Three Reasons to Flip Your Class Even If You Don’t Want To

Out of the Box February / Special / February 15, 2019

– Dr. Thomas Mennella –

In my other articles for this month’s issue of FLR, I highlight some of the most common challenges that professors encounter when flipping their college courses and offer solutions to those challenges. But the question remains: why should you flip your course? There are many answers to that question, and they range from the most personal to the widest of relevances. Here, I’ll highlight three of the most pressing reasons for flipping: student experience, social justice, and moral obligation.

Student Experience

Student experience is the most personal reason for flipping your courses because it impacts individual students in individual ways. The Global Elements of Effective Flipped Learning (GEEFL) provide a roadmap for how to flip education, but they also provide an underlying justification for why to flip. The most important of all these 187 elements is ‘R’ – Relationships – “build positive relationships with students.” While all of us professors create and maintain personal relationships with some of our students, far too many of our students end up being nothing more than random names on a roster. That diminishes their experience in our classes, lessens the value they place on our teaching and lessens their investment in their learning.

As an example, take a former student of mine: Kiana (name changed). Kiana took Genetics with me in the Fall of 2012–my first semester teaching at Bay Path University. Kiana was one of about 30 students in that class, and she was a random name on a roster. She struggled mightily in that course, fell between the cracks, received no intervention from me at all, and failed – badly.

Professionally, at that point, I’d reached my limit for being an ineffective instructor, and due to multiple factors aligning, I’d adopted Flipped Learning (FL) that very next semester in the spring of 2013. Kiana also happened to be an advisee of mine, and when she came to my office to register for her Fall 2013 classes, she also brought up her need to retake Genetics and her plan to take it at a local community college over the summer. I hesitated to respond because this student owed me nothing. I hadn’t lifted a finger to help her when she struggled through my course, but for some reason, I intervened anyway. I told her about FL, that I would be teaching Genetics in a completely different way and that I thought it might benefit her. Then, it was Kiana’s turn to hesitate. She had no reason to trust me, and every reason to suspect she’d just struggle and fail again with no support from her professor. But, then, for some reason, she agreed. She told me she trusted me, and that gave me an even greater sense of obligation.

That following Fall, Kiana began Genetics, this time flipped. And she thrived. What’s more, FL gave me the freedom to circulate around my classroom, check in on students, and provide robust and regular feedback. Kiana felt supported. Fast forward to the end of the semester, and Kiana received an A- in that course. She also became an outspoken advocate for FL across our campus, telling students and other instructors about this superior method. And it was my honor to bring Kiana to conferences with me where she shared her story and her passion for FL. Kiana took Genetics with me, unflipped, and failed, and then took Genetics with me, flipped, and received an A-. It is obvious that FL alone made the difference in her student experience.

In almost every study I’ve read about FL, and certainly in my own experience and that of my flipping peers with whom I work closely, students in flipped classes perform better academically, retain knowledge for longer and deeper into their curriculum, and report higher satisfaction in flipped classes. Their experience is superior. And, it doesn’t hurt that their superior student experience reflects itself in their evaluations of me as an instructor. Semester after semester, my student evaluations are very very strong. Everyone’s a winner.

Social Justice

Every college student is a paying customer, and the product they are purchasing – the product they are often assuming massive debt to acquire – is a high-quality education. However, those customers come from backgrounds that are almost incomprehensibly diverse. High and low socioeconomic status, stellar K-12 backgrounds and education from struggling schools, from first-gen families with no college experience and from a lineage of generations of college graduates–fully prepared for college and woefully unprepared, resilient and emotionally fragile. Then, we take these diverse individuals, throw them together into a single class where the only common denominator between them is the need for that course, and (traditionally) we teach them as a single uniform entity. That is an injustice to every individual student in that class. Each one of those students paid for a high-quality education, individually, and we teach to a middle where no one exists. Your students not only paid for their education, but they also deserve it. And the most effective way to deliver it is through FL. GEEFL element Cn (cognitive need) tells us that effective teaching requires us to “understand each student’s cognitive needs” (my emphasis) and then, ostensibly, address them. That requires you to reach each of your students in every class every day. And, that’s precisely what Flipped Learning provides the time to do. We must level the playing field, and empower each individual student by meeting them at their academic level and teaching them from there.  

Moral Obligation

Finally, I’d like to make the case that we’re all morally obligated to teach our students in the very best way possible. Regardless of our institutions telling us we need to focus on research, scholarship, service, and teaching (often in that ranked order), the fact of the matter is our students’ tuition dollars largely fund our paychecks. My students’ money pays my mortgage, feeds my family and even treats me to the occasional night out, and I suspect the same is true for you as well. We’ve accepted our students’ money as part of an implicit agreement to deliver the best educational experience we can. Now, it’s time to deliver on that promise, and FL offers the most effective and straightforward way to keep your end of the deal. If you’re not willing to deliver what you’ve been paid to, the question becomes: why did you cash the check in the first place? No one is forcing you to be a college professor. In the words of Jon Bergmann, Flipped Learning pioneer and FLGI co-founder, “teaching students in traditional, antiquated and ineffective ways equates to nothing more than educational malpractice. It’s time to be better than that.”

So the why to flip is self-evident. Your students will be treated as the individuals that they are, they will learn more effectively, they’ll appreciate and commend you more, and it’s what they deserve. The reasons to flip are many and the time to flip is now.

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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