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The flipped classroom: To flip or not to flip?

by Lai Zhenyue

Why do we flip our classrooms?
The purpose of a pre-tertiary course is to equip students with the knowledge and skills that are essential for their undergraduate studies. In higher education, students are expected to become self-directed learners. Very often, most students come from schools where the didactic, teacher-centred approach is pervasive, and as a result, they are more inclined towards passive and rote learning.

There is a need for pre-tertiary courses to transform students from passive to active learners in order to prepare them for, and to ease their transition into, higher education. At Curtin Malaysia, the Foundation Engineering programme strongly advocates and embeds active learning into the curriculum.

Active learning is a model of instruction that focuses the learning responsibility on the learner. Studies have shown that active learning increases student performance in Science, Engineering and Mathematics as compared to those taught under the traditional lecturing style.

A learning environment that promotes active student engagement can be created through the facilitation of quality and authentic learning experiences. Calls for active learning have encouraged the ‘sage on the stage’, referring to an instructor who imparts knowledge to students through lecture alone, to become the ‘guide on the side’, who provides students assistance to explore the content independently or within a group.

The flipped classroom is a new pedagogical model that not only combines the ‘sage on the stage’ with the ‘guide on the side’ ideals, but also enables instructors to best use the precious learning class time with students.

What is flipped classroom?
The term ‘flipped classroom’ was popularised by high school teachers Aaron Sams and Jon Bergman in 2007 in response to a realisation that class time would be best spent guiding knowledge and providing feedback rather than delivering direct instruction.

According to the Flipped Learning Network, flipped classroom is defined as ‘that which is traditionally done in class is now done at home, and that which is traditionally done as homework is now completed in classes’.

For example, instead of students listening to a lecture in class and then going home to complete an assignment, they view video lectures before coming to class and then engage in active learning activities such as application of content, problem-solving and group discussion. Learning resources that transfer content and knowledge to the students in screencast or audio formats, for example, video lectures or podcasts, are provided online prior to the class.

Students may then access and master basic concepts from the materials whenever and wherever it is convenient. By offloading direct instruction in this way, instructors can devote the class time to engage students in the application of content, formatively assess students’ progress, conduct collaborative learning activities or facilitate group discussions.

How to flip a classroom?
The essence of the flipped classroom lies in the active learning strategies embedded within the pedagogy. There is no single definition of active learning but it is generally accepted as any instructional method that engages students in the learning process, and in practice, activities that are introduced into the classroom.

A classroom is flipped when it fulfills a set of pedagogical approaches that move most information-transmission out of class, free up class time for active learning tasks and require students to complete pre- or post- class work.

Pre-class work involves students viewing one or multiple pre-recorded lesson videos of not more than 15 minutes each as a pre-class activity. Instructors may also select relevant videos from YouTube that demonstrate the concepts. Online quizzes can follow after the video lessons to test students on the basic concepts that they have just learnt.
In-class activities cover a variety of techniques that will satisfy all learners in the class and accommodate all learning styles. Learning tasks should be carefully designed to give students opportunities to apply the knowledge in various contexts. In-class activities may include instructors-led discussions, peer discussions, problem-solving practice, collaborative learning or presentations.

Instructors may also use in-class time to provide timely and individualised feedback to students. Clicker, for example, ‘Socrative’ allows the instructor to quickly assess the students for an immediate insight into their understanding. Any corrections to students’ misconceptions could then be identified and addressed in a timely manner.

Meanwhile, post-class activities involve capping off the topic of the week with practice problems or quizzes to further reinforce students’ understanding. This is done after the students have acquired knowledge from the pre-class work and applied the concepts during in-class activities.

In our Foundation Physics unit, students can check their solutions by watching the solutions videos that the instructors have prepared, where explanations and guided steps are provided. The solutions video offers an evaluation of their work at their own pace of learning. Post-class activities are aimed at providing purposeful connection to what they have just learnt.

The pros and cons of flipped classroom
The results from our study on ‘Enhancing student engagement and learning of Physics through the flipped approach’ showed that flipping a classroom, such as in a Physics subject, can result in positive student attitudes and enhanced learning experience.

The attainment rate of students’ summative assessments improved significantly from 59% to 71% when compared to a semester whereby the unit was taught via traditional lecture approach. Students highlighted in their feedback that they were more motivated to learn Physics in a flipped class.

Along with the benefits of a flipped classroom, some challenges or limitations were also identified from our study. Flipping the class requires more work and careful planning. The process of creating lecture videos is time-consuming. The instructor needs to carefully plan and structure the learning activities for both within and outside the class.

Another challenge is the resistance from some students. Students who are used to traditional homework may resist the new paradigm. If students do not come to class prepared, the class may have difficulty moving forward.

Although there are challenges, what makes the flipped classroom worth the effort is the positive energy it brings to the classroom. Flipping the class gives the instructor more time to walk around the classroom to address students’ needs. It becomes a more interactive learning process for the students.

The call is yours. To flip or not to flip?

Lai Zhenyue is a physics lecturer at Curtin Malaysia’s Faculty of Engineering and Science. She can be contacted at 085-443939 or by e-mail to