It’s a typical scene in many college classrooms: sleepy-looking students sit at desks—either with a notebook and pen or a laptop—and an instructor stands before them. With the help of either PowerPoint slides or a whiteboard, the instructor lectures the students on a chapter or concept, sometimes for 50 minutes, sometimes for over an hour, in the hopes the students will passively absorb the knowledge.
This ‘sage on the stage’ model is an age-old approach and the dominant teaching method in large classes at the college level, especially in STEM fields. But researchers have discovered that it’s not an effective way to get information to students.
A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that undergraduate students in classes with traditional lectures are 1.5 times more likely to fail than students in classes that use active learning methods. “The change in the failure rates is whopping,” says biologist Scott Freeman of the University of Washington, Seattle, who conducted the study.
The advent of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and the changing expectations of students are also affecting the traditional university classroom. MOOCs provide access to an education for free on-demand and online, and have proved popular. Over 200 universities having contributed courses and an estimated 10 million students have signed up for these free online classes.
The 2014 Global Survey of Students, which surveyed over 20,800 students at 37 institutions, found that 68 percent of students believe universities will offer “free online libraries where students can access course materials and books and other reference tools,” and 43 percent believe universities will offer free online content for most courses.
In an effort to create a more active learning environment and adapt to MOOCs and student expectations, universities across the nation are embracing a new teaching method called the ‘flipped classroom.’
A flipped classroom inverts the traditional educational model so that content is delivered outside of class—typically online through videos, podcasts, or online tutorials—and time in class is spend on activities typically considered to be homework. These activities allow students to interact more with instructors and force them to apply what they have learned.
“Creating an active and engaged learning environment is automatic when flipping a class, and with today’s technology for creating multimedia learning materials, it can be done without losing any of the content,” says Lorena Barba (ME), an associate professor of engineering and applied science at George Washington University. “In fact, it is the perfect use of technology for education.”
Engineering courses could be an especially good fit for flipping, as the difficult and complex subject matter lends itself to in-class activities that allow students to apply what they have learned in lecture materials. These in-class activities also give the teachers the opportunity to provide students with personalized attention, either by giving tips on how to solve problems they’re doing in class or answering questions.
“One of the greatest benefit of ‘flipping’ and other active learning approaches is the rapid feedback that students receive at a time when ideas are still fresh in their mind,” notes professor Donald Wroblewski (ME), associate dean for educational initiatives at Boston University College of Engineering. “Students leave class with a level of clarity and a sense of accomplishment that is hard to achieve in traditional lecture formats.”
Holly Ault, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, recently began using a web-based Learning Management System (LMS) for her flipped classroom to automate the assessment of CAD parts, assemblies, and drawings done by her students. This has allowed her to make more faculty and student time available to focus on strategic knowledge and conceptual understanding that is more relevant to a wider engineering degree.
Ault found that over 40 percent of her students felt that the online tutorials helped them be more productive during lab periods. “I’m able to spend less time in the lab teaching the students the ‘picks-and-clicks’ of software, and more time developing strategies for creating robust models.” she says.
The flipped classroom clearly presents a unique opportunity for educators to provide more contact time and support for students. Many universities, like Clemson and Harvard, are finding great success with their flipped classrooms, but the concept is still in its early stages and is still working its way into mainstream education.
“Change is a process,” says Jonathan Bergmann, one of the earliest advocates of the flipped teaching model. “By year three it’s culture.”
Considering flipping your classrooms? Learn how to get started.
Michelle Millier contributed to this article.