At Bellerbys College in Cambridge, where I teach GCSE physics to international students, we have been trialling flipped learning for almost a year now.
Our approach to the trial has been to run it along the lines of an action research project, which means rather than publishing a paper or report at each stage or milestone, we actually carry out the activity – in a managed way – reflect on what happened and then improve the process based on those insights for the next cycle.
It is been challenging and invigorating (if not a little stressful at times!), but the results have been interesting and the project continues to evolve in a positive way.
The students, who come from all over the world, love the format – watching videos of the “lesson” in their own time and at their own pace and then applying what they have learned in class.
International students, who are also contending with learning a new language, certainly benefit from being able to pause and rewind material to gain a better understanding (something British classrooms, filled with students of varying abilities, would also benefit from). And, being better prepared, they understand and participate more. Many also report feeling like they remember more than usual about the lessons.
For teachers, some of whom, like me, have decades of experience and sometimes feel like we have seen it all before, the transition from being the “sage on the stage” and conducting lessons in a traditional lecture format to becoming the “guide on the side” that builds and moderates activities in-class after students have watched the lecture at home, is refreshing.
The opportunity to challenge myself with something new has been really great, and Bellerbys’ culture of innovation is an environment that I have always enjoyed working in. But, perhaps most interestingly and importantly, we’re developing interesting insights into when to use flipped learning and when not to – it’s a great methodology but not always the best choice.
Flipped learning – dos
It is easier than it sounds to produce a video lecture – although a special mention must go to my colleagues who spent so long finding suitable software and training us in its use. The real challenges with flipped learning are the cultural adjustments required to get it right.
These challenges range from adapting your role and taking on some elements of a facilitator as well as a teacher, to ensuring students quickly understand that the subjects chosen for flipped learning aren’t a novelty – they remain essential parts of the curriculum.
After several months experimenting with flipped learning to deliver GCSE physics, here are the lessons I have learned:
You need to make sure students and teachers understand how flipped learning works so that students know what to expect from you, and what you expect from them. This includes consequences if they fail to do the work.
Make it clear that the “flipping” is an integral and official part of the course. Students shouldn’t be given room to see it as a novelty that they can opt out of.
Teach students how to watch videos (taking notes, pausing and re watching, doing tasks while watching).
Have a “homework” task for students to complete after watching a video but before the class. This is a useful way to check that they have watched what they are supposed to.
Make the lesson’s first task one that they cannot participate in if they haven’t watched the video.
Have a fun and interesting task to do in class as a follow-up activity to the homework. You also need a plan for students who have not watched the video.
Make sure the link to the video is easily accessible and/or emailed to all students in advance. Consider emailing a reminder the night before class to prompt them.
During a recent SEN training workshop, we also discussed the considerable potential for flipped learning to help students with learning difficulties. The onus was on the audio-visual presentation, the fact that students are in control of pausing and playing the videos.
The “bite-sized chunking” of key concepts makes them easier to grasp and gives students an early foothold. With this in mind, if you are working with children with SEN, consider engaging imagery and clearly labelled sections.
Flipped learning – don’ts
Just as important as the dos, of course, are the don’ts. And throughout the trial we have encountered a few of these, which I outline here:
Don’t make the video too long – about 10 minutes is a good length, but do expect and encourage students to spend longer than this watching and completing the prescribed activity.
Don’t rush the use of video. Stagger its use, perhaps beginning with shorter, easier ones to familiarise students with the methodology, before progressing onto more complex, varied usage.
Don’t worry that your own video won’t look professional enough. Because you know your students’ needs and abilities better than anyone else, the personal touch and clear explanations are much more important than high production values (I certainly learned this the hard way when a video that I thought was slick and professional, and was made for the same examination board and syllabus, just left my students baffled).
Don’t be concerned about the amount of extra time involved in making videos. You don’t always need to create new material because you can just adapt what you already have to the new medium. For example, use the audio-visual features of PowerPoint, for which you may already have slides created.
Quality is important to ensuring students take the lesson seriously, especially as you are not there to supervise, so do not forget the little things like turning off your email so it does not send you distracting notifications during video creation, and making sure you are somewhere with a reliable internet connection so that you can deliver on time.
Finally, do not expect all students to benefit from flipped learning. Remember, there are many types of learner.
Flipped learning is not a method of replacing teachers or marginalising them; far from it. At Bellerbys, we have come to consider it as a valuable addition to the teachers’ tool box – augmenting the ways in which we can develop students’ understandings of all kinds of subjects. It can be imagined as a very modern take on the textbook, which would typically be used for subject matter that does not necessarily require a teacher’s presence.
Another analogy we use is that it is a bit like decorating, in that the video part of the learning experience is the primer which gets the students ready to paint (i.e. apply their knowledge) in class. The work that goes into introducing the concept to students – how to watch the video and how to complete the tasks – provides an essential basecoat for the improved learning outcomes that flipped learning can unlock.
Get this right, in combination with some of our dos and don’ts, and flipped learning can and will improve learning for students of almost any ability.
Penny Humm teaches international students GCSEs, A levels and foundation courses to prepare them for study at UK universities at Bellerbys College Cambridge. Follow Bellerbys on Twitter @Bellerbys.