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CAS Connect October 2015

Flipping the classroom

Class lectures at home? Homework in the classroom?

Welcome to introductory chemistry at WSU, where the traditional concept of lecture-based learning has been flipped on its head.

This fall, the Department of Chemistry implemented a new teaching style called “flipping,” or a “flipped classroom,” for Chemistry 101, 105, and 106.

Flipping the classroom is an instructional strategy that reverses the traditional educational arrangement by delivering instructional content, often online, outside of the classroom.The term applies to a range of teaching approaches that reverse the traditional educational arrangement by delivering instructional content, often online, outside of the classroom.

Paul Buckley, clinical associate professor, is among WSU faculty experimenting with flipped styles this fall. Instead of passively listening to lectures, Buckley’s students learn and practice basic concepts on their own time via assigned textbook readings, short instructional videos, and online practice questions. Then, while in class, his students work together to solve the kind of tough questions they can expect to find on their exams.

When they get stuck, the professor and his graduate teaching assistants are there to provide insight and guidance.

“In the traditional lecture format, the professor presents the basics and then the students go home after class to sludge through the more difficult problems,” Buckley said. “The problem with this is when the students get stuck at home, they don’t have the help they need on hand. The idea behind flipping is that the students come to class already knowing the lower-level concepts, and they can use their time with the professor and teaching assistants to do harder, higher-level problem solving.”

A growing trend

College professors across the country are flipping their classrooms as more studies and testimonials tout the method’s success. A case study by physics Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman, now teaching at Stanford University, showed students in a flipped, introductory physics class scored on average 18 percentage points higher on a standardized exam than another group of students who received lecture-based instruction.

“We are finding that, when students spend time doing active-learning activities—where they are working on and discussing problems rather than just sitting there listening—they retain more information and start thinking critically,” said Tom Dickinson, WSU Regents professor of physics and a long-time proponent of active learning.

Dickinson has employed innovative educational techniques throughout his four decades of teaching. For his upper-division electricity and magnetism class, he creates instructional videos that the students watch at home. In class, his students work together in groups to solve pre-written problems.

“The students love it,” Dickinson said, “but it isn’t easy for the professors. You have to prepare all kinds of material for them to work on in class, and the lectures have to be prepared and posted online in advance. When I look back, lecturing is so easy compared to this. You just prepare a few notes and walk into class. The good news is there is a growing body of online resources out there for anyone interested in giving it a try.”

Paul Buckley experiments with different elements of the flipped class format in his instruction.
Paul Buckley experiments with elements of the flipped format in courses he teaches.

Quasi-flipped

Buckley’s classes aren’t entirely flipped, he said, because he still spends some time lecturing. However, his lectures are based on what he knows his students are struggling with, thanks to an online program called Learning Catalytics.

Before each class period, the students answer a few practice problems at home that gauge how well they understand the week’s assigned content. If a significant number answer a problem incorrectly, Buckley tailors his instruction accordingly.

A typical day in one of his flipped classes starts with selecting a problem his students struggled with the night before and putting it on an overhead projector. After working through the solution as a group, the students log into the Learning Catalytics website to access another related problem. They have four or five minutes to work on the new problem and are free to discuss it with their friends and neighbors, or to seek help from Buckley or one of the graduate teaching assistants circling the room.

“If 85 or 90 percent of the students are getting the correct answer, we are in pretty good shape,” Buckley said. “If only 50 percent of the students are getting the correct answer, than we spend more time practicing that particular topic. What is really great about this is we can tailor our lectures to what the students don’t understand rather than just presenting everything and not knowing what the difficulties are.”

In addition to his analytics-guided instruction, Buckley incorporates another flipped element into his chemistry classes. Once a week, students convene in groups of 20 or so, each led by a graduate teaching assistant. During these “tutorial sessions,” the students work on one or two exam-like problems.

“They really have to put their heads together and discuss how to approach these problems, what info do they give, what are some strategies to solve them,” Buckley said. “The idea is that, if the students can master these difficult problems, they won’t be shocked and unsure of what to do when they see something similar on the exam.”

This is only the third semester the chemistry department has incorporated elements of a flipped class format into its introductory courses. Chemistry professors Scot Wherland and Aurora Clark and lecturer Michael Finnegan were instrumental in introducing the new teaching style last fall.

While feedback from students and graduate teaching assistants has been positive, the real test will be whether student retention rates and standardized exam scores go up in the next few years.

“The million-dollar question is, of course, how do you quantify the success of this new approach?” Buckley said. “We are starting to build data based off of standardized questions we give each year. Our hope is that this new analytics-guided approach to active learning will make a big difference in student success.”

Washington State University