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Flipping the classroom to improve learning

By Will Ferguson, College of Arts & Sciences

Paul-BuckleyPULLMAN, Wash. – Class lectures at home? Homework in the classroom? Welcome to introductory chemistry at Washington State University where the traditional concept of lecture-based learning has been flipped.

Paul Buckley, clinical associate professor, is experimenting with the teaching style for his chemistry 105 and 106 courses.

Flipping in its various forms and degrees involves one key trait: It reverses the roles of student and teacher. Instead of passively listening to the professor during class, students learn and practice basic concepts on their own time via assigned readings, instructional videos and online practice questions.

While in class, students work together to solve the kind of tough questions they can expect to see on their exams. When they get stuck, the professor and his graduate teaching assistants are there to provide insight and guidance.

“The idea behind flipping is that the students come to class already knowing the lower-level concepts, and they can use their time with the professor and teaching assistants to do harder, higher-level problem solving,” Buckley said.

A growing trend and resources

College professors across the country are flipping their classrooms as more studies and testimonials tout the method’s success. A case study by physics Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman, now teaching at Stanford University, showed students in a flipped, introductory physics class scored on average 18 percentage points higher on a standardized exam than another group of students who received lecture-based instruction.

DickinsonTom Dickinson, WSU professor of physics, has emphasized active-learning in his classroom for 40 years. For his upper-division electricity and magnetism class, he creates narrated instructional videos for his students to watch at home. In class, his students work together in groups to solve pre-written problems.

“The students love it,” he said. “But it isn’t easy. You have to prepare all kinds of material for them to work on in class, and the lectures have to be prepared and posted online in advance.

“Lecturing is so easy compared to this,” he said. “You just prepare a few notes and walk into class. The good news is there is a growing body of online resources out there for anyone interested in giving it a try.”

Learn more from Dickinson’s work at

Adjusting teaching to student needs

Buckley’s classes aren’t entirely flipped, he said, because he still spends some time lecturing. However, his lectures are based on what he knows his students are struggling with, thanks to an online program called Learning Catalytics.

Before each class period, the students answer a few practice problems at home that gauge how well they understand the week’s assigned content. If 75 percent of them answer a problem incorrectly, Buckley will adjust his instruction accordingly.

“What is really great about this is we can tailor our lectures to what the students don’t understand rather than just presenting everything and not knowing what the difficulties are,” he said.

This is the third semester the chemistry department has incorporated elements of a flipped class format into its introductory courses. Professor Scot Wherland and Aurora Clark and lecturer Michael Finnegan introduced the teaching style a year ago.

While feedback from students and graduate teaching assistants has been positive, the real test will be whether student retention rates and standardized exam scores go up in the next few years.

“Our hope is that this new analytics-guided approach to active learning will make a big difference in student success,” Buckley said.

Learn more about flipped classrooms and other teaching resources for faculty at


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