When to start flipping


Joshua Bowman tweeted the following question:

The underlying question is: should your first flipped class be a class you have taught before, or should it be a new class?

The argument for the former seems clear to me: it is smart to reduce the number of moving parts. If you have the content and assessments down, you can focus more on the pedagogy.

But I probably lean the other way: I think that it might be better to first flip a class you have not taught before. The reason: you don’t have the safety net of a pre-prepared lecture to fall back on, so you are forced to solely think about the class from a flipped perspective.

Of course, this might just be because of my personal experience. My first attempt at flipping a class was in linear algebra, which I had taught twice before. I had the students watch some Khan Academy videos and do problems out of the textbook before class, and we worked on problems during class.

The problem was that students would ask me questions in class, and I could immediately turn to all of my pet examples (which I had not reviewed beforehand) that I developed the two previous semesters. So the first third of the semester was as much a straight lecture as a flipped classroom. Once I realized this was happening, I rebooted the class to be a better version of a flipped classroom (but you never want to be forced to reboot anything).

Other people may not have this trouble, but I did. But it worked out: I taught real analysis—which I had not taught before—and the flipped classroom went well. There are a variety of reasons for this, but it helped that I did not already have a lecture-mindset for that class.

Anyway, here is my advice for anyone considering flipping a classroom:

  1. Start with a class you haven’t taught before.
  2. Use Peer Instruction (PI). Not only will it provide you with a great framework for your in-class work, but many people do it so you can borrow/steal a lot material. Best yet: even if you completely screw up the class, you will still be no worse off than a brilliantly-done lecture.
  3. Choose a class textbook that is readable for the students. Have the students read it before each class.
  4. Have some sort of mechanism for collecting the students’ questions prior to each class. Classroom management systems like Moodle/Blackboard/etc work, you could set up a class blog on wordpress.com and have them use the “comments” for their questions, or you could just use email.
  5. Get someone else’s PI “clicker questions” to use a foundation for your course.
  6. To prepare for a class, read through the section and create several clicker questions of your own before reading the clicker questions you stole from someone else (this is to get practice, but also to focus on what you think is important about the section). After you have written some of your own, merge them with the reference questions you got from someone else. This can be done well before the class actually meets.
  7. The morning before the class, look through your students’ questions. Pick the appropriate clicker questions from your reserve that will best answer their questions, writing new ones if needed (this is optional, especially if you have an 8 am class). Be sure to keep some questions on the most important topics, though, since students sometimes do not ask questions on this.
  8. Go to class, ask the questions, and have fun.

Notice that I did NOT recommend “creating videos.” I think that this is a nice thing to do for the students, but it is a lot of work. Students can definitely learn from a reasonable textbook.

As for “clickers,” I use TurningPoint, but only because that is what my campus decided on. Several people use iClicker, and Learning Catalytics is supposed to be awesome if you are sure that everyone has a device (and you have some money to spend). But do not discount low-tech solutions, either: I believe Andy Rundquist prefers colored notecards to electronic clickers (students raise a red notecard for option a, green for b, etc).

I am a big fan of the flipped classroom for most college-level classrooms. Please contact me if you are interested in getting started.

As always, please feel free to critique anything that I have said in the comments.

(photo “Flip” by flickr user SierraBlair, Creative Commons License)

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9 Responses to “When to start flipping”

  1. Joshua Bowman (@Thalesdisciple) Says:

    You make an interesting and compelling case. I’ve been on the fence about flipping my own teaching for a while; I see the reasons many teachers would choose to do so, but wasn’t convinced it would suit me. I’m starting to shift in favor, though.

    You bring up another method I haven’t been convinced I should use: clickers. I definitely see the utility in polling students, but generally feel that having them close their eyes and raise their hands is just as effective. For some reason, this is one piece of tech I never bought into, despite generally being in favor of using instructional technology. If I were to start electronic polling now, I would want to take a BYOT approach.

    • bretbenesh Says:

      Hi Joshua,

      Here are why I like clickers (or some sort of electronic device):

      1. It is more anonymous. A student could look to see how everyone else is voting. They cannot see how everyone else is clicking. 2. I get slightly more accurate data. 3. The students get to see the data. I think that it helps the teaching method sell itself to see that they went from 50-50 on a True/False question to 90-10 simply after discussing. This reinforces the idea that math is something that can be figured out, rather than simply memorized (I often tell them, “We are literally seeing you learning!”). 4. I can use it as an indicator of how ready they are. “Discuss the result with a partner, and vote when you both agree.” When I see that most of the class has voted, I can start to move on. I give them enough time, and I don’t waste time.

      I would really like to use Learning Catalytics, but I still have a couple of students each semester who do not have smart phones. Also, I believe it costs money to subscribe for more than a month, and I am not made of money. But this is the way of the future—clickers are just a stepping stone. Bret

  2. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist Says:

    here’s my thoughts about cards vs clickers: http://arundquist.wordpress.com/2010/01/09/clickers-vs-cards/

  3. Joss Ives Says:

    Hi Bret. I agree that it doesn’t seem like a productive use of time to try to prepare an entire course using a certain teaching style just so that one can spend a significant amount of time the next time to reform it. Work toward your long-term plan right away.

    I’m finding myself gravitating more and more to wanting the students to come to class having encountered a conceptual overview of the topic instead of having read all of section or chapter. Last time I taught quantum mechanics this meant, over the course of a chapter, I would bounce back and forth between making pencasts and getting them to read the textbook. Then in class we would dig into the important but challenging derivations from the text which I had used my pencasts to help them avoid during their preclass assignments.

    • bretbenesh Says:

      I like the idea of “encountered a conceptual overview of the topic.” I think that it is a good goal, and I don’t think that we can expect more than that in many situations.

      So I will start working toward that. But this is going to be an incremental improvement; right now, I am just going to have them read the text due to time constraints.

      So I suppose that I am advocating some sort of balance, although I am on the “do more work toward flipping right now” side of the scale.

  4. Doug Says:

    Stumbled on your site when searching Jo boaler. I appreciate that you have taken the theory into the practical… I think that math ed has stagnated in the us despite all these great ideas because one or two details can quickly make a “great idea” dysfunctional. I teach middle school math and whenever I search for good questions I get all those sites selling collections of lousy questions. Do you know of any sites or have search ideas for good pre-algebra or geometry questions?

    • bretbenesh Says:

      Hi Doug,

      Unfortunately, no. I have some experience with the Core Plus and CMP textbooks, and they seem to be decent in terms of questions. But my expertise is not in 6–12 mathematics, so I don’t have much good to tell you.

      Does anyone else have any recommendations?

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