8 My experience of taking a walk on the flip side – a discussion of flipped learning

A discussion of flipped learning

Gareth Bramley

I have often spoken with colleagues about incorporating flipped learning as a teaching method, and the responses can often be nicely summed up as ‘taking a walk on the wild side’. As is sometimes the case with any perceived change in learning and teaching, I find that colleagues who have not attempted any form of flipped learning can quickly list a large volume of reasons not to give it a go – from ‘it is too time consuming’, to ‘the students won’t like it’.

Therefore, I felt that the HEA Social Sciences Conference was a good opportunity to try and help ‘inspire’, and spread the view that ‘taking a walk on the flip side’ wasn’t as frightening as some may believe.

I presented a ‘how to’ presentation at the Conference together with my colleague, Rachel Cooper. Rachel and I both teach at the University of Sheffield. Our shared experience of flipped learning (that being, in our minds, a method teaching that reverses the traditional teaching methods by delivering instructions and material outside of the taught session and focusing on active, student centred learning in the session) comes largely from our teaching on the postgraduate Legal Practice Course – this is a vocational one year course, that students must take if they wish to enter the legal profession as a solicitor.

On the Legal Practice Course (LPC), we have utilized the flipped learning method of teaching for a number of years, with a lot of success. Primarily, the LPC is heavily focused on student led learning, with 2-3 hour ‘workshops’ and all other preparation resources being provided via textbooks or the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). There are no physical lectures – instead, the students are given access to audio ‘screencasts’, where they can follow slides with an audio commentary. On the VLE we have a large variety of pre-workshop tasks for the students to complete, from quizzes to discussion boards to directed reading questions based on the pre-workshop reading.

In the workshops, the learning is focused squarely on the student, with students (working in small groups of 3 to 4) taking part in a variety of exercises, from problem-based scenarios to card sorting exercises to group presentations.

The primary aim of flipped learning is to focus any physical taught session on ‘deep’ learning – as Bloom would put it, the the session can focus on developing a student’s ability to apply, analyse and evaluate their learning.

At the conference, I also talked a bit about trying to incorporate this method of teaching into my undergraduate teaching. Given the traditional model of an undergraduate law degree being 20 lectures and 6 one hour seminars, the idea was to again use screencasts (to replace the traditional lecture), and then to use lecture slots as an ‘interactive’ session where students answered problem questions and shorter quiz questions as a whole cohort. The seminar slots were extended to two hours, and focused on practicing problem question and essay question technique in smaller groups.

The literature in this area notes some clear benefits of flipped learning (for example, the flipped learning network provides a lot of good reasons to give this mode of teaching a go.

Personally, I have found that, through flipped learning, students are generally more engaged in taught sessions, there is more ability to really delve into the subject matter and explore (an X-factor style journey, if you will!), and there is substantial scope for use of the VLE and technology enhanced learning in general.

However, it would be disingenuous for me to suggest that flipped learning is not slightly ‘wild’ in any way. The flipping difficult part of flipped learning is the amount of time needed to incorporate this method into teaching – given that the initial learning for the student (the acquiring of initial knowledge and comprehension) is ‘front loaded’, there is a lot of work for the teacher in providing all the necessary resources for the student. The writing and recording of screencasts can be time consuming, as can the development of online quizzes and the general organization of the VLE. There are a number of very intuitive Apps and software packages to lighten the load, but the hours still certainly need to be put in.

Flipped learning also needs to be manageable, clear and engaging for the students. If the preliminary work is too much, or unclear to the students, then the whole module can quickly fall apart and the taught sessions can fall back towards ‘surface learning’.

It is also essential that you properly manage students’ expectations from the start – you must make sure you explain fully how the teaching will work, and what the students will be required to undertake in order to develop their learning. You cannot suddenly spring flipped learning on a student, particularly where they have not been exposed to it before.

After giving the presentation at the HEA conference, Rachel and I got a lot of very positive feedback with a number of delegates asking clarification questions. It certainly seemed that delegates felt that flipped learning could not simply be ignored, and that HE institutions were choosing to address it in one form or another.

I firmly believe that, with careful planning and sufficient investment of time (and allowance for such time within a teacher’s workload), flipped learning can be a really successful mode of learning for students. Our students on the LPC and undergraduate courses have provided very good feedback on this mode of teaching, particularly in relation to the use of screencasts (which can be played back, and broken down into smaller segments) and the variety of activities that can be provided both before and during the taught session.

In the session, we looked for shared experiences from colleagues and I would reiterate that in this blog – please contact me (g.bramley@Sheffield.ac.uk) or Rachel Cooper (r.cooper@Sheffield.ac.uk) if you have any stories of flipped learning to share.

Gareth Bramley, University Teacher, University of Sheffield