Lessons From Flipped Classrooms and Flipped Failures

Digital Learning

Lessons From Flipped Classrooms and Flipped Failures

By Jeffrey R. Young     Aug 8, 2017

Lessons From Flipped Classrooms and Flipped Failures

This article is part of the guide: 6 Key Trends to 21st Century Teaching.

The feeling would crop up every so often. Robert Talbert would get the nagging, unsettling sense that the lectures he gave in his Calculus courses just weren’t sinking in.

“I kind of felt like there were these little cracks in the edifice every now and then where I would give just these great lecture courses, [and] I’d have students who were engaged, you could see it in their eyes. They seemed to be engaged. They would do well on timed tests, just acing timed tests. No problems. And then first day, second semester it’s like nothing ever happened.”

After a while the professor concluded that the problem wasn’t the students. It was him. Or, more specifically, it was the way he was teaching.

So a few years ago Talbert, a math professor at Grand Valley State University, tried a new approach, known as flipped learning—a method catching on these days in college classrooms. He describes it as a new philosophy of teaching. Unlike the lecture model, in which students first encountering new material in the classroom, in the flipped model the students’ first encounter with the material happens outside of class, usually in the form of video lectures. And class time is used for more interactive activities that encourage students to apply what they’re learning while the professor is there to step in and help if necessary.

It isn’t foolproof though, and in a new book Talbert gives a frank look into his classroom experiences, and his tips on how to avoid flipped failure. It’s called “Flipped Learning: A Guide for Higher Education Faculty.” Talbert has long shared the ups and downs of his teaching experiments with his colleagues through his blog. (Disclosure: I helped support that blog when I was an editor at The Chronicle and it was hosted there under the name Casting Out Nines).

EdSurge sat down with Talbert to talk about his experiences, and why he thinks more research universities are taking teaching more seriously these days. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can listen to a complete version below, or on iTunes (or your favorite podcast app).

EdSurge: Like most professors, you’ve spent most of your career lecturing. What made you first decide to try a “flipped classroom” approach to teaching? What was wrong with the old way?

Talbert: It wasn’t so much wrong as it was a bad fit for a new course that I was developing. This was about eight years ago. I started casting about for different models of designing the course and asked: Is there something out here that somebody has tried that would seem to be a better fit? I stumbled across this paper by three software engineers at Miami University of Ohio who had worked with something they called the Inverted Classroom.

Students in their software engineering courses were given work to do. They first encountered new software engineering concepts—the basics—prior to coming to class. Then their whole class time was spent programming, doing what software engineers do. I thought well, that’s perfect. I read their paper, I tried to set up the class designed around their principles. It turned out the software I was using already had really professionally well-done instructional videos for users and so it was just a great, great set up.

It didn’t go particularly well, though. If you read the book, I describe kind of a large amount of failure with implementing that class in the first place, not because of the structure, but because of the way that I had approached it. Hopefully my book is more for a way for people to learn from my mistakes without making them themselves honestly.

In your book you talk about how professors are afraid of ’flipped failure’—they worry that revamping their class will go wrong. What are some tips based on your experiences, some ways to avoid flipped failure?

Well, I think ’flipped failure’ looks like instructional failure. Most of the failures that I’ve ever experienced using flipped learning have been failures in communication and failures in planning, and so that’s not something specifically tied to a flipped learning model.

What I often tell faculty is, if you’re interested in using flipped learning, you’ve got to give yourself a lot of time to ease into it. I try to suggest a one-year plan between the moment you become interested in flipped learning and the moment you actually use it in the classroom. Take a solid year to plan, to develop materials, to test things out and so forth. Don’t try to jump straight into it.

But I think primarily what really separates successful flipped classes from unsuccessful flipped classes is the level of support and communication that instructors have with their students. Every time that I’ve had a mishap or a misstep in the classroom was because I wasn’t listening honestly. I wasn’t asking my students how things were going. I wasn’t really paying attention to their answers. It was just really a failure of communication or a failure of planning, of not thinking ahead for what could possibly happen in a classroom.

Because one of the things about flipped learning is that it opens the class time up, what I call the group space in the classroom where students are actually meeting and working together and anything could happen. It’s quite an improvisational approach to teaching in the classroom. So if you don’t plan ahead for contingencies, at least mentally prepare for them, something’s going to happen that you’re not ready for and it’s going to cause issues, to put it mildly.

You mention that in the traditional lecture model, students get addicted to professors teaching, and not in a good way. What do you mean by that?

There can be an unhealthy dependency of students upon instructors. I was just reading one of my friend’s blog posts last night where he referred to himself as an answer pinata, where his role in the classroom has become that students gang up on him, and [verbally] beat him until the answers come out basically.

I think that students can often take the approach where this is the only thing they’ve ever known. It’s not a failure of character amongst the students. It’s just an unfortunate artifact of the kind of educational system they grow up with, that students go to class expecting the teacher to do work for them.

So when a teacher does anything different, whether it’s group work or whatever, there’s definitely a high frequency of people saying, “You’re not teaching the class because you’re not lecturing to us anymore.” What I found as a mathematician—teaching courses like Calculus —was that students would listen to me very carefully sometimes, and they would be able to replicate what I was doing if it was a very similar type of problem I was working on the board. But the moment that they had to do something a slight left turn away from the stock example I was giving, they felt like they were completely unable to do it.

If students graduate from college and they can’t learn things on their own, then that college education was totally useless. It was a waste. People are right to criticize universities for pointing us in that direction. I just spend a little bit of space in the syllabus [explaining the format], maybe a paragraph and explain that this is how we’re going to do the class. You’re going to be responsible for learning new things on your own with a structured activity and open-ended help resources before class. Then we’re going to spend our class time doing applications because that’s the way that we’re going to focus our very scarce, very expensive class time on the most important, most difficult things that really need other people around. Students have no problems with this if you phrase it in that direction.

In the book you mention that for years as a lecturer you had the nagging feeling that things weren’t sticking for students. What were other things that kind of bugged you about the old way?

Yeah, you really get this when you teach a two-semester sequence of a course and you get students from the first semester in your second semester class. And then you will give problems in mathematics that have or callbacks to earlier things—in Calculus II there might be some Calculus I information that students have to learn. When your students who made A’s in Calculus I come into Calculus II and just literally cannot even recall the information from Calculus I and you ask them, “What’s going on? What’s the matter?” They’ll say, “That was last semester.”

And if that’s the case, then maybe nothing is happening, honestly. Maybe it just appears that something’s happening. How do I really know that students are learning in such a way that persists past the end of the semester, and it’s accumulating over their lifespan so that when they’re out of college they’re not going to need me to jumpstart their batteries when they have to learn something new?

Occasionally I would have these little sneaky doubts that would enter in and it would really bother me. I’d shove them under my consciousness and try not to think about them, but after a while you just can’t.

What is your evidence that students retain more with the flipped model?

One thing that the flipped model is really good for is giving you plenty of opportunities to gather data about student learning. When you’ve basically freed up class time so there’s very little lecturing going on, you can give lots and lots of formative assessment day in and day out.

You can interweave the formative assessment so that if you cover a topic in week two you can give them a little in-class quiz in week five to see if it’s still there. I’ve noticed that it’s still there. It really persists throughout the course. I’ve seen lots of great success stories with students coming through where it might take them a little while longer to really get it, but they get it because they have freedom, they have flexibility and they have attention.

Where are we in the adoption of this kind of method? Or more broadly, where are we in professors hitting that moment like you’re describing, when they think the old way isn’t working and they want to try something new?

There have been types of colleges for a very long time where teaching is extremely important to people—small liberal arts colleges, midsize and small universities like the one that I teach at—where research is balanced out by teaching, or maybe teaching is the most dominant thing. For those people this is old news. But what I’m seeing happening now, which is very encouraging, is that universities that are typically known as research universities where that the stereotype is that teaching is really not that important, now recognize that you can’t just be a research university anymore. You have to be a research university that does excellent research and excellent teaching at the same time.

What is driving that change?

Public universities, like where I teach at Grand Valley State, are publicly funded,so in some ways we’re always beholden to the parents of our students and the taxpayers for example. I think taxpayers and parents are really saying, “Look, we don’t necessarily want universities to give up research, but we’re sending our kids to these universities and we want to see what we’re getting for it. We want our kids to be educated. We want to see our kids in classes where they’re going to be well-attended to, where some thought has been put into instruction, and they’re really getting a great education along with being in a place where world-class research is done.”

I think there’s some external pressures going on there as well. I think that there are some key players in higher education. A Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Carl Wieman recently wrote a book on this, on improving university teaching, for example. When people like Carl Wieman speak up, people, other people who may not have ever thought of teaching very seriously begin to take notice because he’s got the research credential that somebody like me does not have.

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