Five questions I haven’t been able to answer yet about the inverted classroom

Between the Salman Khan TED talk I posted yesterday and several talks I saw at the ICTCM a couple of weeks ago, it seems like the inverted classroom idea is picking up some steam. I’m eager myself to do more with it. But I have to admit there are at least five questions that I have about this method, the answers to which I haven’t figured out yet.

1. How do you get students on board with this idea who are convinced that if the teacher isn’t lecturing, the teacher isn’t teaching? For that matter, how do you get ANYBODY on board who are similarly convinced?

Because not all students are convinced the inverted classroom approach is a good idea or that it even makes sense. Like I said before, the single biggest point of resistance to the inverted classroom in my experience is that vocal group of students who think that no lecture = no teaching. You have to convince that group that what’s important is what (and whether) they are learning, as opposed to my choices for instructional modes, but how?

2. Which is better: To make your own videos for the course, or to use another person’s videos even if they are of a better technical or pedagogical quality? (Or can the two be effectively mixed?)

There’s actually a bigger question behind this, and it’s the one people always ask when I talk about the inverted classroom: How much time is this going to take me? On the one hand, I can use Khan Academy or iTunesU stuff just off the rack and save myself a ton of time. On the other hand, I run the risk of appearing lazy to my students (maybe that really would be being lazy) or not connecting with them, or using pre-made materials that don’t suit my audience. I spend 6-12 hours a week just on the MATLAB class’ screencasts and would love (LOVE) to have a suitable off-the-shelf resource to use instead. But how would students respond, both emotionally and pedagogically?

3. Can the inverted classroom be employed in a class on a targeted basis — that is, for one or a handful of topics — or does it really only work on an all-or-nothing basis where the entire course is inverted?

I’ve tried the former approach, to teach least-squares solution methods in linear algebra and to do precalculus review in calculus. In the linear algebra class it was successful; in calculus it was a massive flop. On some level I’m beginning to think that you have to go all in with the inverted classroom or students will not feel the accountability for getting the out-of-class work done. At the very least, it seems that the inverted portions of the class have to be very distinct from the others — with their own grading structure and so on. But I don’t know.

4. Does the inverted classroom model fit in situations where you have multiple sections of the same course running simultaneously?

For example, if a university has 10 sections of calculus running in the Fall, is it feasible — or smart — for one instructor to run her class inverted while the other nine don’t? Would it need to be, again, an all-or-nothing situation where either everybody inverts or nobody does, in order to really work? I could definitely see me teaching one or two sections of calculus in the inverted mode, with a colleague teaching two other sections in traditional mode, and students who fall under the heading described in question #1 would wonder how they managed to sign up for such a cockamamie way of “teaching” the subject, and demand a transfer or something. When there’s only one section, or one prof teaching all sections of a class, this doesn’t come up. But that’s a relatively small portion of the full-time equivalent student population in a math department.

5. At what point does an inverted classroom course become a hybrid course?

This matters for some instructors who teach in institutions where hybrid, fully online, and traditional courses have different fee structures, office hours expectations, and so on. This question raises ugly institutional assumptions about student learning in general. For example, I had a Twitter exchange recently with a community college prof whose institution mandates that a certain percentage of the content must be “delivered” in the classroom before it becomes a “hybrid” course. So, the purpose of the classroom is to deliver content? What happens if the students don’t “get” the content in class? Has the content been “delivered”? That’s a very 1950’s-era understanding of what education is supposedly about. But it’s also the reality of the workplaces of a lot of people interested in this idea, so you have to think about it.

Got any ideas on these questions?

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Filed under Education, Inverted classroom, Life in academia, Teaching

20 responses to “Five questions I haven’t been able to answer yet about the inverted classroom

  1. I haven’t tried an inverted classroom but I have worked with instructors who introduced worksheets and think-pair-share (via clickers). It was critical to get the students to buy into these learner-centered instructional strategies. And it’s not enough to just say, “Do it – it’s good for you.” Yeah, so is broccoli! Once we coached them on how to interact with their peers and why that promotes learning (which means a higher mark on the final exam!), they engaged and participated. A reminder every couple of weeks didn’t hurt. So, yes, student buy-in to non-traditional teaching methods is vital.

  2. Andy

    I’m kind of surprised that students would be complaining about not having a lecture. It seems to me if you focus on the fact that they’re doing homework in class instead of at home, you might be able to sell it better.

    • I’m surprised by that too, but it makes sense when you look at the model of education they’re used to. For some students, the model has been that the teacher shows them a mechanical procedure, and then they repeat the mechanical procedure on a test, and that’s education. From those students’ points of view, this is a radical disruption of a game they’ve learned to play very well.

      Also, some students reject the premise that some (most?) work in a class has to be done outside the class meeting. In the words of a recent course evaluation, “If you did your job in class, I wouldn’t have to work outside of class.” For this group, being made to do any work at all outside of class is some kind of violation. In the traditional model, there may be work assigned outside of class, but a lot of students can get by in a class without doing it. In the inverted model, getting by without doing the work outside of class is an impossibility. It’s this insistence that students do meaningful, though not onerous, work outside of class that violates the faculty-student nonaggression pact and causes feathers to get seriously ruffled.

      And to be fair, there’s still “homework” in the inverted classroom model in the form of guided practice exercises and completion of in-class problem sets. But overall, yeah, I agree.

  3. I agree that many students would be upset at not having a lecture. After all, in their view, that is what they are paying a very expensive tuition price in order to GET.

    I would say there would be no problem with your teaching in a different format from other teachers (assuming that just as high a percentage of your students come out with an equally good or better result). But if you adopt this approach long-term it should be mentioned in the course catalog in the description, and/or the FIRST day of class. You should announce immediately how you will be teaching the course in case students want to change. You need to give an explanation of why you have adopted this method, and tell students that your results are equally good, if not better, than with the other teaching methods (assuming that is true, of course). I think 80-90% of the reluctant students would “buy-in” with this approach.

    –Lynne Diligent
    Dilemmas of an Expat Tutor

    • This seems nitpicky but it’s an important point for me — students ARE getting a lecture in the inverted classroom model. It’s just taking place online, outside of class rather than live, inside of class. We haven’t thrown out lecture; we’ve only put it in an environment where it works best, namely where students have time to watch as much as they want, as often as they want, and with no pressure to understand things instantaneously. THAT description of lecture does often get some traction with reluctant students.

      • Robert, if the lecture is on line, it IS still a lecture. I agree with you about the part that it can be used to replay as many times as someone wants. Or it can be paused and stopped for note-taking. I think these are all important advantages. If the students are given assignments based on those on-line lectures, and the class time is used to work on the difficulties students had with their solutions, or to go over what they did I think it is a very valuable use of class time–perhaps even doubly productive from the traditional in-class lecture. The key is explaining it to students both in the course description in the catalog (if possible) AND the first day of class (giving students an opportunity to change sections if they don’t like it). Those who stay will understand and buy in, and if it works well, your reputation will spread with other students. Those who hear about your approach and are attracted to it will sign up for your classes.

  4. I’m doing most of the lecture, along with pair work, but I do recommend Khan videos, and others, to them. So there’s a bit of a mix. Yesterday I told them they had to watch the johnandbetty slideshow on complex numbers, and write a paragraph on it for me. I only got paragraphs from about 5 students out of 50. I think more will watch it tonight after my lecture.

  5. I have experimented with inverting on a few topics. I usually begin the semester more traditional and then ease students into the inverted model. I may start by simply having them do a little research (read text, watch videos, or any resource) on a simple topic at home. Then they come to class where we fill in work to address concerns. Eventually, they see the value in this and we can start doing more.

    To summarize, I think students will buy in if they can experience both ways of doing things in the a
    Same class

  6. I teach fully inverted physics classes from non-science-major level to advanced junior/senior courses. I don’t have answers for all (any?) of your questions but here are some thoughts:
    1. Students on board: I like the suggestion above about announcements on the first day. I’ve found I have to put quite a bit of time in on the first day to let students know my philosophy and what I promise to do for them.
    2. I really like making my own videos. I’m usually only one day ahead of the students and so it keeps the material on my fingertips. Even though I’ve been doing this for three years, though, I haven’t yet taught a class twice (yes, I know, dumb scheduling, right?). I’m curious to see how I feel about telling students to watch old screencasts of mine.
    3. I jumped right in with an all-or-nothing approach. My guess would be that targeted topics would be difficult since the students are used to getting the content in class for everything else.
    4. I taught a section of a non-majors course last year with the inverted style while a colleague taught a normal lecture style. The students were mixed in the lab. Of the 50 students, only one made an explicit comment about the difference in the student evaluations.
    5. Great question about the hybrid issue. For me, I went inverted because I value class time so much. I was frustrated with my misuse of that precious time and I wanted a better way to work with students. I loved your comment several posts ago about the students who would get stuck on things if they were working at home but that you could unstick them in class and not let them fall into that pit of “I-don’t-get-it-it’s-too-hard”.

  7. Sorry, I was typing my comment on my phone and I hit the submit button by accident.

    To summarize, I think students will buy in if they can experience both ways of doing things in the same class. I find this unfortunate because it takes a few weeks to transition, and I would rather jump right in. But students have been resistant to anything other than traditional. So clearly I do not think a class has to be either completely inverted or not inverted at all. I hope we get to the day where students think about the best way to learn, though, and not the easiest way to get the best grade. Then I think they won’t need convincing.

  8. Chris

    Before I give some answers, I have a question. What’s the rationale for using videos/screencasts instead of assigned reading? I’ve been doing JITT for a couple years now, and I’ve thought about doing screencasts, but I don’t see a good reason to invest that much time.

    As for (1), I usually refer to the physics education research literature that shows that active methods are better for student learning. I agree that setting things up on the first day is very important. I would suggest focusing more on what you will do rather than what you won’t. I also sometimes ask the class if they’ve ever left a lecture thinking they understand everything only to realize later that they can’t do any of the homework. Almost everyone raises their hand for that one. Something I haven’t tried (because I just thought of it) is to make the connection to music lessons or sports. I think most students would think it pretty strange if they went to their lessons or practice with only a notebook and without their instrument or equipment, and just sat their taking notes while their teacher or coach explained how to do things and gave demonstrations. Why should math or physics education be any different?

    • To address your first question, my students tell me that it’s much more beneficial for them to see a MATLAB program constructed step by step than it is to see the finished code. I suppose you could document that process in print but I think video does a better job of letting the process unfold. I suspect the same is true for math problems. Seeing the solution unfold in real time somehow connects with students better than having the solution printed. (Somebody ought to do a study on that. Maybe somebody already has!)

  9. Thanks for the great questions. I think you’re absolutely right about how flipping the curriculum makes homework non-optional. So far it is my favourite answer to “why would they do the homework if it’s not worth any points?” It only took one batch of screencasts for students to realize that if they hadn’t watched it, the next class would make no sense. The viewing rate in my groups has been higher than the “traditional homework” completion rate.

    I can add some info about #3. I am currently using what you call a targeted approach. It takes me forever to make screencasts so I only make them occasionally for topics that will particularly benefit. It works quite well — makes for some variety in our days. I take requests — emphasizing how much work they are, and how long they take, but that I’m willing to do it out of the goodness of my heart for the two topics that are most requested. This sets up screencasts as something desirable and rare. Then, when a student is sick, or has a hard time on a test, or otherwise wishes they could have that whole topic explained all over, I get comments like “I wish there was a screencast about this.” That attitude has gradually spread across the group. Your comment has me wondering… maybe I’m in for a rude awakening in a future semester! But so far I haven’t had any problems with this targeted approach — no separate evaluation structure.

    As for #5, I worry that some administrator will find out what I’m doing and use it as a justification for cutting my course hours. My reason for making screencasts is similar to Andy’s: class time is so priceless for problem-solving (not exercise-solving). We need every minute we’ve got, and a little more would help. I hope I’m worrying needlessly.

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  11. ad 2: I think making your own is only fair. You will save time in consecutive runs of the same course anyway, even if you have to redo/add some videos. Giving references to alternative material/videos might be clever, though; one presenting style does not fit everybody.

    ad 3: I think mixtures can work. Imagine you have a course with two lectures per week, say on Monday and Wednesday. Give a shallow (entertaining?) overview (motivation, theorems, proof ideas, interpretation, …) on the given week’s material on Monday, have videos with examples, proofs et al online and do the excercise session on Wednesday. If you have additional hand-in exercises (as customary here), you can use that time, too, or keep the traditional model. If this (or any other mixture model) works fine, it might help with issue 1, too.

  12. I have another question: Can this work for big courses (as in 100+ students)? If so, how? Is it feasible to have TAs give the exercise sessions?

    • I think this remains to be seen, but the main thing seems to be the pedagogy employed in the class meetings. There’s certainly nothing to prevent 100 or more students from watching videos — look at Khan Academy’s bandwidth usage! The SCALE-UP project at NC State, MIT, and other places ( would seem to suggest that small group work on a large scale is not only possible but potentially a great boost to student learning.

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  14. Philly

    I teach 3d modeling and animation. I come from a time when there were no school programs for this and everyone, more or less, taught themselves. Slowly, tutorials began to appear online as html or pdfs, and then the inevitable happened, video tutorials, both free and commercial. I think the general consensus in the cg community is videos are preferred over written instruction. Written instruction for a procedure has the potential for gaps, whereas a video of a procedure does not. In short, watching someone do something is better than reading about someone doing something.

    When I began teaching, I found that students were having trouble grasping certain things so I started making videos. Because of time constraints, I found having video lectures also helped in case I couldn’t cover everything in class that I wanted to. These were still supplemental videos, not replacements for in-class lectures and demos until my first snow cancellation. Still, the idea of the inverted classroom never dawned on me, even after two years of doing this. I find it fascinating, but problematic due to university resistance to change as well as the points you listed.

    I’ve had interesting responses from students, from praise that includes “I wish every class had videos like this” to “I didn’t come to college to watch videos”. Change is never easy, but this generation and the ones following are video-centric so I think videos are a growing necessity. The inverted classroom is still quite radical even for me, but it could solve a perpetual problem – adjuncts and TAs. Having the lectures done in advance ensures that the necessary subject matter is delivered and could create more consistency.

    • Your statement about videos vs. print rings true with me. In the MATLAB course this past semester there were 1–2 times where I assigned reading instead of viewing, and in the student feedback at the end of the semester, almost all the students said they preferred viewing and did not like the reading. And they did pretty poorly for the most part on the final exam task that came from that reading. Even if I had done 1–2 quick screencasts as examples based on the reading, I think that would have led to improvements in both satisfaction and performance.