Flipping Lectures : Taking the Sage off the Stage

So, I flipped a lecture and it was a resounding success. The evaluation results are great and the data clearly demonstrate student learning.  I will certainly do it again next year and extend it to other lectures, so why am I getting a nagging hollow feeling about it all?  Why do I feel a small sense of loss?  Strangely, for a biologist, the answer is something to do with drama.




Flipping lectures (also called inverting the classroom), is the increasingly popular practice of providing lecture content before the lecture, as pre-requisite reading or commonly in short bespoke videos. In this way students can get the information gathering done in their own time, and can then use the valuable contact time of the lecture to actively engage with the material through discussion or activity. This process undoubtedly increases student engagement and there is good evidence that it can improve learning.  Some will go as far as saying that the traditional lecture will now become a thing of the past.


However, fashionable though it may be to slate the traditional lecture as merely an uninteresting and unimaginative mechanism for transfer of information, many would argue that the lecture can be so much more. On reflection, I find that my own traditional lectures are not entirely about disseminating knowledge and understanding but, for me, they are also partly theatre.  There is a bit of strutting across the stage and pausing for dramatic effect. There are unnecessary asides, the most enjoyable ones being shockingly inappropriate or ridiculously silly.  And for a bit of audience participation I do enjoy inviting a class member to become involved in a demonstration. It is invigorating to watch other members of the class sit up with interest at this new turn of events involving their peer.  So, for me, distilling lecture material into minimal required knowledge, sticking strictly to the facts in order to make a lecture capture video that is sufficiently short to actually get watched by students, felt a bit like a backward step. It felt like cancelling the play in favour of just sharing the script.


Having gone through the unbelievably time-consuming process of preparing flipped lecture resources (with help from my Honours project student), I had run the gamut of emotions from excitement and pride to frustration and despair, with a generous dollop of real sadness concerning the loss of drama. On the day of the flipped lecture I was back at excitement, but by the middle of the lecture this had changed to a rather flat sense of anticlimax. I did not really seem to be doing much. There was no feat of memory involved. I was not really performing. This was not the hard work of a normal lecture.  In rising panic I climbed the steps that run up the side of the lecture theatre to ask my Honours student at the back if something was wrong. Had I forgotten something? Should it really be this easy? I mean, was it even right that I should be able to go and make this enquiry in the middle of a lecture? And then it struck me. The reason that it was all so easy was that I really was not doing the work during the lecture. The students were.  And this was exactly the point. Learning is not easy, and sitting passive in a lecture theatre is mostly just about knowledge accumulation, no matter how hard the lecturer is working. For something more deep and meaningful to be taking place, it is the student and not the lecturer that needs to be working hard.


So, I flipped a lecture and it was a resounding success, but I am left with wistful memories of a well-rehearsed lecture that will be performed no more. Had something been lost? For me, yes, but at least some of that concerned my ego as much as student experience.  And had something been gained? In a lecture room of two to three hundred students that is filled with the buzz of student voices discussing scientific concepts that in previous years they might never have spoken a word about- I think so.





Heather McQueen is a senior lecturer in molecular genetics at Edinburgh University. She has a long history of interest in public engagement (such as her  “Gene Jury” project athttp://www.genejury.biology.ed.ac.uk/), and in innovative teaching (finalist in HEA UK Bioscience Teacher of the year 2014). She also enjoys alternative music and being with her dog. Heather will be seconded to the Institute of Academic Development at Edinburgh University part-time for the next two years to develop student engagement in the School of Biology. This is her first blog post.



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