In flipped classes, the lecture is the homework
James Pitarresi, distinguished professor of mechanical engineering, was the first Binghamton faculty member to teach a "flipped" class. Now he is the executive director of the Center for Learning and Teaching.
This fall, students in some sections of Calculus I could be excused for concluding that their professor had flipped. Laura Anderson, associate professor of mathematics, spent last summer revising the department’s method of teaching the course, creating a pilot program in “flipped teaching.” Instead of using classroom time for lectures, instructors assign students to watch the lectures — which are recorded and posted online — as homework. Classroom time is reserved for something closer to a laboratory experience in which students, aided by their instructors, wrestle with calculus concepts and problems that employ fundamental ideas they have learned from the homework.
The innovative approach to teaching and learning is called blended learning or Web-enhanced instruction or “flipping,” in which the traditional roles of lecture and homework are reversed.
Regardless of what it’s called, it is gaining popularity. Professors and students praise blended learning, saying it offers advantages over the traditional model. In the growing body of literature about flipping, advocates assert that students are more engaged, classroom discussion increases and students hone their team-based problem-solving skills. Professors who adopt the technique find that after the initial investment in time spent recording lectures, they have more time for both teaching and research.
“What we want is to teach students how to take a college math course,” Anderson says. “What do you do when you’re stuck on a problem? College demands a higher level of intellectual rigor than high school. Blended learning encourages the kind of thinking necessary to succeed in college.”
“It’s a rethinking of how I teach and how students learn,” says Distinguished Teaching Professor of Mechanical Engineering James Pitarresi, who was recently named assistant provost and executive director of the Center for Learning and Teaching, a clearinghouse for innovative teaching ideas and support.
Pitarresi says he stumbled upon flipping in the mid-2000s, when tablet PCs became available, offering the ability to write with a stylus. Suddenly, “I could write complicated mathematical expressions that are the language of engineering and do that in a fluid way,” he recalls. “It opened up the classroom for me. I could lecture in real time and fill in the problem in real time.”
As his use of the new technology evolved, he found he could post brief videos online and assign students to watch them before class. Bigger chunks of classroom time became available for interactive learning. “In the old days,” he says, “I barely had time to cover the course material.”
Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Mark Fowler taught a flipped course last fall — Signals and Systems, a junior-level required course — that was a “spectacular success,” he says. So successful that he has received inquiries from professors all over the world who are interested in blended learning.
Fowler adopted flipping as a solution to a problem. With the large class (more than 100 students) scheduled late in the afternoon three days a week, he found some students were having difficulty attending some classes. Attention spans tended to wane late in the day, especially on Fridays.
So he decided to assign video lectures on Fridays and quiz students on Mondays. Student response was so positive that he was soon recording his lectures and using class time for interactive work.
“The biggest advantage was leveraging Professor Fowler’s knowledge in the classroom,” says John “Jack” Lanchantin, a senior who took the course last year. “Students who have questions during a professor’s lecture may be reluctant to raise their hands. With the recorded lectures, you can pause them, rewind them, take notes more easily. If you have questions, you can bring them to the class, where there is active dialogue.”
Once Fowler began assigning video homework, the classroom became much more animated. “Everyone was involved,” Lanchantin says. “We did a lot of small-group work on problems. It was a fun way to learn.”
While Fowler didn’t change his testing structure after flipping the course, his students did dramatically better on exams. He attributes the success, in part, to classroom structure. With Fowler and his teaching assistants circulating as students worked on problems, individualized guidance increased significantly.
“The flipped approach improved the ability of students to learn,” Fowler says, “but it also enhanced their capacity to retain knowledge better.”
– By Jim H. Smith