Late-semester thoughts on flipping the classroom

As I’ve written about in a couple of recent posts, this semester has been really busy. I’ve been completely overwhelmed by the combination of field season and flipping the Intro Bio classroom and haven’t really had time for anything else. But field season is now over — hooray for the start of deer gun hunting season, which mercifully starts right around the time our lakes start looking like this:

Caption: That sample bottle isn’t hovering. It’s sitting on the frozen lake that my lab folks are about to sample. And, yes, there is snow on the ground. (credit: Katie Hunsberger)


So, now that I have a little more time, I wanted to give my initial thoughts on flipping the Intro Bio classroom.

First, what do I mean by “flipping”? This is a term that has lots of different definitions, depending on who is using it. What I mean by flipping is:
1) We have shifted a lot of the more basic content to outside the classroom. The students have assigned readings from the textbook in some cases, but in others I wrote them a summary of the textbook to ensure that it was a manageable amount of material for them to digest. And, in cases where there wasn’t a relevant textbook section (e.g., on emerging infectious diseases), I wrote the reading material myself. For about half the lectures, they also have to watch a video before class (either a CrashCourse Ecology video or a TED talk).
2) We quiz students prior to every class, asking them some basic questions related to the pre-lecture readings they were supposed to do, as well as more synthetic questions that relate to material covered in previous classes (especially the most recent one).
3) I ask lots of clicker questions in class to gauge where the students are at and have them think through more challenging questions.
4) We do lots of in class activities, especially ones focused on the process of science and understanding figures. For example, I laid out the classic experiment Connell did on barnacle competition and then had them work with each other to draw a figure that would support a role of competition in excluding Chthamalus from the lower intertidal, and draw a second figure that would support abiotic factors excluding Chthamalus from the lower intertidal). They also had to consider whether the experiment could tell them the effect of competition in Semibalanus and, if not, how it would need to be modified in order to be able to make a conclusion about that.

I still do some traditional lecturing, but it’s interspersed with active learning, and doesn’t include going through very basic, straightforward materials.

Why flip the classroom?
At this point, there’s lots of evidence that students learn better with active classrooms, and that frequent testing improves student performance, especially for students with weaker backgrounds. I very much hope that flipping the classroom this semester with improve student performance, improve their retention of material over the long-term, and will reduce the loss of women and underrepresented minorities from STEM fields. I also have been spending a lot of time focusing on having the students understand the process of science – what sorts of evidence allow us to conclude something? – as well as how to read figures. I was really dismayed last year when, talking to a student who was clearly smart and engaged, I asked her about a figure from the reading and she said “Oh, I’m not a figure person.” It was near the end of the semester, and she was taking a biology class, but her brain was just turning off when she saw a figure. And, based on my interactions with students this semester, a lot of them similarly struggle to read figures. So, we’ve spent a lot of time working on that, which I think will help them in their upper level courses and day-to-day lives.

More immediately, the nicest aspect of the new course structure we’re using is that students come to class prepared. I no longer have to spend the first part of my lectures covering basic, boring material. No more standing up there defining “population”, which the students and I both found tedious and dull. Now, I assume they’ve learned the material I assigned them to read ahead of time (which includes a vocabulary list), and proceed from there. And, based on how they’ve been doing on the quizzes and clicker questions, they are learning that material. (Related: based on what they *didn’t* know the day after Thanksgiving break, when they hadn’t had a quiz due, also supports that the quizzes really are helping them come to class more prepared.)

The most fun aspect of having a flipped classroom is watching students teach each other. Hearing students work through concepts and get to the right answer on their own is really, really neat. This is always the highlight of class for me. The actual class time itself is also much less tiring (which is good, because I teach back-to-back, with each class period being 80 minutes long.)

What are the downsides to flipping?
Given all the upsides, it seems like I should be shouting from the rooftops that everyone should flip their classrooms. But I’m not. Why? For me, the workload really hasn’t been manageable this semester. I was expecting this semester to be stressful, but it’s been way more stressful than I anticipated. The good news for the students is that I think they’ve mainly experienced the upsides, but I’m somewhat hesitant to recommend to my colleagues that they should flip their classrooms, just because I know what it would mean in terms of stress.

Why the stress? When I was writing an outline for this post, the first thing I put was “the quizzes, OMG the quizzes”. There are two class periods per week, so two quizzes per week. We need a pool of questions, since each student can take the quiz up to three times, and because we have a big class (over 600 students). There were some existing questions that I could pull from, but, because we also changed the order in which we covered material and dropped a fair amount of material from the course at the same time, most of the existing questions weren’t useful to me. So, I have spent an enormous amount of time writing quiz questions. We need about 100 questions a week. To get there, I’ve been writing quiz questions while eating meals, while supervising my daughter in the bathtub, while walking home (those ones I have to remember and type out over dinner), while proctoring an exam (don’t worry, there were only three people in the room, and they were spread out), etc. Add on the clicker questions that I write for class (usually 5-8 per class period), the exams, and needing to write practice exams (because of the aforementioned shift in order and content), and all I do is write questions.

A major downside to all that question writing is that, inevitably, some questions will not be perfectly worded. Sometimes, there will be an outright error on a quiz (e.g., something will be miskeyed). This aspect of the course has been much harder for me than I anticipated. I got to where I am by having high standards for myself and being a bit of a perfectionist. Having to correct quiz mistakes on a somewhat regular basis is driving me crazy. I was talking about this with someone who is also frequently quizzing her class, and also finding mistakes on quizzes. (It seems inevitable.) The exact phrase she used was “I want to stab myself in the eyeball every time I realize there’s a mistake on a quiz.” While I might not have phrased it that way myself, I completely understood the sentiment.

Another major downside is that more deadlines (two a week just for the quizzes) mean more emails and more fires to deal with. Sometimes a student can’t access the quizzing platform. Or maybe they’re ill or their computer was stolen or any of 8042 other possibilities. All those result in an email to me. And, remember, there are two quiz deadlines a week and over 600 students — that’s a lot of potential for problems that result in emails. Sometimes they find a legitimate mistake on the quiz. (In those cases, it’s really helpful when they tell me early, because it’s much easier to fix when only a few students have taken the quiz.) Sometimes, there isn’t a mistake, but they think there is. All of that adds up to a LOT of emails in my inbox, and a lot of things I need to deal with. I’ve come to hate checking my email. Some of this is related to my personality (I know that I need to not view it as an indictment of my skill as a teacher if there is a mistake on a quiz), but much of this would be problematic for most instructors (the overwhelming number of emails). I’ve recently set limits on email (none after 8:30 PM or before 6 AM, and have removed the work mail from my phone in an attempt to wrest control back from the email monster.)

Finally, a problem I hadn’t anticipated (but that, in retrospect, I probably should have) is that students haven’t all realized that some of the questions are easy questions just to ensure they’ve done the reading. Once a quiz deadline has passed, we open up the quiz so that they can take it as many times as they want, and many students take the quiz over and over and over again. This led some of them to feel the first exam was unexpectedly hard – and, if they were thinking the exam would be half made of very simple recall questions, I can see why they would feel that way. So, for the next exam, we’re making a separate, giant quiz that combines all the harder “concept” questions from the different quizzes, which will give them a more realistic sense of what the exam will be like.

How can I assess whether this is working in my particular class?
To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. I would love to follow up with these students in a few years to see what they think at that point. I’ve received a fair amount of positive feedback from students during the semester, which has been nice to hear, but I know others are unhappy. (There are over 600 students. Some will always be unhappy, unfortunately.) But I wonder what the general response will be come evaluation time, and, more importantly, I want data on outcomes in future classes. One of my colleagues compared end-of-semester evaluations by students to asking someone what they think of their dentist while they’re in the middle of having a cavity filled. At that point, you don’t necessarily feel so great about the dentist. But, a couple of weeks later when you can eat without pain again, you’re pretty glad you went to the dentist. I suspect that, right now, some (many?) of my students don’t understand why I’m emphasizing process of science and figure-reading so much; my hope is that, over the next couple of years, they’ll come to realize those are really valuable skills to have, and will be glad they developed them early in their college careers.

Have you flipped a classroom? How did your experience compare? Did it get easier in future semesters? If you haven’t flipped yet, are you considering it?

Or, if you’re a student, have you taken a large lecture class that was flipped? Did you like it at the time? Did your view on it change over time?

27 thoughts on “Late-semester thoughts on flipping the classroom

  1. I have flipped my calculus classroom in a really similar way (preclass homeworks, still do some lecturing, they work on harder example problems in groups during class with my assistance). This is my second year teaching back to back sections, and it has gotten easier for me. It is a lot of work, but when you are spending extra time figuring out how to restructure each lecture period, done writing extra questions, and know approximately how things will work in class, it is definitely less work and less stress.

    The hardest part for me (still) is getting a buy in from the students over the idea. First semester, I don’t think they were convinved at all that this method was helpful (and somehow, being a professional doesn’t convince them de facto that I know what I’m doing). I spent more time this semester talking about what I was doing, showing them actual data comparing their first midterm with a traditional lecture only class, explaining why I teach the way I do. I think they are more conviced, things seemed to go more amoothly with less complaining, but I haven’t gotten my evals yet. We’ll see!

    • Yes, I am also interested in what the evaluations say! The early indications are that most of the class thinks the changes are worth it, but we’ll see what the full set of course evaluations indicate. I’m glad to hear it got easier!

  2. your classroom sounds almost identical to mine (but the topic is behavior endocrinology). i started teaching this way 20 years ago when the class has 15 students. when it grew to 30 students, i feared i would have to go back to lecturing, but didn’t. now it is up to 80 students, and I am still teaching this way. pre-tests, post tests, group exercises, jeapardy contensts, debates. i experience the same exact problem you describe with practice quizzes that i put online that can be taken over and over, as well as mistakes on quizzes that result from constantly updating and improving the classroom presentations. the reactions from students all reinforce my own self-doubt and stress, and there are always students that find graphs, experimental design, criticizing the science authorities very very confusing and uncomfortable. my student evaluations are always mixed. there are, however, always about on third of the class who experience revelation…they suddenly get it….they realize that they are part of the scientific process, that they can analyze raw data, think these things through, recognize strong vs. weak evidence, that they have things to learn from their peers, that they can change their degree of agency, that it does not have to be a hierarchy but a cooperative enterprise. so I would say to you keep flipping. don’t go back to lecturing.

    • Sorry for my incredibly slow reply to this (and other!) comments on this post. The end of semester madness didn’t leave me time to reply. But this comment was great to read — I don’t like hearing that flipping also reinforced your own self-doubt and stress, but it’s good to know my reaction was not unique! And it’s definitely great to read that about a third of your class experienced revelation! In an anonymous end-of-semester survey, half of our students “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that they are now better at reading figures. That was good to see, though, of course, I would have liked to see that number be higher.

      I definitely don’t plan to go back to lecturing, but very much hope that next year will be easier now that I have a solid base of materials to work from!

  3. I acted as the sole instructor for an upper-level Mammalogy class for two years. My time put into flipping the classrom was limited, as I was a grad student pretending to be a professor (and still accomplish research), but it is definitely something I look forward to doing more once I become a professor. In the Mammalogy class I would include 20-30 min group activities that walked through data and figures to help illustrate a larger concept. I tried to do this for about 2/3 of the lectures.

    The one thing I related most to in this blog was the “Oh, I’m not a figure person”. On the first lecture of each semester I gave one of these group activities with a simple bar graph, and only that. The students got all worked up, and I even had a group of 3 students (who all ended up getting A’s in the end) come up to me after class. They asked how many figures I would be incorporating into the lectures and activities, because if that’s how it was going to be they might switch classes. I reassured them that we would walk through them, that it might seem stressful at the time, but they would get better. And not only did these students get better, but the whole class did! My favorite moments each semester were when I gave the students an activity that had 4 or 5 different types of graphs on it, and the whole class blew through the whole activity in much less time than I anticipated. Although this made me have to stall to fill out the rest of the lecture, it was really rewarding to know that they had gained that skill! So in summary, it’s true that flipping the classroom might take a little bit of work, but in the end I think it is worth it to the instructor as well as the students.

    • That’s great that they got so much better at reading figures! I have taught smaller upper level courses with a flipped model before, and experienced something similar. At the beginning of the semester, the students were overwhelmed by reading primary literature. By the end, they were really good at it. It was so nice to see!

  4. Meg, you’ve already answered this for me via email, but for the benefit of readers I’ll ask again. I can imagine two non-mutually-exclusive reasons why flipping the classroom might improve student performance. The first (which is the one that tends to get emphasized in most discussion of flipped classrooms) is all the changes to what’s happening in the classroom. Students are doing activities rather than just listening passively, they’re getting immediate feedback on what they do and don’t know in the form of frequent quizzes and clicker questions, they’re having to explain their understanding of the material to classmates, etc. The second is that they’re forced to spend more total time and effort learning the material than they would spend if it were a traditional lecture. If it’s a lecture, many students won’t put in much effort outside of class, except maybe a bit of cramming before exams. Heck, some might not even come to class! Flipping can be viewed as a way of forcing students to put in effort they wouldn’t otherwise put in. Do you have any sense of the relative importance of these two mechanisms? Is there any research on this?

    • Yes! I’d be willing to bet that both are going on. I’m sure the students are spending more time on this class, on average, than they were before. Their level of engagement has been really impressive. They are at office hours having thought really carefully about each and every learning objective — that’s never happened before. But it is also the frequent testing itself. This article:
      looked at students who did a study-study-study-study (SSSS) approach before an exam vs. those who did study-test-test-test (STTT). If you gave them the final exam 5 minutes after they studied/tested, the SSSS students did best. But if you asked them one week later, the STTT students did much better. Their abstract concludes with “When the final test was given after 5 min, repeated studying improved recall relative to repeated testing. However, on the delayed tests, prior testing produced substantially greater retention than studying, even though repeated studying increased students’ confidence in their ability to remember the material. Testing is a powerful means of improving learning, not just assessing it.” The process of retrieving the information to answer a question helps you learn the information in a way that “sticks” better.

      The study that first made me consider this seriously was this one:
      Their abstract concludes with “We show that a highly structured course design, based on daily and weekly practice with problem-solving, data analysis, and other higher-order cognitive skills, improved the performance of all students in a college-level introductory biology class and reduced the achievement gap between disadvantaged and nondisadvantaged students—without increased expenditures. These results support the Carnegie Hall hypothesis: Intensive practice, via active-learning exercises, has a disproportionate benefit for capable but poorly prepared students.”

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  6. I too flipped this semester for grad biostatistics. It worked well (I think), though my lesson to share here is that weekly quizzes (pre & post-class) would have been good even for entering grad students (sigh). I was (foolishly) optimistic and hoped that wasn’t needed, but new grad students approach a class the way they always had as undergrads. Students actually commented that they missed the traditional lecture format. I read this as indicating I had jumped them outside their accustomed comfort zone as flipping makes them more responsible for their learning.

    And I can’t help but ask – how did that 40ish-hour work week go this semester, Meg? When reading posts on hours/week a while ago I thought of the many faculty out there doing this grind every semester: they teach 3 courses per semester, often new ones, including prepping & teaching multiple lab sections without TAs, and they often update/revise their courses. And sometimes with decent enrollment sizes and all the management implied. This naturally adds up to > 70 hours/week, amidst everything else. And leaves them no time to even read blogs, let alone write them. Those of us in PhD departments with lighter teaching loads are fortunate, because semesters like Meg’s only come around sometimes for us. For many others it is perpetual in this business of higher education.

    • It was definitely more than 40ish hours for much of the semester. My estimate in this earlier post was that I was closer to 55 hours for much of the semester:
      One thing that I hope would be different for most people teaching multiple courses per semester is that they wouldn’t be teaching courses of this size — the enrollment of 600 was definitely a large part of the stress and work of it. (It also didn’t help that, for the first few weeks of lecturing, it was also my field season and I was in the lab about 10 hours a week.) But, yes, surely there are people with very time-intensive positions.

      I can see how the quizzes could be useful even for grad students. It is really useful for forcing people to prioritize the work! I’ve taught with a flipped model in upper level classes (which had mixtures of undergrads and grad students), and having some sort of pre-class assignment that they had to turn in was essential to having people show up prepared.

  7. I flipped Principles of Ecology last year, which was two 50 minute lectures plus a three hour lab. Now, it is two 50 minute “workshops”, plus a three hour lab. It was a lot of work, and writing that many quizzes, with the inevitable mistakes (see “stab+eye”), was a chore, but i will never go back. My class was only 45 students, whose names I learned, and they were assigned at the outset to “teams” of three that worked together–in lab and workshop–throughout the semester. It was absolutely harrowing, and absolutely worth it. The first time you prepare a whole lesson plan, and the first response from a student to your first discussion question is absolutely from left field, but entirely valid….it forces you to be reactive after years of being pro-active. It forces you to…teach. We can talk about teaching our students how to think. But flipping a course has them coming in, day after day, having prepared, but not knowing what precisely to expect, only knowing that they will be challenged, and that they will have to work together to find the answer.

    I will never go back to lecturing.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience! I agree that when a student comes up with a really cool question totally out of left field, it’s fantastic. In an upper-level course I taught with a flipped model several years ago, the students came up with a really cool idea for follow up research. It was so neat that I emailed the people who’d written the article to ask if anyone was working on that, but I never heard back, which was disappointing.

  8. We do some flipping of classrooms here in introductory courses and more through the curriculum as time goes on. My advice to someone starting out is to realize that not ever class meeting has to be this way. Work into it over time as any course will be a mixture of approaches. Also, if you are flipping one of two or three courses you teach, leave the other two alone while you work on the one. Then, when that one is up and running, work on another as the maintenance of the first is not as time consuming. Give yourself a little break as we all need to recognize that we are all human and do not have infinite amounts of time.

    As our first year Evolution and Ecology course has become more flipped over time, we get comments from students like, “we are basically teaching ourselves”, which is inaccurate but that is the impression some (many?) students carry around.

    I do think it gets easier the second or third time around, assuming you don’t change things too much. I also need to make the move to online quizzes but have to master that technology before I fully implement it. And while we attend faculty workshops at our institution on why we should teach this way, it would be nice to have a tutorial on how the hell Socrative works. And our course management system (Moodle) has a quiz function, but it is really glitchy and clunky. And iTunesU does not have the capacity to do this (within its architecture, but you can link to a quiz somewhere else but then you have to integrate all that yourself). Administrators could also help by providing better faculty development with the nuts and bolts of this but, since they don’t generally teach, they are not generally aware of the nuts and bolts aspects of making this transition.

    Oh, and good post BTW.

    • Yes, the nuts and bolts took up way more time than anticipated — and that was even with a really great person from the textbook publisher helping us out. (We quizzed them on a website maintained by the textbook publisher.) One nuts and bolts thing that we have to work out for the future is that the students really want “one stop shopping” — they would ideally like to have just one website that is the ebook, quizzing platform, gradebook, etc. all in one. Probably we won’t ever be able to get it to just one website (because I don’t think we can integrate the ebook and gradebook), but we will try to modify things next time so there are fewer things that the students need to access. That was a lesson we learned the hard way!

  9. Hear hear on the flipped classroom.

    Regarding quizzes and creating questions – you might try Peerwise and get the students to come up with some questions themselves, which you can refine and use in future classes. It’s still pretty new and I have some issues with the interface, but question writing can itself be part of the learning process. And it saves you time.

    • I would LOVE to have the students come up with quiz questions. I think it’s such a great way for them to learn. I just can’t figure out how to manage the workload of evaluating questions submitted by 600 students. I tried setting up a place on Piazza where they could post exam-style questions they’d written themselves, but only one question was ever posted there. So, that didn’t take off, unfortunately.

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  17. Thanks for this post!

    I flipped my Genetics classroom last semester, with daily pre-class reading and online quizzes followed by in-class activities, problem-solving, and discussion, then graded homework featuring similar problems. I posted all of the Powerpoint slides I had used in previous lectures, but I didn’t use them in class (occasionally I gave a short chalk talk if a lot of students had trouble with a particular topic). It was a TON of extra work this first time around since I had to design questions and a new lesson plan every day and hold lots of office hours for students who weren’t able to understand the material on their own.

    Students in the flipped course performed significantly better on exams and in the class overall than in previous semesters; in fact, the only one who failed forgot to turn up to the final exam. But I got a lot of push-back from them, including low evaluation scores and explicit comments about how they pay a lot of money to go to this school and shouldn’t have to teach themselves. I am hoping that explaining my rationale and telling them how much better students did with this system will reduce the suspicion and resentment next time around.

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