In traditional learning environments the first exposure to knowledge occurs via in-class lectures. The instructor decides what content should be conveyed to students. After class, students assimilate and deepen this knowledge through reading and homework assignments. Alternatively, instructors can try to assign reading prior to class so that the students will come to class armed with some knowledge of the subject in advance. However, from my experience teaching introductory economics and finance courses at Baruch College, most students will not take the time to do the reading and simply hope to learn the most important things from the lecture. Students believe, often correctly, that the instructor will cover the most pertinent topics in class.
However, it would be more beneficial for the classroom to operate more like a seminar, where participants, knowledgeable of the subject, engage in a heated discussion, problems get solved – or arise – and the instructor gets challenged. Gaining knowledge and comprehension are actually lower level cognitive work, as opposed to higher level activities such as application, evaluation, analysis and synthesis. Why would we want the students to do the more demanding tasks without us? Why would we want to lead them just half of the way, and then abandon them when it starts to get rocky?
Trying to solve this puzzle, some educators have turned to technology. One of the new buzz words in education is the “flipped” classroom. “Flipping the classroom” means that students gain first exposure to new material outside of class, usually via video-taped lectures, and then class time is devoted to the harder work of assimilating that knowledge through activities such as problem-solving, discussion or debates, depending on the discipline. Also, online quizzes and clicker systems allow for pre-class and in-class testing with immediate feedback.
This new class structure has been gaining momentum. A couple of months ago, President Obama, announcing his new plan to make college more affordable, identified this new approach, along with the widely discussed and controversial Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), as a promising new development. A recently conducted three-year study examining student performance in a “flipped classroom” has found statistically significant gains in student performance in “flipped” settings and significant student preference for “flipped” methods. The study examined three years of a foundational pharmaceutics course, required for all doctor of pharmacy (Pharm.D.) students attending University of North Carolina’s Eshelman School of Pharmacy. Traditional and flipped classroom were compared and the study found that student performance on an identical final exam improved between 2011 and 2013 by 5.1 percent.
The appeal of the flipped classroom is that it is not meant just to deliver pre-recorded lectures. The key is that students are using class time, where they can benefit from the instructors’ hands-on expertise, to deepen their understanding of the material and increase their skills at using their new knowledge. I find the concept compelling and believe that with proper implementation, flipped courses can be fun and challenging for students and instructors.