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Flipping the Classroom – Becoming a Better Lecturer

20 Mar 2019 | Dr Nigel Francis In this blog Dr Nigel Francis, a Senior Lecturer at Swansea University Medical School, shares his journey from starting teaching in higher education to flipping his classroom and how he feels this has made him a better lecturer. He asks - Could this help you make that jump and flip?

This year I took that very jump and decided to try flipping part of my first-year calculations class. The results staggered me, with a significant improvement in performance in the summative assessment and generally extremely positive feedback from students from a questionnaire used to assess their perception of this approach.

What is the flipped classroom?

At its most basic level, the flipped classroom simply asks students to review lecture material or other resources at home before attending a scheduled teaching session, where learning can be reinforced and advanced. However, in my opinion, the true essence of a flipped approach is setting an engaging activity as part of the homework, which is not simply summarised in class, but rather requires students to apply their knowledge from the flipped activity using higher order thinking skills to solve problems in pairs or groups. The advantage of the flipped approach is that we are asking students to carry out the lower order thinking skills, as defined by Blooms Taxonomy, at home and then have the opportunity to use the higher-order skills in class when peers and the instructor are present to facilitate learning.

How and Why?

So how did I do this and why? The how was relatively straightforward if somewhat time-consuming! Over the summer I recorded a series of short videos that covered the subject material that had previously been delivered via a lecture within small group teaching sessions. The first 15-minute video took me about four hours to create and I learnt a number of really important lessons from this. Firstly, the need to really plan out what you want to say and try as much as possible to stick to that script, but without sounding robotic - easier said than done! Secondly, if you start out using the record function in PowerPoint, as I did, to record either individual slides or small segments as there is no way to separate the audio from the video if you use this method. If you make a mistake you have to re-record everything; I’ve since started using Camtasia, which does split the two components and allows better editing flexibility. Creating a video still takes time, but rather than four hours I am down to about ninety minutes. What I would add at this point is that you don’t necessarily need to create your own material and it doesn’t have to be videos. There is a whole world of resources available on the internet that can be used and adapted for teaching, so take some time and explore what is available already in your field.

The why is a bit more complicated, I started teaching in higher education about seven years ago, I had no prior experience of teaching when I started, so I did what I suspect most new lecturers do and did unto others as had been done unto me! So, I prepared lectures, I set coursework and exam questions; students passed the modules, they gave me reasonable feedback so I continued doing what I was doing and I never really stopped to consider whether students were actually engaging with the subject material or simply learning what was required to pass the exams. This was hammered home to me when I came across a video on YouTube of Professor Eric Mazur, a physicist at Harvard University, discussing peer-instruction, and how before adopting this approach, students in his class were simply learning to pass exams by applying formulae to questions with no real understanding of the underlying concepts.  So I changed my teaching approach and took the first step to flipping, introducing peer-led learning into my calculations class. I set homework questions and the following week students were expected to be able to describe how they approached a question and got to their answer on the whiteboard. Whilst this encouraged students to prepare better for class the key aspect that was lacking was the peer discussion, students were reluctant to point out errors or consider alternative methods in front of the instructor, so while I had tried to take the first step I was still a long way from truly flipping.

The push I needed came from attending a workshop at our internal learning and teaching conference, where a member of staff with much more experience flipping his classroom talked participants through his approach and highlighted some of the benefits. Inspired I created that first painfully long video and started off on this flipped journey. I have embedded homework questions within the videos that students need to prepare before they come to class, I still use the whiteboard approach, but also allow the students to discuss their solutions in groups prior to demonstrating their method. I then use more complicated examples of calculations that require students to draw on the knowledge they already have in order to analyse the problem and reach a consensus answer.

Becoming a better teacher?

So why do I think flipping the classroom has made me a better teacher? Firstly, this approach really makes you work hard as a lecturer to understand the material you deliver and to see the problems from a student’s perspective, as a result, you get better at being able to explain concepts that they find confusing at their level. Secondly, you are able to gauge the level of understanding within your group of students and specifically tailor the sessions to address those gaps in knowledge directly, rather than by lecturing and hoping that you cover everything that needs to be covered, this creates a much more dynamic learning environment. Lastly, and probably most importantly, you develop better relationships with your students as they become more comfortable discussing problems around you.

So I’d like to ask, do you think flipping could make you a better lecturer too? What are the main obstacles stopping you from adopting this approach to your teaching toolkit?

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