Lessons from a flipped classroom: a new approach to public affairs instruction

By Dr. Susan Siena, a lecturer at the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs

(photo courtesy of Indiana University in Bloomington)

Flipping the class sounds risky to many faculty members. Course content is presented outside of class time, often (but not always) in an instructor-produced video. Class time is used for active learning techniques in which students complete in-class assignments or problem sets, often involving interaction with peers and the instructor. Preparing a pre-recorded lecture will inevitably require a bit more preparation and new in-class activities will have to be devised to replace the time previously spent lecturing. The prospect of flipping an entire course may be overwhelming.

Another approach is to test the waters by using flipped instruction for just a few carefully targeted class sessions.

As a full-time non-tenure-track lecturer in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University in Bloomington, my task is to teach two 100-person sections of an introductory course in public policy. In order to incorporate active learning techniques despite the fairly large enrollment, I require that students complete on-line homework or quizzes before class starts. This insures that most have some basis on which to participate in class discussions. Each student is assigned to a team in which she completes required in-class assignments. Teams discuss policy issues, develop counter-arguments, deconstruct complex reading assignments, and find evidence to support a variety of positions. Although I use active learning in every class session, I continue to use lecture to deliver a significant amount of course content. Since I prefer selected readings over a textbook, lectures are necessary to provide background and set these reading materials in context.

In a faculty seminar offered by Indiana University’s Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning, I received helpful advice from consultants led by Tracey Birdwell. Our training was based on a three-step model: (1) acquire, (2) engage, (3) apply. Steps one and two were to take place outside of class. In step one, students acquire the information needed; this can be achieved through reading, using a video from an on-line source, or creating a video lecture. Since many associate flipped instruction with instructional videos, we learned about the technology and staff available to help with creating lectures and were advised to keep any instructor-created videos very brief – no more than 15 minutes in length.

In the second step, students are asked to engage with the material presented by completing an assignment or quiz. If an instructor chooses to use a reading assignment followed by a quiz on the basic content, this methods will look quite old-fashioned. My course uses on-line assignments due before class starts to insure that students are prepared for class discussion.

The major challenge was the final step. What would I do with 100 students in the classroom if they had already absorbed the material I normally presented in a lecture? The consultants were clear that repeating content already acquired outside of class would frustrate and alienate students.

The material I chose to flip were the units on foreign policy and defense policy and in particular the case studies for these units, the wars in Syria and Iraq. For Syria, I had been providing a brief in-class lecture to outline the key elements of the conflict, but students often became so confused by complexities that they lost sight completely of the broader concepts in foreign policy that I was trying to illustrate. Would presenting the background to this case study outside of class give students the time to better digest the facts of the case and thereby improve learning outcomes? Similarly, a video briefing on Iraq could help students think more deeply about U.S. defense policy.
The process of creating the videos was fairly easy since our campus teaching and learning center recently invested in a faculty technology lab, and its new staff was ready and willing to help me with production. I devised short on-line quizzes to check student comprehension of the basic material covered in the videos.

The consultants advised that it was important to explain to students that this section of the class would flow differently. At the end of my videos for these two units, I reminded students that they would be spending more time talking in their teams in the next class session, noting that I would ask them to write a policy memo proposing a U.S. policy on the conflict in Syria. I also announced that made an in-class announcement about these units and asked students if they had ever experienced a flipped class. The response was interesting! Only a few had experienced flipped instruction, but their experiences had not been positive. One student had a high school chemistry teacher who flipped his class by providing long video lectures of himself standing in an empty classroom. Another complained about her experience with flipped instruction in an IU math class. No one who spoke up had anything positive to say.

I decided to begin the class by making sure everyone was comprehending the key points of the video. I provided teams with a set of review questions and asked them to discuss and write out their responses. We briefly discussed these responses as a larger group, and students asked a number of clarifying questions about the content of the videos.

I then asked students to gather in their teams and review a set of short readings advocating a variety of possible policies for the U.S. Soon I had an entire classroom silently reading material! This, I thought, was the ultimate in flipped instruction. Watching me outside of class, students were now reading in the classroom. But after approximately ten minutes, teams began to discuss the alternative perspectives they had read. Each team decided on a recommended policy and wrote a very short policy memo in which they advocated a particular position.

The in-class assignments had several elements that might be attractive to many faculty working in the social sciences and humanities. We often hope to encourage students to read thoughtful analyses and engage in critical thinking. By assigning students to engage in these activities during class, we can use social incentives to encourage most of our students to practice them. If students have to read something in class and explain it to their team, peer pressure will insure that all but a very few will take a close look at the assigned material. And if a few points are given for the team assignment, students will actually engage in small group discussions in which most students contribute something.

How did students’ perceive the “flipped” units? A survey of my students showed that their perceptions were positive. Responses to the statement: “The pre-recorded videos on Syria and Iraq were helpful to my learning,” were generally positive, with over 70% in the “agree” or “strongly agree” categories.” Perhaps it is not surprising that three-quarters of the respondents (119 out of 157) prefer preparing for class by watching a video over reading. Many students commented that the videos were easier to understand, more entertaining, and gave a better preview of what we would discuss in class. One student said, “I found this much more helpful because it was like a personal lesson that I can watch multiple times. Reading is tough because the readings are so long and full of information. Having the information presented in a video format was beneficial to the way I understood the material.”

This may be troubling for many faculty, as many of our disciplines value the ability to read complex texts. Indeed, that may be a major transferable skill that students in the social sciences and humanities take away from their college training. As an instructor I will be cautious not to allow videos – my own or those created by others – to replace reading material. The best way to learn to read difficult texts is to practice doing so, and entirely replacing this with videos would not best serve students. On the other hand, students will live and work in a world in which more and more content may be delivered through videos. If students can more efficiently acquire basic content in this way, it is not inherently less useful than an in-class lecture presentation.

But was there really a difference between watching a video lecture before class and listening to a lecture in class? Only 23% of students surveyed felt that the video lectures were more helpful than in-class lectures, with 35% finding that the video lectures were less helpful and a large number reporting a mixed response. This result certainly encourages us to be cautious about completely replacing in-class content with video lectures. Students who preferred in-class lectures often commented that they like the interactive nature of an in-class presentation since questions can be raised as the material is presented.

Students were asked to respond to the statement, “The in-class activities on Syria and Iraq were helpful to my learning.” Survey responses were generally positive, with over 80% in the “agree” or “strongly agree” categories. However, in response to the statement, “Overall I would like to see more class sessions like those on Syria and Iraq, reactions were more mixed. While still over 50% agreed, about 25% of respondents indicated that they were undecided about their interest in having more class sessions using the “flipped” instructional model. On the positive side, students noted that in the flipped class sessions there was more time for discussion or group work and that they were better prepared and therefore learned more from the class. And a few even mentioned that there was more opportunity for critical thinking. One student commented, “I felt very involved and after class I even went home and researched it more because of how curious I was.” However, there were indeed students who did not enjoy the in-class experience on these days. A strong but vocal minority did not like the flipped format. One student remarked, “I did not like the way the iraq and syria [sic] unit were taught. it [sic] went over my head, it [sic] was hard to pay attention.”

Cognitive development theory suggests that students in their early years of college are often not ready for the higher levels of processing outlined in Bloom’s taxonomy: some students in a 100-level course are only ready to “remember” and “understand” rather than “analyze” and “evaluate.” Moving into more complex levels of thinking may be painful and frustrating for some students, so changing the mode of instruction for just a day or two can give those reluctant students the opportunity to begin to move away from just learning the facts.

For this and many other practical reasons, I am not about to flip my entire course. Like many faculty (and students as well), I believe that traditional in-class lectures have their place, especially when students feel comfortable asking questions and raising comments during the lecture and when small group activities are incorporated to allow for greater participation. When addressing complex topics in which acquiring basic information may be difficult, a short video lecture may allow students the time to absorb basic information outside of class and allow faculty to move more deeply into analysis during the class session itself. Used in a large-enrollment introductory course, this technique also exposes students to higher-level critical thinking that one hopes they will develop further in smaller, more advanced courses.

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