Michael Seery explores the flip side of traditional lectures

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What happens when chemistry lecturers flip their courses? Over the summer I took a look at the published research on flipped lecturing in chemistry and published a review in Chemistry Education Research and Practice (it’s free to read). Here’s what I found. 

Why flip?

Dissatisfaction with the traditional lecture is the main reason among lecturers for implementing flipped classes. 

When discussing lecturing, ‘traditional’ is usually caricatured as a lecturer speaking for 50 minutes, with an audience of students noting down every word. However, most lecturers don’t identify with this and usually offer some form of engagement or activity during their lecture. 

Therefore articles such as that by Alison Flynn are especially welcome as they compare the implementation of flipped lecturing with a ‘traditional’ lecture, where the latter contained a considerable amount of active learning. This important distinction allows us to determine whether it’s active learning in general that is responsible for grade or learning improvements, or whether there are particular features of flipping that add particular benefit. 

The flipped lecture

Most implementations of lecture flipping present material to the students in advance of the class. This is usually a video or presentation. Having seen the preparatory material, quizzes are often used to allow students to check their understanding. 

Class time is then given over to problem-based activities working on questions drawn from the pre-lecture material. In some cases, the results of the pre-class quiz are used as a basis for the class work – a ‘just in time’ teaching approach.

Unfounded doubts

Given the main reason for implementing this approach is a frustration with the current model, there are a lot of comments on the benefits of the flipped learning approach. Those teaching organic chemistry in particular note the approach allows extra time in a very tight curriculum to focus on developing understanding of topics. This is echoed across other areas of chemistry, with a general sense that the model allows for more teaching time and discussion in class. 

Many of the articles highlight openly that there was trepidation about ‘kickback’ from students who, ultimately, are doing more work with this method. 

But this fear was unfounded, with near universal approval from students for the approach. Advice around implementation in terms of student workload highlighted the need for an adjustment period to allow students to get used to building in pre-lecture work into their study week. 

Does it work?

While the model was popular with students and lecturers alike, we’re still not sure flipped teaching leads to learning gains. In general, exam scores are similar or marginally better than with traditional approaches. 

However, caution is required when coming to conclusions about the results presented. I liked the paper by Jessica Fautch especially, exploring in depth the numbers of withdrawals and deferrals. 

She found that students who have similar characteristics to those who withdrew from the module in previous iterations, stayed on the course in the flipped approach. So simply comparing averages does not tell the full story. 

Jessica’s work, as well as others, tends to demonstrate that high performing students still do well with the flipped approach, while students who tend not to get good marks improved their performance, often by as much as a letter grade. 

It’s worth pointing out that very recently a rigorous study found flipped teaching led to a significant improvement in standardised tests over a three year-period.

Flipping is in its infancy in higher education chemistry, but there is a lot to take from the published literature to give motivation to those considering using it.

Michael Seery is a reader in chemistry education at the University of Edinburgh