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UC Professors 'Flip' the Lectures

Professors at the University of Cincinnati “flip” their classrooms to better students’ understanding and performance. Flipped curriculum shows an increase in students’ engagement and grasp of conceptually difficult material.

Date: 10/1/2014 12:00:00 AM
By: Liz Daubenmire
Other Contact: Arthur Davies
Other Contact Phone: (513) 556-9181
Photos By: Lisa Ventre, UC Photographic Services

UC ingot  
Xu Han, student
Xu Han, student

As students filter in to select classrooms at the University of Cincinnati, they take their surprising positions standing up, next to a white board. The students stay on their feet for the majority of the class and move about as they interact with their classmates. Where is the sit-down lecture, you ask? For students in a “flipped classroom” the lecture has already been reviewed on their own time, outside the classroom, making their 8 a.m. class a morning pick-me-up.
The long-time method of lecture has served as the norm in university classrooms for centuries. Students expect to find their seat and take notes while the professor stands up front and presents the material.
This standard classroom model works well for many subjects, specifically those that entail mostly content delivery. For subjects like engineering and science, however, the lecture hall doesn’t deliver all that’s needed for UC’s new engineering curriculum model.

This new model maintains a strong reliance on collaboration and problem solving which encourages interdisciplinary work among students. The curriculum also sharpens decision making skills and challenges students to develop interpersonal skills needed when working in multiple disciplines.

In addition to the innovative new curriculum, Electrical Engineering and Computing Systems Professor Jason Heikenfeld, Paul Orkwis and Kelly Cohen of Aerospace Engineering, A&S biology Professors Brian Kinkle and Jill Beyette, and others, have now taken it upon themselves to pioneer the movement in “flipped” classrooms at UC.

What started out at least for Professor Heikenfeld as a cure for the 8 a.m. blues has since transformed into an entirely new way of instructing. After teaching the first class of the day, Heikenfeld realized his students were not absorbing the information as they should. He decided flipping his classroom could wake up his 8 a.m. class of sleepers so that they would have the same opportunity to learn as the students in his afternoon class.

In a “flipped” classroom, the lectures are recorded and posted online for students’ viewing outside of class, while the homework and hands on learning is completed in class. This allows the professors to engage with the students while they problem solve.

Because lectures, which are normally 45 minutes to an hour long in the standard model of teaching, are reserved for outside the classroom, the recorded lectures are divided into units of 10-15 minutes. Engineering education professor Gregory Bucks, PhD, explains, “The key we’ve found, a common sentiment among those implementing a flipped classroom, is to keep the media used for lecture outside of the classroom short and to the point.” The value of the flipped classroom method really rides on this point as Bucks continues to say, “If videos or other resources become too long or in-depth, students will quickly lose interest and the benefits of the method will decline.” With the lectures kept short and sweet, the students find it easier to remain responsible to view the lectures on their own time, taking the place of typical homework. Students enter the class with the lecture reviewed, understood, and their questions ready.

Professor Jason Heikenfeld, PhD, assisting students
Professor Jason Heikenfeld, PhD, assisting students

Professor Bucks says, “The use of the flipped (or inverted) classroom is a relatively new style of teaching that has been growing in popularity over the last decade or so due to the increased ease with which lecture content and be captured in a digital format and distributed to students.” Professor Bucks continues to explain his experiences with the new teaching methodology and says his classroom was flipped, “To free up more time during the limited lecture period we have in the course to work through problems as a class and afford students the opportunity to interact with the material before being asked to use it on an assignment... The students have reacted very positively to the approach, and we have seen an increase in the engagement level during lectures and in the understanding of the students.”

Each professor’s experience with the inverse teaching is unique to their class, however, they have all found a way to ensure the students truly thrive. As a way of making sure students are watching the brief lectures, Professor Heikenfeld begins each class period with a short quiz on blackboard. This accountability encourages students to remain responsible for their lecture viewing so that they can fully participate during the in-class activity.

The method is simple- push long, straining lectures out and replace them with short, to-the-point messages to view outside of class; then challenge students in the classroom with group problems and activities so that the professor can interact with the students when they need it most. Professor Heikenfeld says, “A common misconception is that flipped classrooms create a lot more work for professors when in fact, it lessens the load.” While there is more work up front to tape the lectures and post them online, once they have been created they can be used repeatedly and the short modules allow for easy updating.

Renovated math library in Old Chem
Renovated math library in Old Chem

Department Head for Aerospace Engineering, Paul Orkwis, advises his professors to, “Buy into the idea completely and give it a chance to work. Those who possess great planning and organizational skills should succeed in flipping their class.” In addition to embracing the concept, Professor Kinkle suggests professors visit a flipped classroom while teaching is in progress to get a true feel for the approach.

Heikenfeld certainly owns the new methodology and is reaping long term benefits. He explains, “Now all I have to do for class is show up and support my students as they work to solve engineering problems. It’s important to answer questions as they come up- giving me a unique in-class chance to catch deficiencies immediately.”

The best part about flipped classrooms is that it frees up face-to-face time between students and the instructor. By opening the classroom dynamics to more of a workshop, Heikenfeld and his colleagues have created a two-way line of communication between themselves and their students, rather than acting as talking heads in front of the class.

“It’s like I’m able to personally tutor every one of my students,” says Heikenfeld. Orkwis echoes Heikenfeld’s claims stating, “We’ve seen students develop much more professional work earlier in their careers and do better on homework assignments.”

Another engineering education professor, Kathleen Ossman, PhD, also vouches for the inverted teaching style and shares her experiences, “We saw a significant increase in student performance and retention resulting from the inverted classroom approach. I would definitely advise other professors to consider flipping the classroom.”

Students of electrical engineering professor, Karen Davis, PhD give their firsthand account of the flipped classrooms, “The interaction with fellow students and the professor to solve difficult database problems is the most helpful and practical. I have never learned so much during class. It usually takes more effort for me to visualize and learn abstract concepts because I learn mostly by doing. This class caters to multiple types of learners including the people who learn by doing like myself.”

Another student was so enthusiastic about the course, they were sad to see it end, “I can't get enough of this class. I only wish it could be a bit longer, so we can tackle more problems.”

Students working through problems in class
Students working through problems in class

The students aren’t the only ones enjoying the innovative teaching process. Biology professor, Brian Kinkle, PhD, says flipped classrooms are actually, “more fun for the faculty member since most of the work is front loaded, it allows for more meaningful interactions with the students in class.”

In a traditional classroom, conceptually difficult material is hard to accurately relay. The professor’s main interaction with their students is during lecture in which the material is all still abstract. When the students leave class with an assignment, the concepts turn into tangible problems that demand heavy critical thinking.

If there is any difficulty understanding a problem, which is to be expected in subjects like engineering and the sciences, the student must wait till next class period or visit the professor during office hours, and most students do not have the time. So instead, this ends up limiting how conceptually challenging homework can be.

In contrast, flipped classrooms optimize time with the professor so that he or she can see the students working through the material, transforming it from theoretical understanding to firsthand experience. Professors have already seen a vast improvement since flipping their classes. Student evaluations correspond with higher scores and praise of the refreshing new pedagogy.

Heikenfeld maintains a good rapport with his students and he and his courses are rated an astounding 4.9 out of 5 in his undergraduate courses. He has had these ratings for years, and still took the leap to a flipped classroom because of the increase learning it provides. Now Heikenfeld does not have to wait for course ratings at the end of the semester to learn if the course was rated highly and went well, he learns that everyday through the more open dialogue the flipped classroom provides.

Ryan Clay, student, and Tyler Reynolds, student
Ryan Clay, student, and Tyler Reynolds, student

Heikenfeld reviews his course materials each term and then fully updates his lectures every two years to keep them fresh. Having this new freedom to work with each student individually has proven beneficial for both his students and the professor who says, “I am always working to become a better teacher.”

By optimizing his time in the classroom, Heikenfeld also notes there is more time for his groundbreaking research in display screens, and medical technology. He notes that he carries that same spirit of research in the lab, into trying out new things in the classroom.

As a professor, it is easy to become fixed in a particular style of teaching. Even when methods seem to be producing good results, there is always room for improvement. Jason Heikenfeld, Paul Orkwis, Bruce Walker and others have pushed past “normal” into a revolutionary realm of teaching that is, without a doubt, flipping not only their classrooms, but the attitudes of students and teachers alike.

Heikenfeld, PhD, reviewing problem with students
Heikenfeld, PhD, reviewing problem with students

  And the trend is spreading… professors in Heikenfeld’s department: Fred Beyette, PhD, Karen Davis, PhD, Howard Fan, PhD, and Bill Wee, PhD, are now flipping their classrooms too. The College of Engineering and Applied Science directly invested in flipped class space for flipped classroom with both the 8th floor Rhodes Learning Center and now the the old math library in Old Chem (seen in the pictures above).

Heikenfeld notes, “We recently had an informal meeting with faculty in our own department who flipped their classes, and it was great to see such shared excitement and confirmed impact for the approach, and furthermore, see it across a wide variety of subjects, teacher personalities, and spanning 1st year through graduate level courses.”

In an effort to spread awareness of the innovative flipped classrooms, the UC Canopy team is hosting Russell Mumper, PhD and Vice Provost for Academic Affairs of the University of Georgia, who will present on “Flipped Classrooms” at UC on October 16th from 1:30- 3:00 pm in Proctor Hall, room 103.

Please click here to view the event flyer