Flipped classroom: a modern approach to teaching

Posted on April 21, 2016

Queen’s engineering professor Michael Rainbow aims for best results for students

Michael Rainbow

A NEW PARADIGM: Professor Michael Rainbow is using an iteration of the flipped classroom approach for his MECH 228 course. “I split the class into two sections in order to teach it this way instead of being in a lecture hall,” he says.  “My time is probably more than double what it would be but if I don’t start teaching it this way now I’ll probably never want to switch.”

The traditional lecture method of teaching in which students listen and take notes as an instructor speaks in person is at least 800 years old. It developed organically in medieval monasteries largely as a function of the rarity of books. Printed texts, and by extension the knowledge within them, could then only be reproduced singly and by craftspeople of great and rare skill. The lecture was a way to add efficiency to the dissemination of information; to distribute knowledge from a single precious text among many people simultaneously.

As technology evolved, as people learned to duplicate textbooks quickly and cheaply, the lecture model persisted. Seeing and hearing an accomplished person describe wondrous things still adds colour and nuance that isn’t communicated through text. But with advances this generation in internet access, miniaturized computing and digital media, there are new, even more efficient, ways to learn and teach. And harnessing those new technologies to make education as easy, available and effective as it can be implies a need for change to traditional teaching methods.

One example of that change is a technique education researchers call the flipped classroom. In it, class time formerly devoted to lectures is used instead for group exercises. Students cover course material on their own using a variety of resources and spend classroom time working together to apply what they’ve learned. It’s a teaching approach that’s gaining traction at all education levels and it’s one that a brand new Queen’s engineering professor has taken with his class.

Michael Rainbow is a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering. He was convinced to try the flipped classroom approach after learning about it from his wife, Roshni Rainbow, who studied it as part of her post-doctoral work at Tufts. Inspiration came also from Robert Beichner's Scale-Up program at North Carolina State University, and even Queen's physics professor James Fraser, who uses similar techniques with some of his courses. Rainbow applied what he learned to his very first undergraduate class, MECH 228: Kinematics and Dynamics. It's a course about measuring and predicting change in the positions of moving particles over time.

“Dynamics was formalized more than 300 years ago,” says Rainbow. “There’s no shortage of content online and there are hundreds of books on it, so students were getting content by themselves. What they weren’t getting is how to actually sit down and use it to solve problems... Instead of giving them stuff to write down and spit back up, we’re helping them to synthesise it.”

Research results on the flipped classroom are very positive. They show significantly lower failure rates, higher average marks, and higher rates of student engagement across multiple studies of various iterations of the approach. Marginalized and disengaged students perform much better and learning outcomes are more likely achieved. And these measured improvements aren’t typically small; they’re big, sometimes huge.

MECH 228 students

LEARNING TOGETHER: MECH 228 students Maggie Scheunert, Felix Lafontant, Nicholas Simone and Katelyn Morrison learn material formerly taught in lecture on their independent study time. They spend class sessions working together to crystalize their understanding of the work.

For Rainbow’s students, class starts most weeks with a 20-minute quiz on material learned independently. Students then assemble into groups and take the same quiz again, this time working together on the solutions.

“They get a certain amount of marks for the group part and a certain amount for the individual,” says Rainbow. “Say I ask them a question and they do poorly in the individual part but better in the group. When I ask a similar but more complicated question next quiz, more of them get it right. It means the process is helping them learn, which is neat.”

The students generally seem to like the format, too. Even those who find that the lecture approach works best with their learning style seem to like the flipped classroom for its interactivity.

“Not only do we learn the material, we learn other things that are very applicable, like coding,” says MECH  228 student Felix Lafontant. “Because of the team setting, we have to work on our communications and problem solving skills. This is the only class that offers that. It’s the only class that lets you be creative. I think it’s more up-to-date, more modern.”

“Another overlooked aspect is that because we’re in groups, it forces me to go to every single class because I feel bad if my group is without me,” says MECH 228 student John Craig. “It incentivises me to go and try my hardest for everyone else.”

Mech 228

GROUP WORK: MECH 228 students spend their classroom time working in groups with the support of Rainbow and his teaching assistants. There are no lectures in the course.

But change is jarring and the stakes are high for students. Some argue, for example, that they’ve grown accustomed to the traditional lecture approach and changing the delivery method part way through their program seems unfair. Others say group work puts a higher burden on stronger students and gives an unfair advantage to those struggling to learn the material. Still others simply prefer lectures.

“I think half the job is selling it to students,” says Rainbow. “Next time around I’ll be more explicit about the connections between the paper problems and the quizzes. Initially I described them through email and I would get replies, ‘Oh, I don’t know how to learn from the book by myself.’ Then I’d just show them the statistics.”

And it’s those research statistics, the ones that show such a profound positive impact on virtually every class performance metric, that simply can’t be ignored.

“I’m going to keep doing it,” says Rainbow. “Maybe not in every course but for something like dynamics, where the real challenge is learning how to solve problems, I think it’s perfect.”

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