Can 'flipped classrooms' work for large lectures? Columbia says yes

Professor hopes more of her colleagues will 'take the plunge'

Columbia University is challenging assumptions about the flipped classroom model by bringing it to the large lecture course.

The so-called flipped classroom—in which instructors ask students to review lecture materials independently and use class time to engage the material more deeply—is increasingly popular on college campuses, but has gotten relatively little traction in the large lecture course. 

Samantha Becker, Director of Communications at New Media Consortium, which recently published a report on flipped classrooms, says the impersonal nature of the large lecture makes students feel uncomfortable speaking up and engaging with their peers—which are both essential features of the flipped model.

Maurice Matiz, executive director of Columbia University's Center for New Media Teaching and Learning agrees. "Sitting in one of these 180-student classrooms is a very passive situation," he says, adding that students "aren't really learning very much."

Last year Matiz and his colleagues launched a project to bring the dynamic learning environment of the flipped classroom to the occasional drudgery of the large lecture course. They started with Associate Professor Brent Stockwell's biochemistry class at Columbia.

Stockwell had found his class of 180 was often poorly prepared and disengaged. Starting in fall 2013, he and Matiz overhauled his classroom by:

  • Recording guided slide presentations for students to review before class,
  • Requiring students complete a short graded quiz on the presentations prior to arriving,
  • Using class time for case study review and interactive sessions, and
  • Periodically breaking the class into groups for collaborative problem solving.

Resources to prepare students, faculty, and executive leaders for flipped classrooms

Stockwell says students were more engaged, better able to synthesize information, and clearly had a better command of the material at the end of the semester. In fact, his biggest challenge, he says, was generating enough thought-provoking case studies for students to tackle in small groups.

He has since reached out to other professors in the New York area to build a shared repository of problems and plans to continue using the flipped classroom model for his introductory course.

Spur innovative classroom design on your campus

Matiz also worked with others at Columbia to apply the lessons from Stockwell's class in other contexts. Professor Rachel Gordon adopted largely the same model for her Body, Health and Disease class of 250—adding real-time feedback to know when to give students extra time to work collaboratively on certain concepts.

She found the benefits of the flipped model were not just for the students. "On many levels it was more satisfying than lecturing, where you don't really know if the students are 'getting it,'" she says, "I hope that more teachers will take the plunge" (Hart, Campus Technology, 10/22).


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