May 2014

Featured Article

The Flipped ECE Classroom

By Cynthia Furse, Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering, University of Utah

What is the Flipped Classroom?

One of the most promising and transformative trends in STEM education is the ‘Flipped Classroom’.  Instead of lectures in class and homework out of class, students watch video lectures prior to class. The in class face-to-face (F2F) time can then be used for active and engaged problem solving, usually working with peers, guided by the professor.  A variety of literature in engineering shows that students learn as well or better than in a traditional classroom. It helps them better prepare for assignments and exams and can accommodate a variety of student learning styles and special needs. Most students like this method as well or better than a traditional classroom, and professors often find they can cover more material or can cover material at a deeper level after they flip their classroom. [1]

A well-designed flipped class is based on strong, well-documented successful pedagogy – active learning, student engagement and student-centered learning, problem-based learning, and using applications and real world examples to provide context. The learning advantages (for the student) come from effectively nearly doubling the time the faculty member can spend with them (remotely via video plus directly in the F2F class time).    Teaching advantages (for the professor, after the first year or two) come from reducing the repetitive preparation burden of the traditional classroom.  It can be argued that the flipped classroom is not a new technique at all, but just a modern version of having your students read the textbook in advance (although the video lectures seem to be more palatable to most students than just reading the text).

I began flipping my ECE classes in 2007 [2], and many other ECE faculty have now done this as well.  I have flipped Numerical Methods in EM (senior/grad level/40 students), Intro to EM (juniors/80 students), and Intro to ECE (circuits) (freshmen/120 students).

As the flipped class concept moves from being ‘novel’ to just ‘new’, many faculty are interested in how to flip their classes too.  This article is a quick introduction to the flipped classroom.  Additional, more detailed support to explore this further can be found at www.Teach-Flip.utah.edu, an NSF-sponsored online faculty development resource for the flipped classroom.   Modules are freely available for asynchronous use, and we also run crash courses and workshops in this method (see website).

A Day in the Flipped Classroom

There are several possible ways to run a flipped class, depending on the material, the level and capability of the students, and the professors’ teaching style.  The organization below has worked really well for me, but there are other ways too.

The Flipped Classroom actually starts the night before class.  Students watch the video lecture to prepare for the next day’s class.  The lecture (for a typical 50 minute class) is about 20 minutes of content broken into several 3-5 minute videos for easy upload and review.  About 80-85% of the students watch these videos the night before, repeating sections as needed, and taking notes on them.  Notes are guided by a ‘Question of the Day’ (which is the learning objective, such as ‘How do you compute the electric field using Coulomb’s Law?’). Students are incentivized to take good notes on the videos (as they would have in a regular lecture), because I let them use their notes (but not their book) on the exam.  They also turn them in for points as part of the homework assignment (although this seems to be a minor incentive to them).  There are several possible lecture formats. Mine are mainly hand-written on a tablet PC, so you see my writing synched with my voice but do not see my face.  Most students watch the lecture, knowing I don’t lecture in class and they will be confused if they don’t (a practical incentive most quickly ‘get’).

Class starts with a short (5-10min) student-driven review based on the ‘Question of the Day’. Most students bring their notes to class, and if they missed any details, they can add to their notes as we summarize with the class.  Any questions and early discussion points are answered (usually minor/minimal).  I then put the first homework problem or example on the board.  I ask the students to work with their nearest neighbors (seating is auditorium stadium-style for all classes I have taught).  They begin the problem, as I move around the room.  At about 2 minutes the class starts to get noisy as they work together, and at about 4-5 minutes the key question that may be confusing about the problem comes up (I’ve chosen a non-trivial problem to ensure this happens).  Students typically resolve their easy questions between their friends, but ask me about the more complicated parts as I move around the classroom. At this point, they know it is not an easy question, because their friends don’t know the answer either, so they are braver asking out loud as well.  When most students have reached this point (5-6 minutes), I stop the class and discuss the question. (This is ‘just in time’ learning)  Then I either let them move further through this problem or (more often) start on the next problem.  Thus, guided peer-to-peer group work and associated just-in-time discussion takes up most of the class.  My goal is for every student to be actively engaged virtually all of the class time. The last 5-10 minutes of the day I discuss a real engineering application related to that day’s topic.  After class, students finish the homework, clean up the Question of the Day (which is also turned in for homework credit), and watch the next day’s video lecture.

There are many other active learning activities and strategies that F2F class time could be used for. The point is, to CHOOSE what you want to personally spend time on with your students and organize the class accordingly.

Developing a Flipped Class

A good flipped class is more than just a lecture on YouTube and a homework solution session in class. Thinking through what part of the content the students can do without you and what part of the content you most want to be there to work through with them helps guide the split of content between pre/F2F/post activities.  Thinking about active learning strategies and individual learning styles helps develop the in class activities.  Other important considerations are respecting student time (students will rebel, probably rightfully, if the flipped class requires more of their total time than a traditional course), identifying the level to which you want to teach each set of content, and considering how to assess student learning and the classroom experience.  Also, deliberately planning the transition from teacher-driven to a student-driven learning environment is important.  Students may need guidance in how to effectively learn this new way, motivation may not always be obtained in the same way as a traditional class, and faculty may find opportunities to teach content they have previously not specifically addressed.

Getting Started

The first time you flip a course, extra preparation is required for course and content planning, and development of the video content and in class activities.  It is best to start with a course you already teach successfully, so that your notes and basic content are prepared (saves you time), you are ‘dialed in’ to an appropriate level for your students, and you have a good idea what is difficult for them in your course (that is a key place to target improvements based on the flipped approach). It is often a good idea to start either with brief sections of the class (such as providing extra examples or supplementary material on a topic) or start at the END of the class (perhaps the last 1/3) rather than the start of the class (because students will often rebel if you ‘stop’ this approach once they have gotten used to it).  It is typically better to try short sections of a class, get comfortable with this method and work out the best strategies for you and your class, rather than preparing the entire course (like over the summer) and then testing it out (because you are likely to want to refine your approach, the nature/length/content of the videos, etc.).  Getting feedback early and often from your students really helps in the development of this teaching strategy.  Most faculty spend a huge amount of time on their first few videos (4 hrs?) but less time with more practice (1-2 hrs per lecture?).

Resources needed

Faculty need additional time to prepare materials the first time through a flipped course. Often, online materials developed by other professors can be used IF both faculty teach the same content in nearly the same way, so reviewing the materials in detail is important (and takes some time).  Technology needed includes tools to physically write the video lectures, software for video capture, a place to upload them, and a way to organize them for the students.  There are many options. I use a tablet PC/headset microphone for writing, ink2go software for recording, YouTube for uploading/storing/closed captioning the videos, and our learning management system (Instructure Canvas) to organize them, and also to collect feedback from the students.  The Teach-Flipped.Utah.edu program mentioned previously provides online support and crash courses/mentoring for faculty who are interested in or who are actively flipping their classes. 

Where is the Flip Headed?

There are many fascinating questions and debates that come up in almost every discussion about the flipped classroom.  Will this method replace faculty?  No, but it sure will make it easier to handle class when you have a travel day (I went to Antarctica for 3 weeks, left my class with a grad student, and they did fine).  Done right, the flipped class makes faculty MORE valuable, rather than less.  What about the students who don’t come to class?  Maybe some don’t have to.  Is your F2F time valuable for ALL the students, or just those who need help?  Will this method improve learning?  Like any good teaching method, you have to choose what you are trying to teach and at what level.  If your teaching is already perfect, it is hard to improve on that.  But which of us is teaching everything absolutely as well as we want to?  Choosing if you want to remediate your students (reduce the numbers who do poorly in your class), challenge your students and increase higher-level learning or just teach the same material more efficiently/less painfully will control the outcomes of your course.  Is this method easier or harder for faculty?  Initial preparation requires additional effort.  After that initial effort, I have found this method saves me a great deal of time without sacrificing teaching quality.  Can I be replaced?  Done right, the flipped classroom gives students even in large, otherwise impersonal classes, the experience of personalized, individualized learning.  I like to think my face-to-face contact with them is not easily replaced.  Student teaching evaluations would indicate this is the case.  As this method spreads to mainstream use, we will see what students begin to demand for their education.  Traditional faculty who follow those who flip their classes often find that students demand more from them as well.

Is the Flipped Class just the hottest new buzzword of the year?  While it might have a cool new name, the use of pre-class content (video lectures, etc.) to enable and enhance in class active learning strategies (quality time with your students) is just a technology-enabled application of well-known high quality teaching practices.  Predicting what education will look like a decade from now is like predicting the rise of the personal computer. There will be early adopters who drive the early successes and also discover (and overcome) the early problems and challenges. We already have a number of these examples in ECE.  There will be those who follow the early adopters, ask for and drive the identification of best practices, and who bring the method into the mainstream.  I would argue that we are at the early stages of this mid-adoption cycle.  These will also be the faculty who challenge the method and refine it for widespread use.  And there will be those who want nothing to do with it and simply continue to teach as they have before.  And there will be the naysayers who see every problem as a reason to ditch the entire idea but who perform the important function of making the adopters gather the data needed to support and better understand the method.  At each university, there will be a mix of each level of faculty support.  But, because this method is simply an application of well-known high-quality teaching practices, it is here to stay.  If the cool name – Flipped Classroom – has done just ONE thing, it is to bring the discussion of high quality teaching into the mainstream media so that every university, every college, every department and every faculty have to take a good look at their own teaching practices and be sure they are teaching the way they want to teach. 

For me, this method has been working great since 2007, Flipped even before it was called Flipped. My students enjoy the flipped class, and yours (students from all parts of the country and the world) are using the flipped online content too, whether or not your faculty are. For me, that is a level of impact that I feel extremely good about. I’m never going back, and I’m excited about going forward.  So, is the Flipped movement transforming ECE education?  Whether or not individual faculty embrace this method, their course is already enhanced by the work of others, of those who have flipped before them. Our students are using materials from all over the world, and using them well.  Yes, the Flipped Movement is already transforming ECE education.  The question is what will is look like in the end?


[1] For an annotated bibliography of studies and examples of the flipped classroom, see https://utah.instructure.com/courses/245932/wiki/resources-flipped-class-examples

[2] C.Furse, Teaching without Lecturing, IEEE Antennas and Propagation Magazine, Vol 53. No. 5, Oct. 2011. pp. 176-179.C



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