The Benefits of Flipped Classrooms

Increasingly, teachers and students are experiencing the strengths of flipped classrooms. Read Noodle Expert Yamini Pathak’s account of what this model has to offer learners in 21st century classrooms.

At Christmas time, an 11-year-old boy — we’ll call him Jacob — and his classmates were confronted by a giant Soda-Santa in their math class. Teams of students challenged each other to estimate how many six-packs were used to create the Santa and how many of each kind of soda went into its construction.

Jacob's math teacher at Community Park Elementary School in Princeton, NJ has been “flipping” his math classes to get his fifth grade students actively engaged and excited in the classroom. He has his students take notes as they watch videos, or “mathcasts,” at home on his YouTube channel. Classroom time is then used for problem-solving, group projects like the Soda-Santa challenge, and completing worksheets that — in more traditional models of education — would have been assigned as homework.

What is a Flipped Classroom?

In her white paper The Flipped Approach to a Learner-Centered Class, Barbi Honeycutt, Ph.D. defines a flipped classroom as “a learning environment in which activities traditionally completed outside of class as homework are now completed in class during instruction time. And the activities traditionally completed in class are now completed on students’ own time before class.”

Often, this means that students learn concepts by watching pre-recorded videos or reading texts at home, while class time is spent working through assignments and activities with their peers and teacher. It’s important to understand that the use of technology or videos alone does not constitute a flipped class. Rather, the key to flipping is to move from an instructor-centered learning environment to a student-centered approach.

The Evolution of Flipped Classrooms

Educators have been experimenting with flipped classrooms in various forms for decades. As far back as 1965, Stanford University professors engaged in a successful experiment called “Computer-Assisted Instruction in Elementary Mathematics” (CAI) to teach mathematical reasoning to young California students using computers. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), in turn, used the findings from this project to bring math lessons to first-grade students in Nicaragua through 20-minute radio broadcasts.

In 1991, Eric Mazur, Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at Harvard University got his students to read their textbooks before coming to class, and used class time to “teach by questioning” rather than to “teach by telling,” a method now known as Peer Instruction. Working in groups to answer conceptual questions, each student strives to convince others in the group that hers is the correct answer. As they discuss and analyze each other’s arguments, students deepen their understanding of the concepts taught.

In 2007, high school chemistry teachers Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams started recording their live lessons and posting them online so that students who missed class due to sports or other activities could access them. Today, K–12 teachers around the world have been successfully flipping classes in subjects ranging from foreign languages to science to social studies.

Who Is Flipping Classrooms Today?

Project Tomorrow, a national education nonprofit, and the Flipped Learning Network, an organization that acts as a resource for educators to implement flipped learning, conducted a survey of 521,865 K–12 students, teachers, administrators, parents, and community members. In 2014, 32 percent of teachers surveyed flipped their classes by using videos found online, while another 29 percent of teachers did so by creating their own videos. Teachers at many grade levels are now implementing this model, though it still tends to be more common in middle and high school.

Increasingly, flipped learning is being used in higher education as well, both for students who attend classes on campus as well as those who are enrolled in distance learning programs. Jeff Himpele, Director of Teaching Initiatives and Programs at Princeton University and an avid proponent of pedagogical innovation, has been directing the design and production of Princeton’s online course offerings since 2012. He observes that classes are being flipped in a variety of disciplines at Princeton, including science, humanities, and engineering. Often, the online platform is used as an extension of the classroom, allowing students to continue classroom activities by submitting and reviewing each other’s work remotely.

Princeton students work on collaborative assignments in the classroom as well as online, and in some cases, collaborate with students globally. For instance, in the spring of 2015, the course "Making Government Work in Hard Places" was offered to graduate students attending Princeton and online to students from over 130 countries, leading to unique collaboration opportunities for all participants.

What Does it Take to Flip a Classroom?

In order to get started with flipped classes, K–12 educators need to invest additional time and effort — often unpaid — into compiling online lectures. There are free educational videos and free or low-cost video creation software like Doceri and ExplainEverything that enable teachers to develop resources for their classrooms. Kerry McQuarrie, who teaches science to sixth to eighth graders at Chapin School in Princeton, New Jersey, starts preparing new videos and revising her existing library during her summer vacation.

Many teachers also take part in professional development workshops or conferences to learn how best to utilize class time in a flipped model. McQuarrie was sponsored by Chapin School to attend FlipCon, an annual flipped learning conference where sessions feature professional development for educators, discussions of the latest research on this learning model, and demonstrations of tools and skills for flipped classroom educators.

Considerable resources are also required in higher education to effectively design courses using a flipped model. The McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning at Princeton University, for example, is staffed with experts in pedagogy and video production who support faculty with all aspects of online and classroom course design. Professors can also apply to a University fund for curricular innovation that pays for staff and faculty time to work on creating flipped courses and materials.

Educator Experiences with the Flipped Model

Educators may have more time to engage with individual students.

When an educator is freed from delivering a traditional lecture at the front of the classroom, as is the case in flipped classrooms, it becomes easier for her to circulate and focus attention on individual student needs. An online lecture is often followed by a short quiz, also taken online, that allows the teacher to check how well each student understood the course material and which concepts need to be further addressed in class.

Flipping her classes allowed McQuarrie to engage one-on-one with students who were struggling, as well as to challenge the more advanced students in her classes. All of her students need to complete certain basic learning activities in the classroom to demonstrate their understanding of the material, and since about 30 percent complete the assignments ahead of their classmates, she is able to provide them with enrichment problems to extend their learning.

Flipped classes hold early promise to improve outcomes.

According to Jeff Himpele, Princeton’s experiences with this model have been promising thus far. To cite a couple of examples, he reports that in one flipped physics course where class time was used for demonstrations and other interactive exercises, the results on the same final exam that had been given two years earlier in a traditional class were significantly better in the flipped class. Moreover, student understanding of material that was especially challenging on sociology midterms in past years was noticeably better after several classes were flipped.

In McQuarrie’s experience, students grew more confident and enjoyed learning science after she flipped her classes. She saw growth in understanding among all of her students, but particularly among those who had been struggling when she relied on a more traditional teaching approach.

Student Responses to Flipped Classes

Students show a significantly higher level of engagement.

Fifth-grader Jacob finds his online math classes useful because he can watch the videos at his own pace, pausing or replaying them when he comes across a difficult concept. He especially enjoys the interesting problems they get to solve in groups in the classroom.

Students attending flipped classes at Princeton also showed much higher levels of engagement and enthusiasm. When several challenging lectures in an electrical engineering course were flipped, student interest in the material increased; some students expressed the wish to work in the lab during the summer, while others sought additional coursework.

Responses From Parents

Parents at Chapin School welcomed online lectures because it gave them a chance to understand what their children were learning at school and better equipped the parents to help when necessary.

Jacob's mother thinks the flipped math classes are a success. That said, she is cautious about the model in general, citing the risk that teachers, parents, and students will become dazzled by the technology and that classroom time may be used less effectively. She also wonders how the flipped model will work with states’ increasing emphasis on standardized testing for K–12 students.

Challenges in Adopting a Flipped Model

Ensuring equitable access to online material is critical.

Students in less affluent areas may not have access to the devices or computers necessary to view lectures at home. School districts and teachers have to ensure that all students have the opportunity to learn the online material. Proposed solutions to this problem include burning videos to DVD or increasing access to computers at school or the public library for those students who don’t have Internet access at home.

Flipping the student is a process.

Students who are accustomed to a traditional model may learn in a more passive style. For the student who is new to the flipped classroom, a necessary shift needs to take place. She must begin to view herself in charge of her education and take responsibility for learning the concepts at home, while also participating actively in classroom projects. Without such a change, she may be unable to take advantage of the enriched classroom activities and may slow down the learning of her group members.

Bridging classroom and digital learning is essential.

It is vital to make a strong connection between a student’s independent study and the classroom activities that follow in a flipped class. To avoid the risk of students failing to connect the video lecture and the classroom activity, Jeff Himpele and the staff in the McGraw Center at Princeton work closely with faculty to design courses in which discussions and assignments follow logically from concepts introduced online.

An Enthusiastic Proponent

Kerry McQuarrie says she will never go back to teaching traditional lecture-style classes. Her students’ increased engagement and learning are all the evidence she needs to continue with flipped classrooms. And as more and more educators implement the approach in their own classrooms, the resources will only grow richer.

Additional Resources

Sources:

Himpele, J. (2015, June 12). Personal interview.

Honeycutt, B. The Flipped Approach to a Learner-Centered Class (September 9, 2014). Retrieved June 25, 2015 from Magna Publications Professional Development for Higher Education.

Jacob, June 6, 2015. Personal interview.

Jacob's mother, June 6, 2015. Personal interview.

McQuarrie, K., June 22, 2015. Telephone interview.

Trumbore A. Automated and Amplified: Active Learning with Computers and Radio (2014) Retrieved June 25, 2015 from International Journal of Designs for Learning, Vol.5, Issue 2.

SpeakUp 2014 National Research Project Findings (February 28, 2015) Retrieved June 25, 2015 from Flipped Learning Network.

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