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What is a flipped class, and why are they showing up more often?

In traditional teacher-centered classrooms, information is presented in lecture style. There might be pauses for demonstrations, practice problems, or questions, but the basic format remains the same. One of the great advantages of teacher-centered classes is efficiency because the teacher can more easily control the pacing.

Lecturing has some critical weaknesses, however. One of them is that it is hard to determine what students have learned. The assessment of the lesson usually happens at the very end of class or as part of a homework assignment. If a teacher uses homework as a way to assess students informally, as is the case in many math courses, there is a risk students may not complete the work at all or that the assessment is inaccurate because students receive assistance at home. With the limited time at the end of class or allocated for homework, there may not be the opportunity to push students toward using valuable higher-order thinking skills like analyzing, evaluating, and creating. Instead teachers tend to test whether students can recall, understand, and apply information. Though these things are important, they do not represent the totality of what we hope an education will provide students. Creative teachers and creative curricula do have ways around these problems, so they are not deal breakers, but they are limitations about which educators should be aware. The biggest liability of lecturing is that it relies heavily on students' ability to listen —and sometimes to watch— attentively in real time.

Flipping the classroom is taking the lecture or presentation that usually happens during class time and assigning it for homework. It is one solution to the limitations of traditional lecture-style teaching. Students might view a video presentation from their own teacher, or they might learn from another resource such as a video, a book, a website, or another teacher's lecture. So why would teachers take the part of school that we typically think of as teaching and make it happen at home? The short answer is that flipping the class allows teachers to use class time for project-based learning, problem solving, informal assessment, and/or addressing misconceptions. These are the active learning activities that allow students to apply their higher-order thinking skills to pursuits like applying, analyzing, and evaluating information as well as creating new products and projects with that information. Flipping the classroom can free up time for project-based learning, which is sometimes rushed, saved for the end of the year, or avoided altogether.

Common Misconceptions About Flipped Classes

"Students have to learn on their own" is the concern I hear most often from parents or read on online message boards. We tend to associate lecture or the "sage of stage" part of class with learning, so if students are doing that at home, it can feel disconcerting at first. However, students are not being deprived of the information they would have received in class. If they have questions, there are usually mechanisms for those questions to be answered in real time. There might be an online discussion forum with classmates, for example. There are often interactive resources from textbook publishers or teacher-provided links to helpful resources. Of course, teachers still answer questions during class time too. Teachers understand also that they are not there to monitor who appears to be listening attentively and who seems to be distracted. However, there are ways of monitoring student understanding during flipped class activities. Flipped classes may have pauses within the presentation where students must answer questions. Sometimes students receive immediate feedback on the accuracy of their answers through the use of Web-based tools. In other cases, the teacher will review answers to written questions in class.

I have also read the complaint, "The teacher is no longer teaching," in a flipped classroom. It may feel like the teacher has stepped back. However, the same tasks the teacher has always performed —aligning lessons to learning goals, lesson planning, giving the lesson (or finding suitable teaching materials for the lesson), creating assessment, evaluating assessment, and correcting student misconceptions all take place in a flipped class. In fact, it is more challenging for a teacher to "wing it" in flipped class construct because she must do more advance planning to assess student learning and answer questions that may arise during the at-home portion of the flipped lesson.

Advantages to Flipped Classes

Flipped classes can be really helpful for students who want or need to move at their own pace. In this way they are a fantastic accommodation for many types of learning differences. Inattentive students, students with working memory challenges, children with dysgraphia, and English language learners can all slow down, pause, and replay lecture videos, advantages they do not have when lectures are given in real time. Teachers usually keep their flipped classroom materials available online as well, so students can return to them later, and parents and tutors can also view them.

While it may initially feel like students are not receiving as much assistance from the teacher, a flipped classroom can make teachers more available to students. A traditional lecture may only allow a teacher to devote a few minutes to each student during class. However, during a flipped class, a teacher can have a full class period to move through the room and assist students with their work. In a traditional lecture, teacher time is usually spent answering students' questions, which only works well if students are good at self-assessing their understanding and if students speak up with their questions. In a flipped classroom, a teacher can observe student work and give feedback on that work in real time. This is particularly true if assessment questions are built into the at-home learning activity.

Flipped classes can empower students too. Such activities tend to be good for students who prefer to learn through different modalities. They provide flexibility when students must be absent, and they reduce learned helplessness because they shift more responsibility to students each day. Homework, practice problems, and asking questions are all harder to avoid.

So why are we seeing flipped classes more often?

While teachers have been using variations of the flipped classroom for many years, Web-based technology and greater prevalence of broadband internet has made it easier to implement this idea on a wider scale. Educational reforms, which have been pushing for greater teaching efficacy and teacher accountability, have also led educators to search for research-tested methods that may improve their classroom results. Initial data about flipped learning is positive. For example, one three-year study showed that flipping a college chemistry classroom led to improved standardized test scores. Teachers are also keenly aware of the need to differentiate their classroom for the needs of different learners. In fact, those who evaluate teacher performance require that teachers create lessons to meet the needs of all of the different students in their classrooms. A flipped class in an efficient way to help slow processors, the hearing impaired, and English language learners all at once without disadvantaging fast learners. Few teaching strategies are this flexible.

While I highly doubt that technology-based learned will replace in-person learning for a variety of reasons, I do expect that you will see a lot more "blended learning" activities, where technology plays a part. Flipped classes are just part of the broad blended learning culture that is likely here to stay and will also likely evolve somewhat over the years.


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