Flipped Classroom: It’s About Timely Formative Feedback

The phrase “Flipped Classroom” is appearing with increasing frequency in publications and blog postings. Yet, it seems to mean different things to different people. Many of the references I see to flipped classrooms are made by people or organizations who have a vested interest in selling goods or services, which probably affects their view of the issues.

As proposed by Salman Khan in his TED Lecture, flipping the classroom involves using internet-based video to move “lecture” out of the classroom to some other place and time of a student’s choosing. Class time can then be used for student problem solving and group work. Dan Meyer and others have critiqued aspects of Salman Khan’s approach, with some such as Michael Pershan offering constructive ideas for improvements.

Eric Mazur, a physics professor at Harvard, has also been advocating a “flipped” approach  – and for considerably longer than Salman Khan. His conception of “flipping” focuses on getting students to grapple with new ideas for the first time outside of class, then using class time to test and improve conceptual understanding. Video may or may not be involved in students’ time outside of class. He also advocates specific approaches in class to complement the work done outside of class: ConcepTests and Peer Instruction.

So what characteristics separate a “traditional” from a “flipped” classroom? It seems

A Traditional classroom

  • Introduces the majority of new material to students while they are in the classroom.
  • Uses some class time and all homework time for students to work on assigned work.
  • Expects students to learn the material from the teacher’s presentation and/or their working of assigned problems.
  • Focus is often largely on factual recall and execution of procedure.

A Flipped classroom

  • Asks students to introduce themselves to new material on their own time, outside of class, using a variety of resources and approaches.
  • Uses class time to help students master the subtleties of the new material and give them opportunities to apply their new knowledge to new situations.
  • Expects students to learn the material from a combination of their own efforts outside of class and structured/moderated interactions with peers and the teacher during class time.
  • Greater emphasis is often placed on understanding of concept than factual recall or execution of procedure (particularly in post-secondary education).

The component of the “flipped” approach that seems to receive the most attention (use of on-line video to introduce a topic outside of class) is not something radically new. Surely the invention of textbooks and videotapes were accompanied by similar claims: “students can now learn material on their own outside of class”. If the flipped approach made possible by these technologies was so wonderful, why are so many math and science teachers still introducing new material in class using the lecture format several centuries (since the introduction of textbooks) or decades (since videotapes) later? What can on-line video accomplish that textbooks or videotape (or DVDs) could not?

I think our attention is being drawn in the wrong direction. Textbooks are not new, video is not new, and the Socratic method is not new. What is (relatively) new is the Internet. The Internet has made more efficient communication, information sharing, and group social interactions possible. Those are the elements that are now slowly finding a role for themselves in the world of education as teachers find ways to use them to achieve better results.

Eric Mazur’s effective use of class time depends critically on being able to receive feedback from students late the night before class so that he can focus the next class on their questions. He also uses “clickers” to support greater two-way communication than was previously possible in a large class, so that students can receive near-immediate feedback on their responses to formative assessment questions.

Schools that have been trumpeted as making extensive use of Khan Academy have written that they value its ability to:

  • Provide students with an instant response that their answer was correct or not correct
  • Provide teachers with a dashboard showing what topics each student has worked on independently, and which posed difficulties.

Video lessons, be they in class or at home, or by the teacher or someone else, do not seem to be cited as the game-changer here.

20 years ago, we did not have the technological tools to cost-effectively implement near-instant formative assessment without giving away the answer. We could have students in a small class hold up their hands, or flash cards, to obtain the same sort of results that clickers can today – but the aggregate results were usually not as clearly visible to the students themselves. We could have students check their answers in the back of the book, but then they would know what the right answer was supposed to be… and the problem lost some of its value as a vehicle for learning.

The “flipped” classroom successes we are hearing about today may result from two revolutionary things, both of which have been facilitated by the combination of computers and the Internet:

  • Timely communication among all class participants and teaching staff, at any time. This allows peers to assist one another in learning the material more easily, even when they are not in the same physical location. It also allows students to tell the teacher at 11pm what they wish to focus on in class tomorrow.
  • Immediate formative assessment tools (clickers, Khan Academy problems, etc.) which let a student know whether their answer is correct or not, and in some cases will even give them a hint – all without giving away the correct answer and reducing the remaining value of the problem to the student.

Both of the above make a faster feedback loop possible. The faster a student can receive accurate (and ideally supportive) feedback on just-completed work, the better the learning that takes place. As an example of this, video games typically offer instant feedback… and I see the interest in bringing game-like attributes to education as being consistent with a quest for faster feedback.

The new technologies that are receiving so much attention (teacher-created videos, clickers, cellphones, iPads, blogs, websites, twitter, etc.) are all tools that can be used to tighten the feedback loop – but their individual or collective use does not guarantee that. A combination of technology, teaching philosophy and technique, assessment tools, and class interaction patterns seem to be needed to successfully and satisfactorily tighten the feedback loop. Using technology alone, or in a manner that does not tighten the formative assessment feedback loop for students significantly, does not seem likely to have a lasting effect on student outcomes.

Further reading about flipped classrooms that may be of interest, in addition to the links above, includes:
The Flipped Classroom
The Flipped Class: Myths vs. Reality
The Flipped Classroom: Pro and Con
Flipped Learning: A Response to Five Common Criticisms
Ten Questions about Flipping a Mathematics Classroom
My Flipped Classroom
Reflections on a Semester of the Flipped Classroom
I will add to this list as I come across things – so please suggest additions in the comments below.

By Whit Ford

Math tutor since 1992. Former math teacher, product manager, software developer, research analyst, etc.

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