Turning the Classroom Upside Down for Good

Issue Date: 
March 30, 2015

Clayton, a Pitt student, arrives at class and settles in next to two friends in the auditorium. It’s an entry-level physics course. Traditionally, these classes are large and information-heavy, with most of the material conveyed in a lecture by a professor. But this time, the class is different. There is no lecture. Instead, students have already viewed the professor’s lecture video online—remotely, on a smartphone, laptop, or desktop computer. 

David NeroThen, in the classroom, instructor David Nero uses his time to demonstrate the concepts already covered in the out-of-class content. He already knows what students are fuzzy on—they leave comments on the lecture videos— and he gets right to it. “A common question you posted on today’s video was, What does ‘uniform circular motion’ mean?” he begins. He spins a bicycle tire and discusses principles related to velocity and centripetal force.   

Next, he projects a multiple-choice problem about force and motion on a large screen and instructs students to choose an answer by using their remote clickers. There are 60 students in the room, and only about 30 percent get it right. So, Nero knows he needs to spend more time, on the spot, helping students to understand today’s material. He encourages them to do more problem-solving, working in small groups. He circulates in the room, stopping to answer individual questions and provide support. 

Welcome to the flipped classroom, a teaching style that’s gaining momentum at Pitt and in universities around the country. Some call it an “inverted” classroom. The teaching style isn’t entirely new—humanities classes have been using it for years. But much of today’s buzz centers around flipping as a fresh approach to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) classes. This active-learning approach seeks a more efficient yet more lasting route to problem solving, reasoning, and higher-order thinking skills. It also permits professors to become part of the learning process as it happens. 

Some credit the origins of flipping to two science teachers in Woodland Park, Colo., who decided in 2007 to stop giving lectures and record their content online instead. They publicly shared their results of better student engagement and  comprehension, and soon they were being invited to speak around the country, giving  advice to other teachers wanting to do the same thing. This approach became a new way to engage students in science classes in secondary schools as well as in institutions of higher education.

At Pitt, several institutional support systems have encouraged teachers to experiment with flipping. Nero, a lecturer in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, won a $15,000 course-transformation award for his flipped classroom from Pitt’s Discipline-Based Science Education Research Center (dB-SERC) in 2014. The center, launched last January by the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences with support from the Provost’s Office, promotes and supports evidence-based teaching and learning in Pitt’s nine natural sciences departments. Nero used the award to purchase a professional recording camera and software and recorded his lectures during the summer.

Mary Rauktis

“I’m motivated to see my students reach their maximum potential,” Nero said, “And I strongly feel that flipping is a step in that direction.” This fall, he taught both a flipped section and a traditional section of Basic Physics for Science and Engineering I. Students in the flipped section were not only visibly more engaged during class but also consistently performed better on exams. 

“It’s so seductive to stay at the podium,” said Mary Rauktis, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work, but she, too, has witnessed the benefits of this new teaching style. She notes that the 19 students in her “flipped” graduate social work research course are more engaged and their writing projects, in particular, show improved critical understanding sooner in the semester compared with students in her traditionally taught class. 

ASteven Levitant least one Pitt teacher has been flipping for decades, even before the technique had a name. Early in his teaching career, computer engineering professor Steven Levitan remembers leaping onto his desk to get students’ attention, disheartened that no one asked questions. Convinced that students learn by doing, Levitan began to integrate active learning principles into, initially, his Programming Simulation Class. He created tutorials for students to do outside of class. He used class time for projects and case studies, where he stepped into a “coaching” role instead of an information-giving one.

The Engineering Education Research Center (EERC) in Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering is also interested in this upside-down approach. Established in 2011, the center’s purpose is to expand engineering education research and promote new approaches to learning to engage students. Center staff conducts research, helps faculty obtain resources and technology for teaching, assists with assessment of classes, and publishes findings. In 2013, the center formally implemented the flipped format in multiple engineering courses taken by freshmen through seniors. EERC Director of Assessment Renee Clark helped analyze classroom outcomes and found that students liked the flexibility of the flipped model, how they could rewatch videos and self-pace their learning. In general, students performed at least as well in the flipped classroom as in the traditional classroom on exams and homework. 

Active and engaged learning is key. Pitt student Clayton says he appreciates being able to view and review lecture material on his own time. But he also concedes that, in a flipped course, he has to work harder outside of class. 

It’s more work for professors, too—inside and outside the classroom. Lectures need to be prepared, recorded, and made available online well in advance. Rauktis, for instance, spent about 100 hours preparing slideshows, creating scripts, and recording voice-overs in a sound booth with the help of technicians at Pitt’s Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education (CIDDE), and designing new research problems to complement the shows. The flipped classroom setting is dynamic and interactive, requiring full engagement from both instructors and students.

It’s an approach to learning that uses today’s technologies in a real-time setting for an education that can be applied to a lifetime of knowledge acquisition, critical thinking, and problem solving. Flipping useful!