Reflecting on the Flipped Classroom

Doug Stith uses a form of the flipped classroom he calls Learner-Paced Science with his sixth graders at Londonderry Middle School in Londonderry, New Hampshire. Older students serve as his assistants. Here an assistant (right) helps sixth graders visualize the shape of magnetic fields. Photo courtesy of Doug Stith.

Since educators began adopting flipped classroom strategies—in which instruction that typically occurred in class happens outside class, and instructors help students apply what they learned during class—many have developed new perspectives and new methods. “I don’t think of it as [a] ‘flipped classroom’; I think of it as [an] ‘open classroom,’” says David Osmond, assistant professor of science education at University of North Georgia (UNG) in Oakwood, Georgia. His preservice elementary science education students “do what they need to do [and] choose their priorities.”

Osmond and his colleague Donna Governor, assistant professor of science education at UNG’s Dahlonega campus, have found that the NSTA Learning Center’s SciPacks—which have modules providing self-directed online learning experiences for teachers to enhance their understanding of a scientific concept and its related pedagogical implications for student learning—dovetail nicely with the flipped classroom model. “SciPacks cover the breadth of what preservice elementary teachers need to know: content and pedagogy and its implications, [using] moving images, simulations, and interactive questions to see that they’ve understood the topic,” Osmond contends.

Governor says she discovered that students “don’t always do what they’re supposed to do before class” as part of a flipped classroom. “I expect them to get the content online [outside of class], but it doesn’t always happen before class. [In class,] I go over a little bit of content, the essential ideas, and hit the highlights for the day’s lab activities. Then instead of listening to lectures, students engage in the practices of science, investigate concepts. It can even be meaningful when they dive into the concepts later because they’ve had the experience and can better understand the content,” she adds.

With SciPacks modules, students aren’t just reading, “they do lab activities and projects at home,” Osmond explains. This frees time for students to “do outside learning experiences [as part of class work,] attend conferences, see museum exhibits, and design their own outside lab experiences,” he observes.

While Osmond teaches physical science content, Governor teaches both Earth and life science in one course. “I don’t use a traditional textbook because it can’t include both subjects [and doesn’t provide that breadth of knowledge] to help [preservice teachers learn] to teach the standards,” Governor contends. “SciPacks have modules for both subjects,” and allow her to choose which modules best meet students’ needs; “it’s a build your-own-textbook [opportunity]” that allows targeted readings, she observes.

“If I didn’t have the flipped model, I’d have to spend that time lecturing. That’s not how students learn, so I don’t want to do it,” Governor maintains.

Osmond notes that SciPacks aren’t “the primary way students are in charge of their own learning…For each unit, there’s a variety of activities to [choose from], and students don’t have to worry about it destroying their grade if one doesn’t work out…Their responsibility is to choose what they do to be successful.”

The flipped format has allowed Osmond to relax deadlines. “I give students a suggested date…, but no sweat if it’s a little late,” he explains. During in-class lab activities, “I grade them at the end of class…I can give them immediate feedback and let them try it again…My goal is I want them to fail and know they can improve. If they’re not failing, they’re not learning anything new,” he says.

Suggestions for Success

Michael Moore, a biology instructor and postdoctoral fellow in STEM Education at the Academy of Teaching and Learning at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, says he “spent four years in grad school [at Oklahoma State University], both as part of my research and my professional development, sitting in on my advisor’s flipped class. After completing my PhD, I came to Baylor as a postdoc and completely flipped my intro biology course the first semester;… the second semester, I did a hybrid co-instructed flipped course (lecture one day a week and active learning two days a week).”

Moore helped establish Baylor’s Learning Assistant (LA) Program, in which trained undergraduate students facilitate discussions and encourage student engagement and responsibility for learning. He says he found that “undergraduates are better able to communicate with younger students because they use their language.” The LAs facilitate active learning, involving students in the learning process more directly—which is vital in flipped classrooms, according to Moore.

Moore assigned targeted readings, using basic concepts to teach students how to learn. “The flipped classroom can be done a hundred different ways… You need to understand the theory behind what you’re doing…to find resources that work and are easily implemented,” he contends.

“[I]t’s important to get feedback from students and from other faculty who can observe how what you’re doing impacts students,” Moore notes. He recommends “leveraging your networks to find those colleagues to give you that feedback” and cites NSTA’s e-mail lists and the Flipped Learning Network  as examples of such networks.

Moore sees two trends in flipped learning. “You can add more structure on the tech end, more engagement points [such as] having students answer questions during lectures. Or you can remove the connection to technology and do targeted reading, give students a reason to go back to their textbooks and have them read about the relevant topics only.”

The goal of flipped learning should be “tying learning to a future career. Imparting skills is a key way to help students buy in…This motivates them, and we see the positive effects of this increase in motivation borne out in the literature,” Moore relates.

Middle and High School

“I have been running a flipped classroom for about three years in my regents chemistry class, and it has changed each year…The change is always for the better,” says Terrie Hunter of Horseheads High School in Horseheads, New York.

When Hunter’s students watch her videos after class, they “take notes to prepare for the video check the next day” that reveals their understanding, she explains. She says she includes “a brainteaser or a relevant TED talk or crash-course snippet” along with “questions for students to answer, a definition of a word, for example.”

Hunter uses Google Forms—free online surveys—for the video checks “that will automatically grade students. I can assess their understanding [before] teaching the day’s lesson based on the results,” she relates. Hunter’s students’ understanding of the material has improved with these innovations. “I had 75 students last year, and only one failed the chemistry regents exam…The flipped classroom model allows for more time for [inquiry-style] labs,” she reports. “There is…[time to] allow [students] to make mistakes, then have the teacher ‘coach’ [them].”

When she taught high school, Drew Wallsworth—now teaching math and science at Lane Intermediate School in West Allis, Wisconsin—had two years of experience flipping the classroom. The first year, she did so for two students in her general environmental science class; the second year, she flipped her entire Advanced Placement Environmental Science (APES) class. Wallsworth notes that in her APES class, “98% of my students were English as a Second Language (ESL) students, and they really benefitted [from the flipped class] because…they could go back and look at resources [after class] and didn’t have to [take notes] in class.”

Now as a sixth- and seventh-grade teacher, Wallsworth says, “I’m gradually introducing flipped pieces, but as a modified in-class flip…Half of the class does the activity with me and the other teacher, while the other half of the class reads or watches a video. Then they switch.”

Doug Stith, science teacher at Londonderry Middle School in Londonderry, New Hampshire, says he is “doing what I call Learner-Paced Science with my sixth graders. I also use seventh- and eighth-grade student assistants to help me interview and guide my sixth graders” and “conduct both small-group and whole-group discussions,” he reports.

Before he instituted Learner-Paced Science, Stith says, “My classroom always involved a great deal of hands-on activities; however, all students… moved at the same pace.” He took time to write up all the activities, enabling students to work at different paces. “Now all students begin on Activity 1 for a given unit. When completed, students…[ are] interviewed” to ensure they did it correctly and understand what they learned, Stith explains.

“[I assign] no homework or paper- and-pencil tests. Instead,…students create a product (Google Slides, video, written narrative, annotated poster, etc.) and are interviewed on their product,” Stith notes. “I could never go back to my old way, but I rely on my assistants to run this program.”

This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association. Each month, NSTA members receive NSTA Reports, featuring news on science education, the association, and more. Not a member? Learn how NSTA can help you become the best science teacher you can be.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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About Debra Shapiro

Associate Editor of member newspaper, NSTA Reports (www.nsta.org/publications/nstareports.aspx). Editor of Freebies for Science Teachers (www.nsta.org/publications/freebies.aspx) and NSTA Calendar (www.nsta.org/publications/calendar) pages. Follow me on Twitter: @Debra_NSTA
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