Flipping marvellous: students respond enthusiastically to new active learning course


“Chris and Sue are Green Party members but that doesn’t mean they necessarily live sustainably; remember how people with a ‘green identity’ in that study were actually most likely to fly?”

“Yeah, but they’re also Buddhists so they probably don’t eat meat, which is high carbon.”

Students in my new class are energetically discussing in small groups how sustainable several fictional households are. Later in the course they’ll create adverts together, teach each other about how social norms and ‘nudges’ can be used to promote sustainability, and debate geoengineering the climate. In each case, the knowledge they put into practice comes mainly not from in-class lectures, but from pre-class preparation: reading, watching screencasts (PowerPoint videos) I created, and other tasks. This is an example of a flipped classroom teaching approach being used in social sciences. The majority of content acquisition, which is ‘lower-order learning’, takes place before the class, freeing up contact time for active learning, putting knowledge to use.

What happens if they don’t do the preparatory work though? We all know that some students turn up to tutorials unprepared, relying on other students having done the work. My course involved weekly pre-class online quizzes, worth 10% of the overall grade in total, designed to encourage completion of the preparatory material and personal reflection on it. This worked even better than I’d hoped. On a feedback survey, all but one student agreed that “The quizzes encouraged me to do the preparatory work” and “The quizzes gave me more confidence about contributing in class”, while all agreed that “The quizzes helped me understand/remember the preparatory material better”. The benefits of having everyone come well-prepared to class were commented on favourably by the students: “it completely changed the class (in a good way) when everyone was always prepared.”

The screencasts proved to be an excellent learning tool: one student said they were “useful” while all the rest described them as “very useful”. An enthusiastic learner commented that the recordings “were an incredibly refreshing way to be taught, thank you! Having the ability to pause them and write detailed notes about my thoughts has made a HUGE difference to my learning and the depth of understanding I have gained…. I can’t speak highly enough of this approach.”

Class members found the active learning exercises very stimulating. All but one agreed that “They made the classes more engaging than usual” and “They made the material more memorable”, and all agreed that “They offered useful opportunities to try putting information/learning into practice”. I received many positive feedback comments, such as: “Having the space to discuss was hugely more beneficial to my learning than being lectured” and “Having different activities in the sessions helped to keep me focussed.”

Although many aspects of this course were facilitated by it being an Honours course with a small number of students, there are successes that I think could be transferred to much larger classes. I would like to explore introducing a weekly quiz into my large second-year course to increase engagement. In my previous job I’ve used electronic voting in large lectures and received feedback that this made the teaching more interesting and prompted students to do preparatory reading. One of the students on my new Honours course said “I hope in future more courses are structured this way” – given the great feedback I received I hope so too and would encourage colleagues to look for opportunities to promote active learning on their courses, as I know many do.

howellrachelRachel Howell, Lecturer in Sociology/Sustainable Development and Convenor of ‘Responding to Sustainability Challenges: critical debates’, a course based on active learning and the concept of the ‘flipped classroom’.




Photo: “Laurie flipping out” by Jared Tarbell is licensed under CC BY 2.0


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