Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Flipping: Does it work?

When the notion of the 'flipped classroom' became popular a few years ago, I realized that I already was a 'semi-flipper': No, I didn't do video recordings of lectures beforehand (largely because I virtually never think of my class meetings as delivering a lecture). But I was doing a lot of what's associated with the flipped classroom:

  • being less the sage on the stage, more the guide on the side
  • using diagnostic techniques to identify gaps in student understanding that I then try to address
  • having students communicate more with one another than 'ping pong' communication with me
  • thinking of class meetings less as performances of my own knowledge than a series of activities united by identified learning objectives
All of this seems wise to me.

And now word has it that the flipped classroom may not work. Yes yes, it's only one study conducted in a far from typical higher ed setting (Harvey Mudd College). 

But I'm very interested to know about philosophy instructor's experiences with flipping. Those of you who've tried flipping the philosophy classroom:

  1. What are your specific flipping techniques or practices?
  2. Has it worked — and what's your evidence for that?
  3. If it hasn't worked, why not?
  4. What did you learn along the way?


  1. I've never seen much chance of it working except with significant controls and involvement on the part of the instructor. I'm paid to teach the students things that they would have a harder time figuring out on their own. I can expect them to absorb a certain amount of information from the reading if they do it, and they'll learn something by being forced to do a presentation or to have a conversation that I don't steer in any particular direction, but I would consider it not doing my job if that were to be the norm for the majority of the time for most class sessions.

    I can spend my teaching time in a number of ways besides lecturing to maximize how much I can teach them, but I don't think just opening up the floor to students with only minimal teaching on my part counts as fulfilling my job description. If I did that, the students would have every right to complain that I'm not doing my job. Groups, student presentations, and class discussion might all be fine within limits, but if the majority of the time in class involves students talking either in groups or to the whole class, without any or much guidance from me, I wouldn't consider that teaching on my part.

  2. How does one even determine whether flipping "works"? What is the goal?

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  4. 1. I've used frequent quizzes over the readings (taken as individuals and then together in small groups) before the relevant material has been discussed. I use small group exercises regularly which are then turned in as a group (about 3-4 students per group).

    2. (a) I don't know if the students learn more.
    (b) I know that I get a lot more feedback about what students are and aren't getting when I do a lot of focused, small group activities (I wander around and participate in various ways in the small groups). The students talk more, and are able to ask and answer a lot more questions than if we just had one big classroom group. So I have some theoretical reasons to think it helps.

    But: regarding (a), it would be nice to do some kind of controlled study, giving two different classes the same final exam, say, but one with a class without regular small group activities and another class with regular small group activities. However, I don't know that I have the competence to set up a good experiment of this sort. Would the results be statistically significant, etc? Somewhere down the line, I'd like to organize such an experiment in consultation with one of the stats profs here, but as of yet, I've not done so.

    3. I don't know if students are learning more, but they do sometimes complain about the pre-reading quizzes. However, they generally like the small group discussion questions and exercises.

    4. See (2) above. I've learned all kinds of things about what students are confused about that I never would've guessed without this method. In large classes (over 150 students), especially, I find it very useful to do the frequent, in class, small group exercises.

  5. The comment attributed to Nancy Lappe, in the CHE post, is hilarious. I was just telling a student yesterday that, for me, the easiest thing in the world, is to talk for 75 minutes without a break about something I know a lot about. And they can just sleep if they want to. What could be better than that! Coming up with something that actually induces them to learn is much more challenging for both them and me.

    The hard question is #3: we do not have great evidence about what works, because we do not have good common agreements about what we want them to learn or about what actually prompts that learning. Our own experience is about as good as the experience of GPs who think that they know what drugs helped what patients. And, unlike them, we don't have any real research to look to (though, if we did have some, also unlike the, we would have time to attend to it).

  6. When are the students doing the reading on the flipped model? I never see it in any diagrams. Are there even reading assignments in the flipped classroom? Everything I see suggest that this is compromise technique: The students won't read, but they will watch a short video. At least they'll get something out of it. And then we can do some of the problem sets in class. . . . I can see trying this if I was teaching math in The Wire. But I can't figure out how this is supposed to work in the humanities. Does anyone have a concrete example of a single flipped philosophy class session? Perhaps that would help. . . . But, as you note, the options here are not merely between droning on at the lectern and flipping.

  7. Christopher StephensNovember 3, 2013 at 4:59 PM


    One way to get them to do the reading on the flipped model is to start classes with a quiz, taken first individually and then in small groups. I've done this many times (using multiple choice questions) and it gets most of the students to do the reading (at least an increased number). You then use the quiz topics/content as a springboard to discussion for the rest of the class. To the extent that you lecture or just run a discussion, you can then presuppose that most of the students have done the readings. Your focus can then be on further clarification and depth. You can also make them come in with questions, and get everyone to answer those. I don't know if this counts exactly as the "flipped" model but it's in the same spirit. Seems to work just fine in the Humanities.

    They don't need to watch a video - you just have to give them incentive to do a certain amount of reading outside of class. Then, you don't have to spend as much time in class going over the basics or lecturing.

    1. I've been doing daily reading quizzes for 6 years. I started giving reading questions this semester that help with the quizzes. My evaluations are usually a mix of "I hate your stupid quizzes" and "The quizzes really helped me stay on track." I get more of the latter, happily. My question was where reading assignments fit on the flipped model. The diagrams seem to suggest that there is no reading, just video watching.


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