Inconvenient Truths about the Flipped Classroom

by Wong Jock Onn


Recently, the flipped classroom seems to be the talk of CELC, what with some more modules being flipped. While this might be a bit of an exaggeration, it seems true that the idea of a flipped classroom has been under the limelight for some time, at least among some circles. A colleague, Jonathan Tang, writes about it in a blog, in which he raises a number of questions and concerns about its “impact”, and casts doubt on its usefulness to “language/communication teaching.”

Before we continue the discussion, a definition might be in order. According to a source[1] (italics mine):

The main goal of a flipped classroom is to enhance student learning and achievement by reversing the traditional model of a classroom, focusing class time on student understanding rather than on lecture. To accomplish this, teachers post short video lectures online for students to view at home prior to the next class session. This allows class time to be devoted to expanding on and mastering the material through collaborative learning exercises, projects, and discussions. Essentially, the homework that is typically done at home is done in the classroom, while the lectures that are usually done in the classroom are viewed at home.

Another source[2] says something similar (italics mine):

Flipped learning is a pedagogical approach in which the conventional notion of classroom-based learning is inverted, so that students are introduced to the learning material before class, with classroom time then being used to deepen understanding through discussion with peers and problem-solving activities facilitated by teachers.

My favorite definition comes from the Center for Teaching and Learning, the University of Washington[3] (italics mine):

Students gain control of the learning process through studying course material outside of class, using readings, pre-recorded video lectures (using technology such as Panopto), or research assignments. During class time, instructors facilitate the learning process by helping students work through course material individually and in groups.

In its simplest form, the flipped classroom “requires students to prepare learning before they meet and engage with peers in purposeful activities.”[4]

The flipped classroom makes a lot of sense in the university context, where students have attained a certain level of language proficiency and can be expected to read material on their own, even if they may not fully understand all that they read. I would even call it a ‘common-sense’ approach. When I was a university student, the students at my university were often expected to read a journal article or a book chapter before coming to class for discussion. I remember an occasion in which most of the students in a sociolinguistics class did not come prepared for discussion. Annoyed at the situation, the linguistics lecturer dismissed the class – all because most of us were unprepared. However, while what the lecturer expected us to do (i.e. read the material before class) decades ago made sense to me, I did not know it had a name. Even when I expected my IEM students to read whatever they had to read before class right from the beginning, I did not know it had a name. My point is, whether or not you know it is called the flipped classroom, it is nothing conceptually new.

What is new is how it is implemented in some modules in CELC. While a regular class meets twice a week, a flipped class meets once a week, which means that students of a flipped class meet for only half of the duration that students of a regular class meet. Apparently, the flipped classroom is a response to the busy schedule of the NUS undergraduate. The flipped class frees the student of having too much contact time; it gives them more ‘free’ time. However, as far as I know, none of the articles I have read and the colleagues I have asked say that one of the purposes or ‘pros’ of the flipped classroom is that it allows the contact time between teacher and students to be reduced.

Reducing the contact time between class members is not unproblematic. Contrary to common belief, the flipped classroom does not necessarily reduce the workload of the students. It may reduce the contact time, but the number of projects and papers the students have to manage remains the same. Further, less contact time means fewer opportunities for interactive and peer learning, which are attested ways of learning. That interactive and peer learning is a useful learning strategy is both an understatement and a truism. An article posted on the Harvard Graduate School of Education discusses the benefits of interactive learning. It is written:[5] 

By the seventh year of teaching, Mazur was forced to admit that his students weren’t grasping the concepts he was presenting to them. In a moment of despair, he told students to discuss a question he had posed with one another. Within two minutes, they had figured out the answer. That pivotal moment made him realize what needed to change was his teaching. From then on, he began experimenting with more active learning styles where students engaged with one another to help find the answers. His interactive teaching method has gone on to earn a large following internationally and nationally.

As a brief demonstration, Mazur posed a multiple choice question to the Master Class audience. Using a handheld polling mechanism, he asked the crowd to select an answer. Then, he encouraged the audience to talk with a neighbor who had selected a different response and attempt to persuade their classmate to change his or her answer. After several minutes of discussion, Mazur asked the audience to once again answer via the polling mechanism. By the time Mazur revealed the right answer to the question, he noted that he had the attention of everyone in the room.

The flipped classroom has financial implications too. The student pays the same amount of tuition fee, but receives less contact time in return. I have also heard that some part-time lecturers do not find it financially worthwhile to teach a flipped class (with less contact time and more students to manage). This seems to be the reality.

There are also implications for the teacher, who while having less contact time with students (the interactive, refreshing, and enjoyable part), is faced with a significantly heavier marking load (the daunting, challenging, and ‘lonely’ part). I would thus go so far as to say that the way we flip our classes (by reducing contact time and managing more students) takes some joy out of teaching.

Honestly, I would not know what I would do if IEM classes were flipped with only ‘half contact time’. My IEM class involves much interactive and peer learning, and demonstrations of independent learning. Students give group and individual presentations, which require reading journal articles before class, and generate discussions afterwards. Students peer review each other’s work, and afterwards discuss their comments with each other. Students analyze word meanings in groups, and present their answers to the class for comments. Students present what they want to do for the final paper to the class and solicit feedback. It would be difficult for all these interactive activities to take place if the contact time were reduced by half.

Of course, the reality also is that our students are faced with heavy workloads. Over the semesters, very many students have come to me to tell me that they have a lot to do, and ask for extensions. I personally know of students who broke down or, in extreme cases, became depressed from being overloaded. The inconvenient truth seems to be that the workload for an NUS student is heavy, at least when compared to what I had as an undergraduate in Australia. The consequence for CELC is that students will give priority to their core or faculty modules. Whenever there is a clash, the faculty module’s deadline comes first. IEM students have been known to absent themselves from class because of faculty deadlines, tests, project work discussions, and so on. CELC modules are not their priority, even though the modules impart important writing and communication skills that can benefit them for life.

The solution, according to me, is not to reduce contact time in the name of flipping the classroom, but to reduce the number of modules each NUS undergraduate has to take. However, we all know that this is an unlikely solution. We therefore need to think of another solution. However, I just do not think reducing contact time is it.







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