The Ongoing Evolution of Learning: a biologist’s continued experiments with the flipped classroom

A guest post by Dr. Jeremy Pritchard, Head of Biosciences Education, University of Birmingham

Dr Jeremy Pritchard, Senior Lecturer at the University of BirminghamAs a biologist interested in evolution, the idea that adaptation to better suit a given environment is critical for success is fundamental to me. In many respects, I have found this concept as important to me as a teacher as it is to me as a researcher. Of course, biological evolution is not a matter of choice, but take the key principle it sets forward, and it offers a great metaphor for the situation in which lots of lecturers find themselves. Many educators feel that the learning landscape has changed – students are more demanding, more digitally savvy and need to be engaged in different ways. They also feel that to adapt to this environment, something about their teaching practice has to evolve if they (and more importantly their students) are to thrive.

Well, as a scientist, I love to experiment and so I began to wonder why more scientists (and more academics generally) don’t experiment with their teaching and learning approaches as much as they would in their research practice. To this end, I started to explore different ways of delivering content – particularly focusing on the benefits offered by flipping the classroom. I’ve been flipping for some time now, learning a lot along the way about what works and what doesn’t.

One of the key enablers for my exploration of flipped classroom was actually lecture capture. We’ve been using Panopto to record lectures for a number of years and the fact that I had modules’ worth of recorded lecture content available to me opened up new possibilities. Why not send the existing lecture recordings to my students in advance and then use the time I would’ve spent delivering the lecture to do something more interactive like hold a discussion, run a quiz or encourage group work? I adopted this model for a number of courses where I felt that the ‘core’ content was actually better delivered via a recording which the student could review and replay, learning at their own pace. Most recently, I’ve used this approach for a final year module on adaptations of plants to climate change.

A crucial lesson I’ve learned along the way is the need to link the flipped classroom content to the final assessment. My process works as follows:

  • I get the students to engage with the drafting of a pre-seen final exam question
  • I send students links to recordings and then highlight to them that these sessions will directly relate to the pre-seen exam question.
  • I make the contact time that would have been taken up with the lecture a more interactive session around the issues raised in the recording.

This method of working has a number of advantages. Firstly, by explicitly linking the education content to the assessment, it gives students a compelling reason to watch the recording. Secondly, by freeing up the contact time for a more interactive session, students can come with their questions, comments and theories more deeply thought-out, leading to a more fruitful discussion. I’ve found that by doing things this way, attendance has actually increased rather than decreased, as some academics fear. Thirdly, flipping helps students to justify the knowledge they’ve acquired in an applied setting. We’ve got to get away from the idea of knowledge acquisition and focus students instead on knowledge application – this is the only way to move them from a school mind-set to a higher education mind-set and prepare them for a future beyond education.

Of course, you have to manage the transition to a flipped classroom methodology. You have to be clear with students about how the sessions will run and what is expected of them. I’ve actually found that most students do watch the recordings in advance, as in a discussion session or group work, there’s nowhere to hide if the preparation hasn’t been done (and the student groups tend to ‘self-police’ in this regard!). You’ll always get the odd student who wants to sit passively and be told what to know to pass an exam. But I’m focused on how to move my students towards active, not passive learning. I want them to leave my sessions knowing how to do things, not how to know things. Once students are used to it, the vast majority love it and see it as a great way to build teamworking and presentation skills, as I often ask students to present on their discussion work to the whole class at the end of a flipped session.

So, convincing students isn’t too hard – how about other academics? Well, again, the key is showing why it will benefit them and their students. Mentoring can play an important role here, with early adopters being paired up with more resistant staff members to encourage change and adaptation. I happen to think that innovation in teaching will become a route to promotion in the near future, as student demands due to higher fees start to put more pressure on institutions. Better to gear up early, then, rather than be left trailing behind. At my own institution, forward-thinking teaching is prized and encouraged by the senior team and so my exploration of the flipped classroom has fed into a wider trend. From my perspective, this is the most exciting teaching I’ve done in twenty years, so helping other academics get to the same point is really important to me.

To conclude, if I were to condense all my flipped classroom lessons learned into five key points, these would be as follows:

  • Tie your flipped classroom content very obviously to assessment, so students see the value
  • Be clear with students what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and how it will help them learn
  • Make sure you’ve got a strong plan for the face-to-face session that would’ve been your lecture
  • When you make the contact time more interactive you have to relax and go with the flow if students want to take things in a different direction to the one you were expecting
  • Cut your coat according to your cloth – not everything lends itself to flipping, so you’ve got to make the right choices depending on your available resources and your students.

You can read more about how Dr Pritchard is flipping the classroom at the University of Birmingham in this recent case study. If you want to find out more about how Panopto is helping lecturers like Dr Pritchard flip the classroom, you can read more about our flipped classroom software.

Published: March 20, 2014

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