# Flipping the Classroom

Chris HarrisonLevelBasic

Chris recently wrote an article on 'Flipping the Classroom', that was published in The Analytical Scientist. You can download it here as a pdf.

Here's the link to the article in The Analytical Scientist.

Chris:

"My early teachings followed the traditional lecture format. I would spend most of the class time explaining the concepts, theories, or equations pertinent to that section of the class, including some sample problems that I would solve for the students by walking through each step.

With so many modern teaching tools at our fingertips, shouldn’t we be making more of the time we spend with our students? I decided to “flip” my classroom in an attempt to answer that question. Here is how it went:"

## How it started

For the spring semester of my analytical chemistry class this year, I chose to implement the “flipped classroom”. In it, the conventional approach to teaching is turned on its head: instead of using class time to learn material in a lecture format, students use it exclusively to answer questions and work on problems. The time that the students would normally spend doing problems or homework for a traditional lecture is instead used to watch pre-recorded lectures in preparation for the work to be done in the class time. Simple!The flipped classroom is in no way my creation – I learned of it from a seminar on teaching held at SDSU. To me, it’s the latest installment of my quest to find the best way to engage a large group of students in the beauty of analytical chemistry.

## The Back Story

I have been teaching analytical chemistry at San Diego StateUniversity since the fall semester of 2007. The course is the

traditional introductory analytical chemistry course, often

called quantitative analysis or just “quant” for short. Its focus

is to get students to think analytically about chemistry:

to begin to consider the complexities of equilibria, to

understand the statistical significance of the numbers

that they see and report, and to gain a foundation in how

accurate measurements can be made in chemistry, both in

the classroom and in the laboratory. To a large extent, it

requires the application of a lot of math to chemical systems

to understand what is happening within them. As with any

university level course, some students love it, most work

their way through it, and a few dislike it.

My early teachings followed the traditional lecture

format. I would spend most of the class time explaining

the concepts, theories, or equations pertinent to that

section of the class, including some sample problems that I

would solve for the students by walking through each step.

The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t provide

a significant amount of experience to the students. Sure,

they get to listen to me – and hopefully learn something

from that. And they get to see me solve a few problems

along the way. But it does seem like a very odd way to learn

how to do something. Would the traditional method work

if you were teaching someone to do something complex,

such as fly an airplane or perform surgery? Absolutely not!

Practical experience is crucial, which is why we have practice

problems and homework. (Does this course not have a

practical laboratory component?) But when do students

do this work? At home in the evenings? The night before

a deadline? Ever? From my experience, I would say one or

two days before the deadline is when most students try to

complete the problems. I can quite accurately gauge this by

counting the number of students that drop by my office with

questions. In a week without any homework deadlines, I had

nobody coming by. But on the week of a deadline, my office

was packed, and I was usually answering the same questions

over and over…

It is likely that many of you with lecturing experience will

have had a similar experience. I would even go so far as to

venture that, much like myself, you have probably come to

feel that you are better able to teach your students during

your office hours than you can during your lectures. After

all, it is in these office hours where you can determine what

their individual difficulties are and how to best aid. If only

all interactions could be like that. Instead, most contact

hours with your students are spent presenting a repackaged

version of the textbook or other written course material.

Given your level of education and expertise in the subject,

your time could inevitably be better spent doing something

other than what amounts to reading. Right?

## Student Engagement

It was during Pittcon 2011, in the middle of our springsemester, that I was inspired to make some serious changes

to how I would teach the analytical chemistry course. The

inspiration came from a talk by Steven Weber from the

University of Pittsburgh, who described how he got his

students to calculate the pH values for the titration curves

of various amino acids; each student was assigned an amino

acid. Steven would introduce the material and then have the

students dive into the work during class, so that he could

supervise and answer questions. The approach struck a

chord with me and I realized it could be nicely adapted for

use with my material.

With 40 students in the class there aren’t enough amino

acids for everyone, so I asked the students to work in groups.

Each group were given one of five amino acids whose pH

they needed to calculate at various points along a titration

curve, which allowed me to have numerical answers that I

could share and compare with the students. I used the first

half of the class to cover some basics related to polyprotic

titrations and then commenced the group work.

The hard part was just sitting back and letting them do

the work. Until you have actually tried to leave a lecture to

it’s own devices, it is hard to describe how uncomfortable

it feels. That doesn’t mean that it didn’t work out – but not

everything went perfectly. A couple of students adamantly

refused to work in groups and elected to leave the class.

Most students did get into groups and, after some chatting,

began the work. As I circulated around the classroom, I

answered questions that arose in each group. I also noticed

that groups were benefitting from peer mentoring, with

students helping each other.

The experiment offered two positive insights into how

effective active learning can be. The first was that many of

the students wanted to know the correct answers to the

calculations at the end of the lecture. It was great to realize

how engaged the students were with the problem. The

second sign was actually quite unexpected. Every instructor

can easily tell when there are less than five minutes left in

any class; students start to pack up their books and stop

listening entirely. But in my experimental class, this didn’t

happen. In fact, students were still working on the problems

at the end of the class when the next lecture started to enter

the room.

Given my success, I continued with the approach for the

next few years. Though it was somewhat effective in getting

a large number of students to do problems during class,

the amount of time for doing problems was rather limited.

After introducing the materials and possibly solving a

sample problem, there was little time left for group work.

Additionally, some lecture topics were not as conducive to

such an approach or simply needed more explaining. And

there was the inevitable decrease in attendance for the class,

with only a third to a half of the class attending any given

lecture, which pretty much reflected declines I’d seen when

using traditional lectures. Yes, the approach was working

pretty well, but it could certainly be improved; I was still

spending at least half of my class time lecturing, rather than

letting students work on problems or ask me questions. At

this point, the concept of the flipped classroom began to

make much more sense to me.

## Learning to Flip

I should note that the implementation or rigidity of aflipped classroom is entirely up to the instructor. I opted

for a more open structure, without any imposed deadlines

on the watching of lecture videos or the submission of

questions. Rather I had prepared problem sets (those used in

the previous years of the course) that I wanted the students

to work on in groups. For the first couple of lectures, I had

created video reviews of the labs that they would be doing

during the course of the semester. In keeping with that

theme, I provided the students with a summary of a lab, along

with the “data” collected from the analysis – a silver chloride

precipitation titration experiment. The objective was to get

the students to do the calculations for the standardization

of the titrant, during which they would need to deal with

statistical issues, such as the exclusion of outlier data points.

It was a glorious teaching plan in my mind – the students

would complete so much in just 50 minutes. It was an utter

failure…

In reality, after introducing the class and answering a

few questions, there was little more than 30 minutes left,

which was nowhere near enough for the students to grasp

the complexities of the problem. Instead of students asking

questions about the validity of data and how to interpret

results, questions revolved around how to get started.

Unfortunately, this scenario repeated itself in the next

period, as there had been no time to alter the plan. Once

again, my students were confused with material presented

to them. Clearly, I was not preparing them well enough and

had overestimated their capabilities. Fortunately, I was able

to adapt my plans for subsequent classes; I resorted to using

the problem from the more traditional format of the course,

which made classes much smoother.

I have to say that I really did not account for how much

time the lecture recordings would take out of my schedule. I

had been toying with the idea of doing a flipped classroom for some time, but never found the time to record the

lectures prior to the semester when I decided to implement

the process. As such, I found myself scrambling to prepare

videos each week for the topics to be covered. Though I had

lecture materials from my previous iterations of the course,

significant modification of those materials were necessary

to make them amenable to a lecture video. Add to that the

time to record the lecture, edit the final product, and upload

it, and the workload starts getting heavy. Sometimes I was

only able to get the lectures uploaded the day before the

class period – clearly not ideal; however, it did not prove to

be such a big problem as most students were a few lectures

behind after the first few weeks of the course.

Another surprising lesson that I learned during the

semester (which probably shouldn’t have been surprising

at all) is that, if classes are unstructured and optional,

many students will not attend. I realize this response is not

unprecedented. Certainly, in the past when I had taught

this course as a traditional lecture, I would consistently

see below 50 percent attendance in the latter third of the

semester. Some students had just given up on the course,

others made use of the course materials that I provided

(audio recordings, sample problems, lecture slides) rather

than coming to lectures directly. However, using the flipped

classroom, the decline in attendance started sooner and

went to a much lower level, with as few as a quarter of my 80

students attending lectures regularly.

## Assessing the Flipped Classroom

I would be lying if I said that I didn’t want all my students tocome to every class, but the reality is that, though working

on problems in groups is a great way for most students to

learn, it does not mean it holds true in every case. Moreover,

because of the lack of strict deadlines, the course effectively

became a self-paced program; students were less likely to be

at the same point and thus less likely to be able to work in

groups. The big question is whether or not low attendance is

a problem.

In a traditional course it would clearly be problematic –

students would be missing out on the basic instruction for

the course. However, with a flipped classroom, that’s not

necessarily the case. The lecture materials (including videos,

problem sets, solutions, and online homework) are fully

available, so presence in the class is not a direct indication of

their efforts to learn the material. In fact, if the dropout rate

for the class (meaning those who did not withdraw from the

course but elected not to write the final exam), is compared

to the historical average, the change is stunning. Under the

flipped classroom approach, the only student who did not

complete the class withdrew in the first few weeks of the

course. Historically, about 10 percent will not write the final

exam, having given up before the course finishes.

I have to say, it is not fully clear whether or not the flipped

classroom approach was the principle factor in the improved

retention of the students. Other changes, including a

revision to the structure and style of exam questions may

have also played a role. However, comments from some of

the students, including one who had failed to complete the

course in the more traditional lecture format, shed some

light. In the traditional lecture format, if a student does not

grasp the material being taught, it’s rarely possible to get a

second chance. Of course, with lecture videos, the student

can replay sections over an over, so if motivated, has no

reason to fall behind in their understanding.

An inability to ask questions of the lecturer while

watching videos was inconvenient for some. But there are

two solutions to this problem: (i) email the instructor the

question or (ii), as I suggested to my students, they could

5 Featur actually opt to watch the lectures during class, where I would

be available to answer questions on the spot. Admittedly,

this takes us almost full circle, but because the recorded

lectures are much shorter than the class time allocated, it

still presented a better alternative, since I was available to

answer as many questions as required.

Over the course of the semester I elicited feedback from

my students about their feelings on the flipped classroom.

The responses varied widely – some loved the new approach

and others hated it. Complaints fell into two main

categories, students either preferred the live lectures over

the videos or wanted to see sample problems solved rather

than stepwise calculated solutions.

The craving for traditional lectures may stem from comfort

and familiarity – at least one student admitted as much in

the feedback. And yet, given the rate at which I normally

see students stop attending classes – and their total lack of

participation – I am struggling to share what benefit they

derive from a formal lecture period. The inclusion of videos

illustrating solutions to sample problems was something

that I did change. It was easy enough to accomplish with a

whiteboard, iPhone, and a camera tripod, and added a more

dynamic feel to the narration of slides.

Am I a flipping convert? Absolutely! Overall, I feel that

the flipped classroom was very successful. The students

completed the course, and did so with far better grades than

my previous traditionally taught classes. Despite the success,

I do know that I can make the flipped classroom an even

better experience for my students. Many students lamented

the low numbers attending the class times, echoing my

feelings. And while I recognize that students can be (and

often are) successful without coming to class, I would like to

be able to push the students further.

I will be redoing my videos before the start of the semester

to better integrate examples of problem solving. I will also

significantly shorten the videos, making more in the process.

After all, the traditional lecture habit of repetition is not one

that is needed when the students have access to a rewind

button!

I see the flipped classroom as the inevitable evolution of

much of our teaching, if only for the reason that as educators

we can be far more effective when we directly engage our

students and help them solve their specific problems. Given

the success that I saw with my first – and admittedly clumsy

– attempt at flipping the classroom I see no reason to go

back to the traditional lecture format.