Can you flip large classes?



The first time I witnessed a flipped classroom with Peer Instruction live was in 2008, in New York, in a two-level lecture hall with a balcony, complete with over 500 students filling the seats. I dutifully jotted down in my researcher field notes: “9:05 AM – all students seem to be playing around with their mobiles!”

Indeed, scores of groggy undergrads in my line of sight were gripping small flat devices I mistook for cell phones, but were actually clickers. When the professor displayed the question on a 50 foot screen using Power Point, this chemistry mega-class was absolutely silent, all heads pointed to the front of the room. When he instructed, “Ok, enter your response,” all 500 heads tilted downward in unison, followed by 500 thumbs pressing buttons on their clickers.

With the command, “Ok, now turn to your neighbor and try to convince them of your answer,” mass chaos erupted. Or so I thought it was chaos.

When I walked around the room and actually paused to listen to students, every group I approached appeared to be wrestling out loud with the subject matter, questioning each others’ reasoning, gesturing enthusiastically with their hands as teachers do to explain to each other what they thought was the correct answer and why, with tons of chemistry jargon peppering their conversations.

“9:16 AM – something bizarre is happening in this classroom…students seem excited to be talking about chemistry??”

Cynthia LaBrake, who teaches general chemistry at the University of Texas, Austin has an enrollment of 410 students this semester. LaBrake and her colleague David Vandenbout recently started using Peer Instruction along with some other interactive teaching activities, helped along by clickers.

While LaBrake mentioned some logistical challenges, she also emphasized it is clear to her that “students only retain a fraction of information received via lecture.” Confessing that as new users, their techniques might need some adjustment, LaBrake noted “even though our techniques are currently imperfect, we still feel that our imperfect peer experience is more effective than a pure lecture experience.”

Peer Instruction flips large-enrollment classes like LaBrake’s by moving information delivery or transmission (i.e. content coverage) out, and information assimilation (i.e. content un-coverage) in.

Does flipping Peer Instruction work for a large class? Here is what Turn to Your Neighbor readers think:

Ed Prather, an award winning astronomy professor at University of Arizona, is well known in the physics and astronomy community for interactive teaching in mega-courses. Prather uses the “think-pair-share” model inherent in Peer Instruction to engage all students,not just those who have the courage to answer or ask questions out loud in front of hundreds of their peers.

Prather’s class using color-coded flash cards

How does he do it? Prather creates “conceptually-rich” multiple-choice questions, either before class or on the fly. He poses the questions to students, and asks them to think about the question for a few minutes. To solicit first votes, Prather uses a low-tech audience response system: color-coded ABCD paper flashcards. Based on his assessment of first-vote results, he encourages students to discuss their answers. After a few minutes, he solicits a final vote, again using the flashcards.

Prather describes research on his approach and its links to learning outcomes in Using Research to Bring Interactive Learning Strategies into General Education Mega-courses. Explicit instructions, including exactly what Prather actually says to students, are available from the Center for Astronomy Education.

Rick Sellens, a professor at Queens University in Canada uses Peer Instruction in his Fluid Mechanics class, which has 209 students this term. Despite the large enrollment, Sellens says: “I was able to get students engaged and talking to each other about subject matter using Peer Instruction.”Sellens doesn’t use flashcards or clickers (although he has tried them) because he prefers to use rich-answer type formats that go beyond multiple choice, mostly he says, because he finds it difficult to create good multiple choice questions.

This term, Sellens used another type of audience response system, Learning Catalytics, to help him implement Peer Instruction. “I think getting students to take an active role in the learning process is important and Peer Instruction is one way to do that.”

Engaging students all at once in large lecture courses is a challenge. But, much more so when you try to do so using traditional approaches to teaching that research demonstrates to be less effective than more interactive methodologies (see Hake, 1998). LaBrake at University of Texas, Austin summarized her impressions of the effectiveness of teaching large classes using interactive methods as follows: “I know, personally, I could never go back to just pure lecturing.”
I had the same defining experience: Seeing Peer Instruction work, live in a lecture theatre filled with 500+ students, represents the moment that also turned me into a “converted lecturer.”

At a recent Peer Instruction Workshop in Montreal, a PI user asked: “I am the only person in a faculty of 10 using Peer Instruction. My students are complaining to my department head that they have too much work compared to their classmates. My colleagues and the leadership think lecture is the best way to teach in our discipline. I am convinced Peer Instruction works…but how do I convince those around me?”


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  2. bibpenpals

    Can you flip large classes? via @wordpressdotcom click here. learn about an anecdote that could reset minds This anecdote ought to be in teacher-training manuals

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