Flipped Classes Part 1: What is a flipped class?

 Welp, I'm getting this out a week later than I had hoped. I blame the first week of classes. I somehow completely forgot how much time it takes to just answer emails at the start of the semester. Though, considering I'm teaching 300 students, I probably should have anticipated that.

Anyway, here is the first part of my series on flipped classes. 

So, what is a flipped class?

This is one of those terms that has been defined by various researchers who developed the idea, but it has also been used so much that it looks different depending on who you talk to. For me, a class is flipped if students are first exposed to some or all of the course content before class time, which frees up some or all of class time for active learning.

That's purposefully a bit vague because the exact setup will vary depending on the instructor, the course content, the size of the course, the needs of the students, and of course whether we are attempting to emergency remote teach through the middle of a pandemic or not.

Basically, in my mind a flipped class has three key components:

1. Before Class

Before coming to class students learn about some or all of the course material for that day. Often this is done by watching videos, but I've also had courses where I have them read from the textbook. What you choose depends on lots of factors, but I recommend keeping two things in mind:
  • Do students in this class understand how to read a math textbook and get the information they need out of it?
  • Is that skill part of the learning goals of the class?
The answer to the first question is basically always no. The answer to the second, in my experience, is typically no if it's a 100- or even sometimes 200-level course, but typically is yes if it's an upper-level course, and is especially yes if the course is intended for math majors.

In part 2 of this series, I'm going to talk about some of the important considerations you should make when deciding whether and how to flip your course, so I'll talk more about this stuff then. But one thing that's super important and therefore worth saying twice: if you use videos, make them short. No one is going to watch a 50-minute lecture before going to their 50-minute class. We just don't have the attention span.

Whether you choose to use videos or readings or some combination, an absolutely critical part of the before-class work is assessment. Students need to be doing something with the material they are learning before class. There are two main reasons for this:
  • Doing things helps them check whether they actually understood it and also helps them remember it by the time they get to class.
  • Tying it to their course grade incentivizes students to actually do the before-class work.
There are lots of different ways you could implement this, and I'll talk about some of those options more in part 2 of this series. 

2. In Class Active Learning

When advocating for the addition of active learning during class time, the number one pushback I get is that there just isn't enough time. I hear you. I really do. This is the first semester that I'm teaching a class that isn't flipped, but I'm not willing to give up the active learning, and it has been so hard to still cover everything I need to. And lots of classes already are so jam-packed that if you just talk for the full class time, you still can't get through everything.

Flipped classes give us a way to move some of the class material outside of class time so that there is more class time for active learning. Imagine if students showed up to class already having seen the main definition, theorem, or formula for the day. The time you save not having to write that on the board is time that students can spend asking questions and actually practicing solving problems.

Usually, I would make the class time very student-driven, rather than pacing the time myself. I would give them a worksheet and let them run with it. I like this because it gives everyone the space and time they need to come to their understanding, which aligns with my teaching philosophy. However, there are lots of other options, and I've definitely switched it up for remote teaching. I'll talk about these options some more in, you guessed it, part 2.

Now, you might be thinking to yourself: wait, students have to learn some stuff before they come to class and do work before class and then come to class and do some stuff there? There's no way this will work unless I can convince the students that it's worth their time. To this I say, I absolutely agree. Hold that thought for a couple of weeks, because that's the theme of part 3 in the series.

3. After Class Homework

Full disclosure: I have seen successful implementations of flipped classes that don't have an explicit after-class component. For example, you could have class time be devoted to the problems students would normally complete for homework. So, if they finish it during class time, there is nothing they have to do after class. There are up-sides to this (especially in the way of convincing students to buy into the model), but for me, this after-class component is really crucial.

When students are working on problems before class, they're just getting started with their understanding. I also usually only give them the simpler and easier versions of questions before class. During class, they deepen their understanding but it's usually quite messy, and it takes time for students to re-organize the content in their own brains. Furthermore, when students are solving problems during class time, I am right there, ready to answer their questions when they get stuck. That's great sometimes, but it's also important for students to sit with their confusion for some time, so they have the opportunity to learn how to get un-stuck on their own. We want them to learn how to grow and explore and be okay with not knowing the answer right away, so this after-class work is really important to me.

So, that's basically it. 3 components to a flipped class. In part 2 of this series, I'm going to talk more in-depth about some of the considerations you should make when designing your flipped class. In part 3, we'll talk about getting student buy-in. And in part 4, I'll show you how to transform your lecture notes into a flipped design using actual lecture notes I am flipping this semester.

Happy flipping!


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