Skip to main content

Flipping Teaching Around

Duke professors flip the classroom to better their teaching

Part of the A New Type of Classroom Series
Duke professor Mohamed Noor helps students in his intro biology class with their problem sets during a recent class period. Photo credit: Megan Morr, Duke Photography
Duke professor Mohamed Noor helps students in his intro biology class with their problem sets during a recent class period. Photo credit: Megan Morr, Duke Photography

On the first day of Mohamed Noor's intro biology class, some students were already behind.

"They actually had an assignment on the first day of class," Noor says recently. "That was a little rough."

That's both the genius and the challenge of the "flipped classroom" teaching model: You do your homework before class, not after it.

Noor is one of dozens of Duke professors now experimenting with the flipped classroom model, which largely discards the traditional lecture and instead uses recorded lectures and other materials that students must review prior to class. The idea: by boning up on the subject matter ahead of time, students spend class time working through the subject matter in small groups or in other ways.

While not a particularly new idea, the idea is gaining momentum on campus as professors and administrators look for new ways to leverage technology to better their teaching. Professors in many disciplines are experimenting with versions of the flipped classroom model. And 17 faculty and graduate students in departments ranging from religion to chemistry recently redesigned classes through a fellowship program aimed at finding new ways to teach.

"There is a ton of innovative stuff being done in classrooms at Duke," says Steve Nowicki, dean and vice provost for undergraduate education. "Of course, we'd like to see more."

The flipped classroom model is in use -- to rave reviews -- at the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School campus in Singapore, and Nowicki is heading a campus committee examining how faculty members in Durham can maximize the value of teaching innovations. He sees both promise and challenges ahead as the university attempts to navigate roadblocks like cost, time constraints and the extra work involved in building a new type of class.

The flipped classroom demands more of Noor's 453 students, he says. They are expected to watch six videos at the start of every week, each of which is 10 to 20 minutes long. Those videos provide the basic subject matter for two class periods each week as well as the content for a pre-class quiz that students take online before each class.

Since the material builds on itself, students can't just skip two weeks of video material and quizzes and assume they can catch back up with one monstrous cram session.

"It puts a lot more of the onus on the student," Noor says. "If you just show up and you haven't watched the video, you won't know what's going on. It's really hard to catch up."

Noor starts most class periods by tackling comments and questions posed by students on the quiz they all took before class.

Working on an iPad projected to a giant screen, he walks through a series of points, explaining terms like "genetic marker" and "quantitative trait locus" and occasionally emphasizing that "this is really important."

Students then turn to their problem sets. A low buzz fills the room as students bounce ideas off each other, compare answers, swap notes and occasionally ask Noor or one of his 19 teaching assistants for help. 

This is where so much of the learning happens, Noor says.

"I like it a lot because I spend a lot more time talking with the students than talking at the students," he says.

This group work is an example of team-based learning, an umbrella term for a teaching approach that emphasizes teamwork rather than isolation. Team-based classwork was rare a generation ago in many disciplines, but the ability to work with others has become as critical to employers as communication, writing and critical thinking, Nowicki says.

"Once you no longer have to lecture to your class of 100, you can have a much better experience working with 100 students if they're broken into 10 groups of 10," he says. "In the workforce, students will be assigned to teams, and it won't be all of their best friends."

It appeals to many of Noor's students. Megan Whalen, a senior, likes the interactivity of the flipped classroom and believes having to do work in advance of the class makes her more accountable. She takes full advantage of the lecture videos, pausing and rewinding them to make sure she absorbs the information.

It may prepare her too well.

"Sometimes I have a tendency not to focus in class because I already know the material," she says. "But if I have a question about something I know I can come to class and get help."

But the flipped classroom isn't for everyone. Students learn in myriad ways, and some say the flipped structure requires them to juggle too many disparate pieces.

"I really don't like it," says Lillian Sun, a sophomore. "I'm detail-oriented and need to know how everything fits together. There are way too many moving parts here. I'm just constantly worried that something else is due, rather than just sitting down and focusing on my work."

Not for Everyone

While this teaching model isn't for all students, it is similarly unappealing for some number of professors. There's no financial incentive to take on a new way of teaching, and non-tenured professors may not want to spend the time necessary to restructure an entire course, Nowicki concedes.

And, of course, a classroom won't flip itself. The time required to do so is among the chief challenges Duke faces in convincing more faculty members to try it out.

"There's a huge up-front investment in time," Noor says. "If time were no object for the student or for me, sure, this is the way to go."

That's why Nowicki's committee is looking for ways to assuage these concerns. The university made some inroads last year when Duke's Center for Instructional Technology held a series of workshops and discussion groups exploring team-based learning and other methods of innovative teaching. Collectively, they attracted more than 150 faculty and staff members.

And last summer, 17 professors and graduate students took part in a CIT program aimed at flipping a classroom. Religion professor Laura Lieber was one of them, and she redesigned a course on food and Judaism that she taught last fall.

She agrees with Noor about the time required to create the course. But a flipped course practically runs itself once it's planned out, she says.

"It was a lot of work leading up to the class," Lieber said. "But by two weeks in, it was effortless."

Lieber's class was a seminar-style course with 18 students that she divided into four teams. In previous courses, Lieber prompted group discussion through open-ended questions, a common form of teaching. In that setting, Lieber might challenge her students to discuss the role of women in the traditional Jewish kitchen.

But in flipping her classroom, Lieber asked teams of students to consider far more pointed questions and act as a jury by considering the question carefully and rendering a verdict.

So her open-ended question about the Jewish kitchen becomes this: "The traditional Jewish dietary laws reinforce oppression of women. Yes or no?"

"Some students were quiet during the big group, but you could tell they were active in the small group," Lieber says. "And it plays into competitiveness. There were very passionate discussions. I'm a convert. The level of student engagement was phenomenal. It created such a positive classroom dynamic."