Role Reversal

In a popular new teaching model, the students teach themselves. In these “flipped classrooms,” actual instruction takes place outside of class: the teacher instructs through online videos or video podcasts. Class time is reserved for discussion, one-on-one tutoring and most importantly, group completion of what is traditionally assigned as homework. The flipped classroom may currently be an imperfect solution for UCSD, but its potential to save money and better train students for the professional workforce means we owe it serious consideration as an option for our cash-strapped, pre-professional university.

Lately, these classrooms have been getting a lot of attention. Stanford University announced last Monday that it would introduce five online classes based on the model this month. And a few weeks before that, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a full profile of one of the foremost advocates of the “flipped” method — Andrew Martin, a professor of biology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Given the university’s ongoing budget crisis, the flipped classroom’s economical use of few teaching assistants makes it an appealing option. In a flipped classroom, students review material and solve problems in groups, largely teaching each other while the professor walks around the room answering questions. This means that classes that currently rely on discussion sections would require far fewer TAs under the flipped scheme. Take Revelle’s Humanities series and ERC’s Making of the Modern World, for instance. Considering that these two sequences employ over sixty teaching assistants between them per quarter, the potential for savings is enormous: a quick deferred wage calculation reveals that replacing the TAs with less costly essay readers would save about a hundred thousand dollars per quarter per course.

Flipped classrooms prepare students better for the workplace by training them to communicate and work with each other effectively. As the report from a 2007 University of Pittsburgh recruiter survey put it: “good communication, as well as an ability to work with others are the main factors contributing to job success.” All of these professional skills are mirrored in flipped classrooms. To better prepare UCSD students for the workplace, teamwork should be brought into the lecture halls. As a university whose students are overwhelmingly interested in entering the workforce or applying to graduate school, the university should adopt flipped classrooms to give its students a leg up.

Furthermore, case studies of LdL (“Lernen durch Lehren,” German for “Learning by Teaching”), a German teaching method in which students lecture, drill and tutor each other, point to another benefit offered by the flipped classroom. According to Joachim Grzega, a prominent LdL researcher, teachers employing learning-by-teaching methods consistently observe both faster learning times and higher retention rates in their students. His findings illustrate we already know intuitively to be true: you learn something better when you teach it.

When applied to American university classes, the flipped method has shown promising results. At Stanford University, this model was enacted in CS229A: Applied Machine Learning. When the class flipped, grade distributions showed that students performed just as well as students in CS229, a lecture-based class on machine-learning algorithms. Professor Ng, who introduced this method in CS229A attests that the interactive aspect to traditional lectures have evaporated. In typical lectures, most students are dozing off, typing furiously, or on Facebook — while the brain in the front row actively answers all of the questions. This allows very little participation, “whereas in contrast, using online videos and interactive quizzes, every student gets to attempt an answer” says Professor Ng. Of course, the flipped classroom is not a perfect solution. Because college professors who have made the flip tend not to release attendance statistics, most of the data we have on flipped classrooms was collected by high school teachers. Commentators such as Lisa Nielsen at Tech and Learning’s ‘Advisor Blog,’ point out that the online availability of course materials in a flipped classroom might reduce students’ incentive to show up for lecture. To counteract this tendency, professors would have contribute a portion of each student’s grade to attendance and participation, to ensure that students were rewarded for actively being a part of the lecture. The most crucial thing about the flipped classroom is that it helps students develop the skills they need to be successful at work through social interaction with peers that fosters deep understanding of the curriculum. Faculty at UCSD should take steps toward flipping classes of its own. For a cash-strapped university with precious little instructional time, and students who value more than ever the training to land a well-paying job, flipping is far more than a pedagogical gimmick — it may be the best move we have.

Readers can contact Ayan Kusari at [email protected]