Speakers: ‘Flipping the Classroom’ a Powerful Teaching Tool, But Not a Quick Fix

History professor Lendol Calder told an audience of University of Virginia faculty members and graduate students on Friday that his presentation would highlight “flipping the classroom” and how to use what he described as a “powerful tool” for good instead of evil.

“Flipping the classroom” encompasses methods that deliver course content outside of class – instead of primarily by lectures – in a variety of ways, then turns class time into more of a workshop where students can explore course concepts, apply new knowledge, test their skills and interact through hands-on activities.

Calder, the keynote speaker of the Teaching Resource Center’s January Teaching Workshop, said he began “flipping the classroom” 16 years ago, but only learned the phrase six months ago.

New lecturers were not given much guidance when he began teaching 20 years ago, said Calder, who teaches at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., and was 2010 Illinois Professor of the Year, awarded by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

Although he spent a lot of time preparing lectures, what he ended up doing was “teaching by mentioning,” he joked. “I really believed if I said it, the students would learn it,” he said.

A comment from a student illustrated part of the problem with teaching large lecture courses, he said. She told him the courses were all pretty much the same, except for the content.

Should a history course be taught the same as a biology course and the same as an economics course?, Calder asked.

The way to design a course is to work backward, he said, first identifying the desired results in student learning and then figuring out how you will assess that. Then you plan the learning experiences, said Calder, who was a Carnegie Scholar in Teaching and Learning in 1999.

He said he realized he wanted his students to learn how a historian thinks – a process he called “a signature pedagogy.” To do this, he came up with a short list of essential questions that historians argue about that have no right answers.

The instructor should also identify two other levels: what facts, concepts or principles students should be familiar with, and what students should definitely know and be able to do.

He urged the audience of almost 150 faculty and graduate teaching assistants to determine how to provide students with exercises and projects that enable them to practice the basic mode of thought of the discipline being taught.

Disciplinary thinking should help people make sense of the world and learn what to value, he said.

Making these kinds of changes in teaching is not easy and it takes time, he cautioned. Start with 12 seconds and 120 feet, he suggested, while showing a photo of the Wright Brothers with their early airplane. That’s how long the first flight lasted and how far it went.

In another session of the daylong event, a trio of U.Va. professors talked about their experiences redesigning and teaching courses last semester in a “hybrid” model, which includes flipping the classroom and enriching traditional activities with digital technologies. Their endeavors resulted from a summer “challenge” grant supported by U.Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan and administered by the Faculty Senate and the Teaching Resource Center.

It was a challenge, they said, to make major changes with only a few weeks to prepare before the fall semester.

Biology professor Claire Cronmiller and drama professor Colleen Kelly of the College of Arts & Sciences and law professor J.H. “Rip” Verkerke were three of 10 faculty members whose proposals won challenge grants that gave them only a few weeks to redesign one of their well-known, successful courses.

As Cronmiller said, because of time constraints, she “tilted” rather than “flipped” her course on genetics, a required course for all biology majors. She used an online learning program that had voluntary tutorials and pre-class quizzes.

“Was the change good? I think so ... the evidence showed it was good,” she said. The students who took the tutorials ended up improving more than the students who didn’t, she said. She added that she had already begun to incorporate more active learning and in-class demonstrations last year.

For Verkerke, redesigning his first-year contracts law course was like being a new teacher again.

“The level of effort was astounding. I did nothing else all semester,” said Verkerke, who previously taught the class by Socratic method, the traditional method in law classes. He started thinking about changing his class when he took the Teaching Resource Center’s Course Design Institute, offered in May.

“It takes courage to put aside or put to a new test what you traditionally believed in and were proud of,” he said.

Verkerke prepared short video lectures, used an online discussion tool, writing exercises and peer editing. He had more one-on-one meetings with students, had them work in small groups and in pairs. Instead of a final exam, the students prepared learning portfolios. He said they showed evidence of deeper learning, of legal thinking.

It was a valuable experiment, but he hasn’t decided yet if it was worth it, he said.

Kelly had a different experience with her acting course, which already was designed to be highly interactive and deliberately “tech-free,” she said. In thinking about what took time away from teaching and learning in the classroom, Kelly said she found that some basic how-to’s about acting, rehearsing and auditioning could be shown in online videos. 

Instead of writing their thoughts about class in a journal, the students made videos, or “vlogs.” The results were “amazing,” Kelly said. The students discussed their questions more and were more willing to be vulnerable.

Another video exercise has become a resource for the entire drama department, Kelly said. Students interviewed people behind productions and learned more about technology in drama in areas such as set design, sound and lighting. They also made video trailers for the department’s plays last season.

Although the students said they learned more in the redesigned courses, Verkerke cautioned that they might be tougher on the instructor in their course evaluations, and he worried about professional repercussions.

Marva Barnett, director of the Teaching Resource Center, said it might help to let senior faculty and colleagues know you’re trying new methods in the classroom. She said the center recommends implementing course changes little by little, rather than a complete overhaul, since it is such as overwhelming task.

Cronmiller said that she wished it were possible for students to evaluate their courses five years later to see how much they remembered and valued their learning.

The teaching workshop also included sessions on using social media, class behavior strategies, an overview of online education at U.Va. and a demonstration of some hardware and software that can be used in flipping the classroom.

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications