4 Smart Ways to Do More, With Less in Your Flipped Classroom

Editors Features August 19 / August 14, 2019

— Thomas Mennella —

I remember the first time a veteran professor said to me, “Tom, less is more.” I was a newly minted instructor, in my second year of teaching, and complaining about time management in the classroom. In my efforts to cover every single chapter in the textbook, I was running behind. My solution, of course, was to speed up my delivery, race through my lectures and try to catch up. Like a driver speeding through a yellow light, I was breaking every rule of good teaching. That year, in the general comments section of my end of semester course evaluations, a student simply stated: “He covers every chapter in the textbook.” Naively, I took it as a compliment. It was only years later that I realized it was a kind but pointed criticism…

If you’ve subscribed to FLR, and you’re reading this article, you’ve already demonstrated that you are a seasoned and dedicated educator. You already know that “less is more” and that going deeper into less material is far more effective than covering more content superficially. So why focus on this fundamental best practice here in our Back to School issue? Because I recently came to realize that the more we are battling is, at least in some disciplines, actually becoming more and more.

From more to much more

Two examples:

    • Epigenetics is the subfield of genetics that studies how environmental conditions can alter our DNA, alter our physiology, and be inherited. Even if you’re not a biologist, you probably remember learning about Lamarck — the evolutionist who believed that giraffes have long necks because they stretched them over time, reaching for the highest leaves to eat. Today, middle schoolers and high schoolers giggle and snicker at how foolish old man Lamarck was, but it turns out he was on to something. Our behaviors and environments do change us in ways that impact our children, and their children, and their children. Starvation, stress, illness, abuse, drug use – the list goes on and on — change our DNA in ways that we pass on. That’s epigenetics. Why offer you this crash course in biology? Because when I was a grad student, a mere 20 years ago, epigenetics was a debatable notion that some geneticists believed and others didn’t. Today, epigenetics is a proven, robust and commonly studied phenomenon with its own textbooks, courses, and experts. My daughter learned about epigenetics in her 7th-grade science class last year, and it didn’t even exist as a field when I started pursuing my Ph.D.! I now need to cover epigenetics in my sophomore genetics class, but at the expense of what other topics? The more is becoming more and more.
    • While epigenetics is a headache that I need to deal with, my heart breaks for my FLR colleague Dan Jones, and all of his fellow history teachers out there. History is literally being written every single day. Dan’s a bit younger than me, but not by much. That means that when Dan and I were kids – not much younger than the kids he teaches today — there was a Soviet Union, there was a Berlin Wall and an ‘Iron Curtain’, there was a Yugoslavia, there was no 9/11, no second Gulf War, no European Union with its own currency… you get my point. In history, the more is becoming more and more every day.

If the content we are expected to share with our students continues to grow, but our time to share it remains constant, what are we to do? Here are some strategies for managing the “more” and keeping it to “less.”

Make a list 

You know the field or units or discipline that you need to cover, but how much recent thought have you given to topics? List all of the topics that you believe you must cover in order to do justice to the class you are assigned to teach. Then, prioritize that list. Rank those topics in order from most important to least. For those of you in K12, this will likely mean consulting with your state-mandated curricula or standards. or others in higher ed, you may be on your own, but do your best. Spend more Individual and Group Space time on topics from the top of the list and much less time on things from the bottom of the list. 

Consult and collaborate with others  

Good curricula build upon prior learning; that’s their beauty. The connections between courses and years weave a story. Yet, all too often, educators put themselves in silos not knowing what goes on in other classrooms. What are your colleagues teaching? Is the iron curtain taught by your eighth-grade history colleague? Maybe you don’t need to cover it, after all – your students will learn about it next year. Is content introduced in a freshman class? Maybe I can shave some time off that content in my course because my students are already aware of the subject from last year. Combine this collaboration with strategy #1 and see if you can completely offload some of your lower priority content due to students learning about it in other years or courses.

Ask yourself, ‘Can this be learned?’  

“I’m sorry medical surgeon students, but I’m running a bit short on time this semester, so we’re going to go through this triple bypass procedure demonstration in about five minutes, instead of the typical three hours.” Yeah, right. If you find yourself playing catchup after running behind in your content, and you’re falling into the temptation of trying to compress your instruction, ask yourself this question: “Can I reasonably expect my students to be able to learn this material in this amount of time?” If the answer is “no”, drop that content. It’s better to not cover a topic at all, and then spend more valuable time on other topics (more important, higher on the list; see #1), than to give a complex concept five minutes of class time and confuse your students even further. 

Avoid the cardinal sin 

Mistakes in implementing Flipped Learning are common and unavoidable; we’re all human. But there is one mistake that is inexcusable, the mistake that I call the cardinal sin. New material and content should never be covered in the Group Space, period. The Individual Space is for new knowledge and the Group Space is for remediation and fortification of that knowledge. When instructors fall behind, they’ll often see Flipped Learning as this magic bullet for catching up. They’ll cover some material in their videos and then lecture on yet more novel material in class. Do not do this! This practice goes against everything that Flipped Learning is and every potential benefit that it offers. When you find yourself falling behind, implement strategies #1, #2 and #3 and promise yourself that you will never embrace the Cardinal Sin.

If you feel like, lately, it just seems like you’re crunched for time and there’s more to teach, it might not be your imagination. It’s entirely possible that the more to teach really did become more and more. But, don’t panic. There’s a way to manage the more, and keep it to less. Prioritize, collaborate, be honest with yourself and you’ll deliver the best, highest-impact education your students can receive. You’re going to have a great school year. In fact, it’s not just going to be better than last year; I have a feeling it’s going to be more and more better.

Thomas Mennella
Dr. Thomas Mennella Mennella
I have been an instructor in higher education for over ten years. Starting as a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, and then moving on to an Assistant Professorship at Delaware State University (DSU), a small public university, I experimented with Problem-Based Learning (PBL) and was an early-adopter of the iClicker student response system. Now an Associate Professor at Bay Path University, a private liberal arts institution in western Massachusetts, I primarily teach Genetics, Cell and Molecular Biology. I am Flipped Learning 3.0 Level -II Certified and a founding member of the FLGI International Faculty.

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