Reflections on Flipping: Three Semesters Later

At some point, I heard about flipping. I heard students liked it but more importantly, I heard it “worked,” anecdotally. As an economist, I wanted to know if it actually worked. Was there a significant improvement in student learning? Could I quantify an effect of flipping the classroom on undergraduates’ learning? My curiosity as an economist and my desire to change up my class, to make it more hands-on and more student-centered, drove me to flip my course.

For a few semesters, I had felt guilty lecturing for an entire class period. I wanted to make class more engaging for the students, who at times looked like they were being tortured. I know, you’re thinking, “It’s econ! How could students not be engaged? How could they not be at the edge of their seats every minute of class time?” Trust me, I hear you. At the same time, I liked to give students hands-on time with the material. I wanted to give them more hands on time with the material. I had heard about some “fun” activities to do in class to illustrate economic concepts, but I had no idea how to add in these activities without cutting material. Of course, I could not cut material. That would be blasphemous. Therefore, flipping, if effective, seemed like the answer to all of my problems.

I also thought if I was going to do this, I was going all in and I was going to flip my entire course. Not only that, but I was going to attempt to quantify the “flipping effect” and determine if there was a significant difference in student outcomes by teaching one class in a traditional manner and one class in a flipped manner. This would enable me to change up my teaching, to do something innovative and breathe new life into my course, and to do some research on the topic.

I next had to decide how I was going to have the students experience the lecture in the flipped class. It was very important to me that the students had some sense of continuity throughout the course, especially as this class structure would be completely foreign for most of them. I also wanted the students to know that I was in it with them, so I decided to make all of my own videos. Furthermore, because I was implementing a treatment-control experimental design, I needed the lecture notes to be the same for the two groups of students.

My basic inspiration for the videos was the Khan Academy. I had seen a couple of those videos, and I really liked how they conveyed information. I believe in economics it is important to see equations solved and graphs drawn by hand, so I knew I wanted the ability to talk through the graphs and equations while writing them out by hand, just as I would do in a typical lecture. Katie Sabourin helped me identify the technology needed to make the videos: Echo 360 to record my computer desktop and voiceover and a Wacom Tablet (pen-tablet) so I could draw on the screen.

All of my videos had the same format: a PowerPoint shell with a black background. I pre-loaded definitions, data, and some text into the PowerPoint presentation, where they would animate upon a click. Using the screen-capture technology, I recorded a voice-over of the PowerPoint slide show, and where appropriate, I annotated the slides using the pen-tablet technology. For example, axes and titles of graphs were animated to “draw” on the screen. Meanwhile, I hand drew the supply and demand curves, shaded in the areas of consumer and producer surplus, and solved calculations by hand. As another example, table shells were pre-loaded into the PowerPoint, but I explained how to fill them out and filled them out by hand on the recordings as I talked through the tables (just as I would do in a lecture class). To keep the videos “interesting” (as if the content weren’t enough!), I included relevant graphics. The videos ranged in length from 4-21 minutes, with an average of 11 minutes.

Here is a short clip from one of my video lectures to give you an example of how the lectures looked online and what I meant by “pre-loaded” and being able to annotate them.  It also illustrates that both the audio and video don’t have to be perfect (which was hard for me to accept as I made the videos):

Interestingly, figuring out how to get the content or lecture to the students was the easiest part. The next step was figuring out what to do during the class time. I now had 3 hours of empty space to fill each week! We started off each class with an open notebook, 5-minute quiz based off of the lecture material from the videos that were due for that class period. This had the additional benefit of incentivizing students to watch, take notes on, and pay attention to the videos. After the quizzes, students engaged in different activities depending on the day and material. They participated in economic experiments, discussed and analyzed popular press news articles or video clips from tv shows, created mind and concept maps, and completed worksheets for each of the activities. Students also completed worksheets identical to those the traditional class completed for each chapter. Finally, they also spent one day per week working on online problem sets. To keep it interesting, sometimes we worked together as a class as a whole, while other times students worked in small groups, pairs, or individually, depending on the content and the activity. While the students were engaged with the activities, I circled the room and answered questions that they had. Actually, I tried not to answer the questions that students had, but instead, I tried to get them to learn how to figure out the answers for themselves. Sometimes, if I noticed the same question over and over, I’d have them take a mini-break while I did a mini-lecture.

This is my third semester teaching in a flipped format. Why do I continue to do it? First, it works. My analysis indicated that students in the flipped class scored significantly higher than in the traditional class on midterm and final exams. Controlling for student academic and demographic characteristics, the effect had a lower bound of roughly two-thirds to an entire letter grade. (Note: It worked in economics. It worked in a small, introductory economics course. My findings do not indicate that it will work in every single class. In fact, I have no doubt that there are classes out there for which this structure just wouldn’t work. I also can think of other classes of mine for which a full flip wouldn’t work either, but a partial flip might. So, it still depends on the instructor’s desire to flip, the content and course, and a host of other things.) Second, the students seemed to like it. Okay, they didn’t hate it. Some of them really liked it. Some of them indicated that this structure taught them about themselves as learners! Once I saw that flipping worked, and once I saw that the majority of students didn’t hate it, I wasn’t sure how I could go back to teaching this class in a traditional manner.

From a personal standpoint, the marginal cost of flipping from one semester to the next is pretty small. I also really enjoy the format, as each day is a little different. Every semester, I look to improve the flip, change activities, make sure activities work out the way they should, etc. I still think that there are some topics that are better suited to a flipped structure than others. I continually worry that class is not engaging enough, or that students resent having so much problem solving and group work in class when they might want lecture (okay, maybe I’m projecting here, because I loved lectures and was not a fan of group work as a student). I’ve found that flipping helps me to get to know my students more. I have a better sense of who is keeping up with the material and who is falling behind.

Flipping has also changed my outlook on some of the other classes I teach. When you flip your class, you have to change the way you think about it. You start to question things you teach, why you teach them, and how you teach them. I find this is helping me in my other classes as well, and I am working to identify different ways to keep improving my courses. For example, in the future, I want to implement partial flips in different classes, such as statistics and econometrics. I think there are some topics that are appropriate for out of class delivery and some topics for which I really must do a “live” lecture.

My advice: flip a class you know. Flip a class where you can anticipate the questions because you already know where the students struggle. It will also help you to decide how to best utilize your class time.



One response to “Reflections on Flipping: Three Semesters Later

  1. I like the fact that you do both group, individual, and pairs work. This allows for both the introverts and extroverts to have space in the class for their learning styles. Sometimes I think professors can go overboard with group work and I could imagine in a flipped classroom that all classroom work could be constructed as group work. This would work well for extroverts who need the interactive stimulation to think. But not so good for the introverts who need the solitary space for their minds to dive all in.

    Good for you, sounds like a great success!

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