Flipped classrooms: do it right

Students participate in a discussion portion of their class on the 3rd floor of UHall.

We’ve all done it. We’ve all refused to read the textbook for a class we are taking—some of us go so far as to not even bother to purchase the text itself. And I have no intention on condemning this practice, as I completely understand it. UMass Boston students often commute, and those who are employed usually work a certain amount of hours in the double digits a week. It is not hard to understand, then, why we may not have the time to do long chapter readings on the autonomic nervous system, or slave over a nightly requirement of 20 pages of Greek text. Besides, our professors are often enablers, allowing us to skip our readings by telling us that the exam material will rarely stray from the content on lecture slides. For many of us, lectures are the way we are taught to learn, from elementary to high school. We do our learning in class. And for those of you, like me, who are used to this method of teaching, I have two words of warning for you—flipped classrooms.

A modern, science-backed method of learning reinforcement that is ever-increasing in its popularity among educators, flipped classrooms require you to do the brunt of your learning outside of the classroom. PPTs will scarcely be utilized in class, and “lectures” are no longer lectures at all, instead being chock-full of quizzing on text material, discussion of key concepts, and review sessions. These classes, which usually rely heavily on prior reading of the book, completion of modules, and/or review of PPTs BEFORE class, are part of a method which is suited for reinforcing prior knowledge, rather than providing students with a first exposure to new material. This makes out-of-class reading of the book, completion of modules, and review, a NECESSITY for each chapter, each concept, and each rote-memorization. If you have the time to spend on these activities, amazingly, it will work, leaving you with a good grasp of previously unfamiliar activities. If you do not have the time, you will do poorly in the class. And either way, if it is not the way you are used to learning, you are likely to hate it.

The psychological concept is simple—repetition and quasi-randomized exposure will allow for better memorization. Quizzing will cement material in our head or expose our weaknesses (in terms of material knowledge). A flipped classroom can increase engagement and positively impact classroom test scores. Sometimes the classroom is implemented with Iclicker questions during lectures, or quizzes every day or week. A module component, which teaches and then tests you on material outside of class, is often employed. In smaller classrooms, students are expected to come to class expected to be able to discuss and debate topics from the source reading. Beyond that, there are thousands of variations of a flipped classroom, including those that utilize of new technology (like iRATs and tRATs, a group quiz administered in class) and open source material.

However, flipped classrooms can have some implementation problems. In theory, educators should provide plenty of warning that this classroom is unlike others you may have been in. Study guides will be provided, and exams will often have review sessions. Estimated completion time is calculated for each homework or reading assignment. Constant student feedback informs the current and next semester’s implementation. Interactive applications or lecture videos are integrated into the homework to make learning easier for the student. However, it is a toss up whether your flipped classroom will run like this. Unfortunately, instructor implementation decisions can often cause needless stress on the students, causing flipped classrooms to have the opposite of their intended effect by making students feel anxious and unprepared for tests and quizzes. Anxiety itself can have negative effects on learning, many psychologists may tell you. So, if you are an instructor, ask yourself—do I integrate all of these aspects? If not, make sure your focus is on getting it right.

Getting it right is especially important for UMass Boston students. As I previously mentioned, many of us work part-time, and most of us live off-campus. For employed commuter students, flipped classrooms may present a challenge, as we may barely have time in the week to do readings and complete homework as intensive as may be required for a flipped classroom. Combined with poor instructor implementation, these students will be left with their head swimming, afloat in a sea of skimmed text material and half-assed modular practice problems.

So now we get to the important part—how can you, if you are a student, avoid running into these issues? What if you are stuck in a flipped classroom gone bad, with no way out? Simple—cut out this article and present it to your professor. If you aren’t that bold, you can even deliver it anonymously—slip it under their office door or leave it with a little note on their desk before class. But either way, make sure to get it to them—for the sake of your grade, and your sanity. And if you are an educator— especially one whose students gave them this—well, I challenge you to rise to my challenge, and do a flipped classroom right. UMass students will thank you. Because a flipped classroom done well is a beautiful thing. But done poorly, it is a student’s worst nightmare.

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