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Stephen MacNeil, Wilfrid Laurier University chemistry professor, records PowerPoint presentations for video lectures. (JENNIFER ROBERTS For The Globe and Mail)
Stephen MacNeil, Wilfrid Laurier University chemistry professor, records PowerPoint presentations for video lectures. (JENNIFER ROBERTS For The Globe and Mail)

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Ignoring the advice of friends, Wilfrid Laurier University honours psychology student Sari Isenstein chose a second-year organic chemistry course as one of her electives.

“Chemistry is not my forte and organic chemistry is one of the hardest courses offered at the university,” says Isenstein, 21, who graduates next year. She took the course in 2012 as a challenge, earning an A in the first semester and an A-minus in the second.

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She credits her professor, Stephen MacNeil, a recent convert to an innovative teaching method known as the “flipped” or “inverted” classroom. It’s a pedagogical approach that is catching on at universities across the country, redefining the relationship between professor and student.

Instead of a traditional three-hour lecture, the professor prepares online video lectures, slide shows of core content and quizzes for students to work on before class – hence the flip. Once in class, the professor reviews knowledge gaps revealed by the quizzes, leaves time for students to work together on problems and delivers the occasional short lecture to reinforce a concept.

Flipping the classroom is labour intensive for the professor and puts the onus on students to be active learners, not passive note-takers.

What’s prompting the interest in the new approach?

For Dr. MacNeil, who has taught at Laurier for 10 years, the tipping point came with ever-larger classes. A decade ago, he taught 75 students in one lecture: Today it’s 300.

“Every year, I thought what I was doing was less and less effective,” says the professor, who consistently earns favourable evaluations. “I felt more and more disconnected from my students.”

In 2009, he took a course design workshop that he says made him realize he “was doing a lot of things in class without paying much attention to how my students learn.” He took a sabbatical in 2010 to learn how to flip his second-year introductory chemistry class that fall.

MacNeil’s Aha! moment is resonating elsewhere.

In response to faculty interest, the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon this summer introduced an intensive two-day workshop entitled “over easy” – with a second one for this fall – on how to flip a classroom.

“Flipped teaching is an exciting direction that many people are enthusiastic about,” says Jim Greer, director of the University Learning Centre at the University of Saskatchewan.

Technology is facilitating faculty experimentation.

“One catalyst is that the ability to create instructional videos is readily available,” says Laurie Harrison, director of online learning strategies at the University of Toronto. “It allows instructors to create course content and share resources.” Most faculty now have access to low-cost software for creating videos and PowerPoint slides, even from home.

“The inverted classroom is reflecting a deep rethinking of the design of instruction based on the availability of these technologies,” she says.

At the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ont., the flipped classroom is seen as one of several tools for transforming curriculum delivery.

“How can you use classroom time in a more engaging fashion?” asks Maureen Mancuso, provost and vice-president academic at Guelph.“We know from the research that if they [students] are engaged, they learn more.”

To encourage a pedagogical rethink, some universities are encouraging faculty to experiment with so-called active learning strategies that include the flipped classroom.

This year, Laurier dean of arts Michael Carroll made an offer, open to up to five faculty members. In exchange for teaching one less first- or second-year course – typically with large enrolment – a professor would work with teaching support services to incorporate “active learning strategies” into the curriculum.

“There is a sense among some, including myself, that we need to refocus a little more carefully on undergraduate education,” Dr. Carroll says. His offer is one of a range of recent measures to enhance the undergraduate experience.

One of those taking advantage of the dean’s offer is political science professor Christopher Alcantara, who flipped a new first-year seminar, one of several introduced last year by Laurier to give cohorts of 20 students a small-class experience.

Instead of online videos, he posted weekly readings on political concepts, with students answering a three-question, online quiz including what material gave them difficulty. They also have to write an essay. “Instead of waiting for a mid-term [exam], I got instant feedback by seeing exactly what they were doing,” says Dr. Alcantara, who has taught at Laurier for five years. When students were stumped by the concept of game theory, a mathematics-based form of analysis, he used class time to explain the theory in greater depth and give students time to apply it to real-life situations.

“By the end of the three-hour session, the students were coming up with all sorts of criticism of game theory that were extremely valid but were not in the literature,” he says. While other professors lamented they could not retain their first-year seminar students for the full lecture, Prof. Alcantara reported “almost full attendance every week.”

Spurred by his success, he is flipping his second-year politics class of 125 students this fall. “It’s a wonderful way of teaching,” he says.

But it can be unsettling for students to embrace a new way of learning.

“The easiest class for students is one where you sit in the lecture in totally passive mode and listen to somebody,” says Saskatchewan’s Dr. Greer. “The effort is much increased when you are actually asked to be active.”

Dr. MacNeil’s second-year chemistry course is a case in point.

One week before his weekly Wednesday night lecture, he posts video lectures and related PowerPoint slides. By 12:01 a.m. Sunday, he posts a pre-class assignment on the university’s online homework system, giving students until noon Wednesday to complete the material. Student participation was close to 90 per cent throughout term.

In the hours before the evening lecture, MacNeil reviews student answers to tweak his material to “really focus on what they didn’t do well.”

Isenstein acknowledges students must do more preparation before class – but it counts toward the final grade.

“He [MacNeil] put more work on our shoulders than other classes but it helped us in the end,” she says.

“I was thankful for that.”

So far, MacNeil has only anecdotal evidence about the impact on learning.

In surveys, he asks students, “Did it mean more work for you?” They respond, “Yes.” But they also agree he should stick with the flipped format.

“Can you think of any other scenario where you say to the students, ‘I will make you do more work’ and they respond with, ‘Great idea?’” he asks. “They think it is more work but they like it.”

FIVE TIPS TO FLIP

It takes time and effort to “flip” a classroom from the traditional lecture format. Here are some tips from the field:

Explain

Some students balk at taking on more responsibility for their learning before, during and after class. “Anyone who is thinking about this [flipped format], they really need to make the effort and take the time to explain to students why they are doing it. When you do that, students are on board.” – Chemistry professor Stephen MacNeil, of Wilfrid Laurier University.

Evaluate

Give marks for quizzes and assignments that come both before and after classes. “The key is to assess students on the material and make the assessment count for part of their overall grade.” – Penn State University’s guide to “seven things you need to know about flipping the classroom.”

Ease up

Freeing up in-class time is not an excuse to add content. “It’s really important, if people use this flipped approach, that they are conscious about the amount of material they try to pack in and the activities they carry out in the face-to-face sessions.” – Jim Greer, director of the University Learning Centre at the University of Saskatchewan.

Invest time

Preparation is required of the professor and student to make the most of the flipped classroom. “Students do the same amount of reading, but the only difference is they have to complete a [15- to 20-minute] quiz. It can be time-consuming for the instructor depending on how you grade and structure [the course].” – Christopher Alcantara, a professor who teaches political science at Laurier.

Don’t oversell

The flipped classroom is no panacea for poor teaching. “Flipped teaching done badly is like any other teaching done badly. It is not great for anybody. But when it works and when it is done well, it can be really exciting for all concerned.”

Jim Greer, director of the University Learning Centre at the University of Saskatchewan

Editor's note: Sari Isenstein is a student at Wilfrid Laurier University. Her first name was spelled incorrectly in a previous version of the article. This is a corrected version of the article.

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