Flipping the classroom – how to make lectures engaging and interactive

I’ve been taking a teaching course that requires me to change the way that I teach to explore new techniques. At first it seemed like it was going to be a lot of effort, but it turned out to be a fascinating and enjoyable experience.  I was experimenting with a type of teaching called the “flipped [or inverted] classroom“.  Here’s how it works:

Flipped vs traditional teaching models

What you can see from this comparison is that the flipped classroom has three advantages over the traditional model:

  1. Students consolidate their learning in the presence of the teacher, meaning that not only do they have access to an infallible source of knowledge (or something…).
  2. The teacher is also able to monitor the level of understanding in the class and take action to resolve any problems there and then rather than waiting for mistakes on the exam.
  3. The teacher saves time by re-using lectures, and possibly even avoiding lecturing altogether by using third party resources and primary literature to stimulate students prior to class.

I tried flipping the classroom in a class of around 80 students in the 3rd year course last semester.  I had three two-hour lectures recorded from the previous year which I sent out prior to the class meeting.  We then spent the six hours of contact time doing more interactive things.  Here’s the outline for the three lectures (an overview of “Ecology in the Anthropocene”):


The three sessions then ran like this:

  1. “Rebalancing Wikipedia” – in the first session, I asked the students to bring their laptops or tablets and divided the class into groups.  Each group of 3 or 4 students was given a British endangered species to research.  The catch is that these are neglected species: mosses, lichens, a few insects, and plants for which there aren’t Wikipedia entries.  I’ll blog more about this later.  The students were set the task of collaboratively building Wikipedia pages for those species.
  2. The second session started with a short intro talk from me on the evidence base of conservation biology, in which I tried to convince them (playing Devil’s advocate) that conservation biology wasn’t a science.  We were going to discuss a few questions: Is conservation biology a “science” and why (not)? How do we make it more like a science? Can you think of any other examples of where anecdotes have been mistaken for data? How can we make our conservation more effective in non-scientific ways? However, because of some very awkward scheduling the same class of students had already just sat through five hours of assessed seminars during another part of the course.  Because of the flexibility that the flipped classroom brought, I was able to cut the session short, giving them the questions above to think about in their own time.
  3. The final session covered the idea of uncharismatic species, and I spent the first hour with the class divided into groups trying to come with arguments for and against the conservation of (i) otters, and (ii) an uncharismatic species from a list provided. We discussed the differences between the lists, and how different arguments might be perceived by different stakeholder groups. We spent the second hour defining key concepts from the lectures without using jargon, trying communicate in the simplest way that might engage non-specialists and the general public. Finally, we brought the session back together to consider a practical issue: how to encourage the public to conserve urban ponds. This is a part of my research and so I was able to share some of the ideas that I have had to engage the class.

All in all I think the flipped classroom went well. I asked for feedback on the structure and here is what the students said (anonymous, paper feedback forms at the end of the third class):

  • Today was interesting and helpful and made me think about my grant proposal much better than the wiki page
  • I enjoyed the lectures giving a wider view of scientific thought and process and its relationship with other “groups”
  • Depends on whether other groups fill in the wiki for the species provided
  • It’s very useful and interesting to learn new skills.  Also recorded lectures are very good as well.
  • I like the idea of recorded lectures as it means you have time to go over them at your own pace and fully understand the material
  • The discussion on conserving species was interesting and will be useful for writing the proposal assessment
  • Interesting but in-class lectures helpful due to other assessments (time)
  • Interaction is stimulating and useful, especially when discussing why certain species should be conserved.  Enjoyed the lecture style and the fact that I can look at recorded lectures in my own time – useful to be able to pause/rewind when I do not understand
  • Really enjoyed the different way in which this submodule is taught as I found it more dynamic and engaging
  • The class discussions were good
  • I thought the wiki project was a great idea, definitely encouraged people to read up and contribute (actively learn) because we were contributing something to Wikipedia
  • Discussions were useful, wiki project was not
  • The lectures were very interesting and thought provoking

Conclusion: I’m definitely going to be using this technique again.  There were a few kinks which I will iron out: the wiki project was too much in too short a time, the scheduling issue meant that I couldn’t get as much out of the second session as I would have liked, and I should have been clearer with expectations of workload at the outset. However, a definitely net positive, and I hope I can convince others to try it for themselves. Too many colleagues seem to have this attitude:



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