My Final Verdict on the Flipped Classroom

Late last week, I finally finished grading the last assignments and exams for my first year seminar on Politics and Film and submitted final grades to the Registrar’s office.  Whew! What a term!

As I’ve blogged about previously, this year I’ve been using the flipped classroom technique to teach my first year seminar course on Understanding Power and Conflict through Film. The main idea behind this pedagogy is to use class time more effectively.  Rather than the professor lecturing or facilitating discussion for the entire class, as is the norm for most first year classes and upper year seminars respectively, the flipped classroom pedagogy asks students to learn the basics at home and to spend actual class time applying their learning to a variety of problems and situations, with the guidance of the instructor.

In my first year seminar this term, for instance, students were asked to read several academic readings at home each week before completing an online quiz that required them to find examples from the real-world to illustrate certain ideas and concepts from the readings.  From those quizzes, I would write a 10-15 minute lecture on the topic for that week, spending particular time going over the concepts that the students seemed to have the most trouble with in the quiz.  After that short lecture, we would spend the rest of the class in small and large groups working on applying the various concepts to a variety of problems and situations. We would usually end with a class discussion or formal debate on the strengths and weaknesses of the concepts or theories being studied that week.

In previous blogs, I talked about how I used the flipped classroom pedagogy to structure my lessons on the state of nature and rational choice/game theory.  For the rest of the term, we covered the concepts of structure and agency, institutions, class and capitalism, and colonialism.  The basic structure for these classes was the same as outlined above. The final exam asked students to watch a film and explain what happened in that film by using the course concepts and readings covered in class during the term.

So what’s the final verdict? I think the flipped classroom pedagogy is a keeper.  Students seemed to like the the class and format.  In an anonymous survey, for instance, students mentioned they learned more in this class than any other first year class they took this term.  They liked how the class exercises, discussions, movies, and assignments, were all focused on helping students learn and apply course concepts to a wide variety of phenomenon. While some first year seminars this term suffered from high levels of student attrition (e.g. one instructor reported that s/he had only eight regularly attending students by the end of the course), my classes always had between 19 or 20 students out of a total 20 in attendance.  While another first year seminar instructor complained that the 3 hour length of their seminar was far too long, my classes always went the full three hours and none of my students ever complained about this fact; indeed, some (just a few though!) were disappointed when class exercises and discussion had to be cut off due to the 3 hour class limit!

That being said, there are some things about the flipped classroom that I need to tinker with next year:

  • Online quizzes: Although they were really useful for helping me figure out what topics and concepts the students were struggling with (and hence what I needed to cover in lecture), they were really time consuming to grade.
  • Small group work: Most small groups had fabulous discussions.  However, some small groups spoke very little so I need to find stronger incentives for individuals to participate in small group discussions.
  • More variety in terms of in-class activities.  The state of nature and game theory weeks were really easy to do, partly because they were the kind of topics that were most open to games.  The weeks after, were slightly more difficult.  I ended up creating formal debates at the end of most classes, which involved two debating teams trying to convince a panel of their peers that their position was the more convincing one.  Most students liked these formal debates. A few did not.
  • Modify my goals and expectations.  For the most part, I assigned academic readings on what are some pretty heavy social science concepts.  Unsurprisingly, perhaps, students did not always come away with a full mastery of the concepts but they did learn some core ideas about them and how they might be applied to a variety of situations.  At first, I thought this meant I had failed in achieving my course learning objectives.  But by the end of the course, I saw this outcome as a victory, especially once I thought about how these outcomes compared to the typical final exam answers I get in my second year lecture course.

There were other issues as well, for this course, which I will need to tinker with but these other issues had more to do with non-flipped classroom things.

I’ve been told that I will be allowed to teach this course next year, which I am really excited about doing!  The next task, however, will be to see if I can “flip” my second year lecture course on Canadian politics, enrollment of 125.  Stay tuned!

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