance of class means that students have some time to process the new information at their own pace, and in an environment and format that suits them. Grounding flipped learning in cognitive load theory has recently been considered by Abeysekeraa and Dawson (2015) who argue that flipped approaches may improve student motivation and help manage cognitive load.

Approaches to flipped learning

How do educators interested in using the flipped learning method approach it in their own classrooms? In general, there are three components to be considered: the format of the material provided to students prior to the face-to-face time; the activities that will be conducted during the face-to-face time; and the assessment or monitoring of student progress.

Advance materials for students to view before the class time are central to the flipped approach. While this material can be assigned reading, the most common medium is some form of video presentation. These can be a recording of the previous year’s lecture, although most implementations reported in the literature use bespoke ‘screencasts’ – where a purpose-made slide presentation with narration is made available to students to watch. This was the case in my own work (Seery 2015). Some general principles are available for considering the design of screencasts (Seery, 2014). In addition, to allow students explore topics in more detail, they are pointed to the reference text book, so that they can read further or try out some textbook examples. A particular part of my own implementation was to structure students’ approach to both studying and using the textbook, so the screencasts were designed to build in this outside lecture activity time in a formalised manner. This was done using a gapped handout that students use while watching the screencast. This includes spaces for students to add diagrams, try suggested problems, and annotate notes in a structured way.

Screencast
Some general features of a screencast (Seery, 2014)

Two concerns arise here for the teacher. The first is whether students would engage with this material at all. As the screencasts were hosted on the virtual learning environment, usage figures can be tracked. In my own implementation, 92% of students watched the screencast each week, 4% (a different 4% each week!) missed the viewing, and 4% were not active on the module. Usually a reminder to students who missed a video worked as a prompt for them to engage the following week. The second concern is the amount of time required of students to complete the pre-lecture work. Smith noted in his study that half the students agreed that the approach was more burdensome with additional workload outside of class, although they found it useful. Therefore care should be taken to require an amount of work that students can feasibly complete in their own time.

Week Watched Screencast Did not watch Screencast
1 88 12
2 94 6
3 88 12
4 92 8
5 88 12
Proportion of students watching screencast video prior to lectures
Proportion of students watching screencast video prior to lectures (Seery, 2015) as % of Class (n=51)

Activities to be conducted in class are varied, and include problem solving, group project work, presentation, etc. Depending on the discipline and the desired outcomes, the face-to-face time can be used to allow for students to be actively involved in using the content presented to them prior to the lecture for some task. In my own case, after a brief re-cap of some of the main points of the pre-lecture material (to help students focus on the topic), students were presented with problem sets in two phases. The first were algorithmic type problems, which mimicked the examples students were asked to try in the pre-lecture work. This meant that any difficulties could be dealt with, and some principles reexplained. The second phase was to use more general problems, so that students could take their recently acquired knowledge and apply it to more involved problems. Students completed these in groups of three, which is a convenient arrangement in a tiered lecture theatre, with large classes. Regular feedback on progress during the class time allowed for students to get a sense of their own progress, and questions to try after class were available for students who wished to continue this work.

Students were regularly asked after watching the pre-lecture what they found most difficult about the material just covered. The culmination of these responses (see Wordle example) allowed for some direction in the first phase of the in-class problem work.

Word cloud of responses
Word cloud of responses to the question: ‘what did you find most difficult in the topic just covered?’ allowed for in-class work to address difficulties (Seery, 2015).

Assessment is a crucial component in considering the flipped learning model, probably more so at higher education. Students are busy people, and with a number of academic demands on their time; it is at best pragmatic to recognise that students should receive some reward for their pre-lecture work. Awarding it some assessment marks also indicates the value that is placed on it by the lecturer. In my module, 10% of the module previously awarded to a mid-semester test was instead given to 5 weekly quizzes (2% each) that students would complete prior to the lecture. This was an incentive to watch the pre-lecture screencast, and complete the worked examples indicated. The pre-lecture quiz tended to follow on directly from this material, so that students who engaged with the material were rewarded with the quiz marks. This ensured the high engagement with the screencasts mentioned above, which was rewarded with generally good average assessment marks. In terms of an assessment method, it was likely a fairer measure of student knowledge in a particular moment than the old inclass test, and also allowed students instant feedback on their performance.

Week Topic 1 Topic 2 Topic 3
1 67    
2 58    
3   83  
4   90  
5     58
Quiz marks for weekly pre-lecture quizzes
Quiz marks for weekly pre-lecture quizzes (excluding the did-not-attempt students mentioned above).

Conclusions

Flipped learning is still relatively new in higher education, although instances of it are growing rapidly. While we should always monitor closely any new approach for its effectiveness, a growing body of evidence around interest and engagement suggests that it is a viable approach. Integrating the approach in a solid educational framework is nascent, but early reports bode well. The method on the whole allows for a diversity in teaching methods and materials, provides new opportunities for assessment and feedback, and empowers students to take some ownership and control of their learning. I for one will be continuing the experiment for another while yet.

References

L. Abeysekeraa and P. Dawson, Higher Education Research & Development, 2015. 34(1), 1-14.

J. M. Fautch, Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 2015, 16(1), 179-186.

J. O’Flaherty and C. Phillips, Internet and Higher Education, 25, 85-95.

M. K. Seery, Education in Chemistry blog, 2014, http://www.rsc.org/blogs/eic/2014/02/preparing-screencasts-few-thoughts (July 1st 2015).

M. K. Seery, Journal of Chemical Education, 2015, in press, http://dx.doi.org/10.1021/ed500919u.

J. D. Smith, Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 2013, 14(4), 607-614.

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