When magic happens: flipping the classroom

Hazel Christie

It’s always a great pleasure to hear about the innovative teaching practices that are happening across the University of Edinburgh.  And so, with my expectation levels high, I attended an IAD workshop on Practical Strategies for Flipping the Classroom.  This drew on the experiences of three different members of staff who’ve flipped their classrooms, but all in completely different ways.

Flipping the classroom is a reasonably well-established pedagogy, and in its purest form draws on the ‘peer instruction’ approach of Eric Mazur (1996).  Students read and prepare material in advance of the class so that formal lectures to review content are done away with.  Contact time is used differently, in Mazur’s case to work on mathematical problems, first alone and then with input from peers, with a view to encouraging deeper and more reflective learning to take place.  Closest to the pure Mazur model was Toby Bailey from Mathematics, who spoke about flipping his classroom with a first year group of 350 students, with a view to promoting ‘interactive engagement’.  Students were set a problem at the start of the class, and voted on the answer.  They then discussed the problem with their peers, and voted again.  It works: before peer discussion 44% of students got the answer right, after peer discussion it rose to 79%.  Students were learning with one another.  Indeed this approach serves as a powerful message that they have the knowledge to hand which can be capitalised on in peer instruction.  What I like especially about Bailey was the eloquence with which he spoke of the ‘magic’ of the approach, both in terms of seeing how students learn from one another (and realising that they might get there more quickly without us), but also in terms of finding peer instruction a liberating and invigorating way to teach. A ‘lecture’ becomes an ‘event’ that is not so scripted, where students communicate with one another, all at once, and where it becomes difficult to quieten them down because they have become so intent on talking about mathematics.

A contrasting approach, based on a taught Masters course was presented by Pete Allison from Outdoor Education.   Here all the formal lecture material, including lectures, talking heads and interviews, was videoed and posted on Learn.  Students were expected to watch the videos in advance and to come to class ready to take part in discussion and debate.  For me, two themes stood out from Pete’s presentation.  First, to make the flipped classroom work you have to challenge students’ expectations about the nature and use of the contact time.  The cohort Pete was working with were primarily international students who expected contact time to consist of formal lectures.  He described their ‘grumbles’, and spoke of the need to win their hearts and minds by shifting the predominant learning culture away from lecturing and towards facilitated dialogue.  A major part of this was to shift the expectation away from lecturers being in charge of what gets learnt to students taking responsibility for their own learning.  Secondly, Pete alluded to huge resource costs involved in creating the Learn materials that support this approach to the flipped classroom.  These should not be under-estimated.

The final speaker was Jamie Davies from Biological Sciences who spoke about the work he’s done to flip a small Honours level course.  I loved his simple yet audacious approach to involving students at every stage in the learning process.  Students co-design the syllabus: they decide, along with Jamie, what material ought to be covered in the course.  They become involved in marking their own essays.  Jamie grades the essays and then circulates anonymous feedback on them to everyone.  Students are then invited to regrade their own piece.  Students are invited to write their own exam questions, some of which are then used in the final exam.  This gives them more insight into the assessment and serves as a useful revision tool.  And, as is the way with the flipped classroom, there is material to prepare in advance of each class, and contact time is based on problem-solving exercises.  The preparation varies from week to week to garner a ‘useful adrenalin effect’ and to keep ‘students on the edge of their comfort zone’.   For Jamie, flipping the classroom is a much more ‘fun’ way to teach and is one that offers endless possibilities to engage students in the ‘real work’ of learning.  But like Pete, he cautioned about the sheer amount of time and effort required to support this kind of teaching. And staff too may well be outside of their comfort zone in facilitating a truly flipped classroom.

Some of the delight of this session was in seeing the diversity of ways in which it’s possible to flip the classroom and in hearing about the ‘magic’ and the ‘fun’ that can happen along the way.  As an approach it undoubtedly requires a great deal of flexibility from the lecturer.  And two of the three speakers were clear that it was more resource costly than conventional lecturing.  But it was also abundantly clear that the extra value the students gained from this way of learning was worth every step of the flip.


Mazur, E. (1996) Peer Instruction: A user’s manual Boston: Addison Wesley


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