• Chemistry professor Emily Niemeyer is among the faculty members who have been adopting a new teaching technique known as t...
    Chemistry professor Emily Niemeyer is among the faculty members who have been adopting a new teaching technique known as the flipped classroom. (Photo by Andy Sharp)

At a recent presentation, chemistry professor Emily Niemeyer asked the audience how they got good at doing something they are good at.

Not one person chose answer B – “Listening to Lectures.” Instead, most chose answer C – “Practicing.”

This is the theory behind a new teaching technique that Niemeyer and several others have been introducing at Southwestern. It’s called the “flipped classroom.”

While there are many variations of the flipped classroom, the most common one is one in which what used to be classwork (i.e. lectures) is done before students come to class by means of teacher-created videos. And what used to be homework (assigned problems) is now done in class − either with the professor or among the students themselves. 

It’s a technique that has only become possible in recent years thanks to new technology that makes it easy to produce videos and the availability of video-sharing platforms such as YouTube.

President Edward Burger, who also is a professor of mathematics, says he was using the technique long before the term “flipped classroom” came into use.

“I called it inverting the roles of homework and classwork,” he said.

This fall, President Burger is teaching a calculus class using the flipped classroom technique. Students watch videos Burger has made for Thinkwell before coming to class. That frees up class time for more questions and problem-solving.

“At one time having a professor stand up and give a lecture was exciting,” Burger said, referring to the era before television and computers existed. “Today, students in many classes might find that less than exciting.”

Alison Marr, associate professor of mathematics, also has been implementing the flipped classroom technique into her Calculus I and Calculus II classes, as well as her Introduction to Statistics course. 

“The students really seemed to enjoy the short videos,” Marr said. “It gave them a chance to rewatch things and go at their own pace. It also allowed us more time in class to explore concepts and do group work.”

Marr said she plans to do some flipping of the Applied Statistics course she is teaching in London this semester.

Maha Zewail-Foote, professor of chemistry, has gained national attention for the flipped general chemistry class she has been teaching. She was featured in a September 2013 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education and also an article that appeared in Inside Higher Ed in July 2014.

Niemeyer has gradually implemented the technique in her introductory chemistry class. The first semester she tried it, she made four or five videos. By last semester, that number had increased to 15.

“I didn’t lecture in class at all,” she said.

Niemeyer makes simple videos for her students on her iPad and then follows up with a message to see if students understand the material.

“That way I can see what we need to work on when they come to class,” she said.

Niemeyer and Zewail-Foote became interested in flipped classrooms as part of a broader initiative at Southwestern to have more student-centered classes in the sciences. They used funds from Southwestern’s grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to bring Harvard professor Eric Mazur, who is a national leader in the field, to Southwestern in March 2013.

“That was a real watershed moment for us,” Niemeyer said. “Since then the use of flipped classrooms has really started to snowball.”

Niemeyer said preliminary surveys in her courses have shown that students like the flipped classrooms.

“They feel like they are learning more and they feel like the course is more enjoyable,” she said.

For Niemeyer, this is one of the main reasons to implement flipped classrooms, as well as other forms of student-centered learning.

“Students who enjoy their science classes more are going to be more likely to persist in the sciences,” she said. “If it keeps them in the sciences, it’s worth it.”

Sophomore Sebastian Gualy was among the students in Niemeyer’s flipped chemistry class last spring.

“I really loved and thrived in the flipped classroom,” he said. “I felt like it really helped me learn because I was using more techniques to learn the material. I wasn’t just reading the textbook and listening to lectures, but by having us do these problems in class and working in groups, you felt like you were not only more involved in the class activity but in your learning. I really would like to see the transition to inquiry-based learning and flipped classrooms.” 

Niemeyer admits these new teaching methods require a lot of extra effort on the part of faculty members. In addition to developing videos, they also have to come up with new exercises to fill the classroom time.

One exercise Niemeyer uses a lot is called “Think-Pair-Share,” in which students have to find someone who answered a question differently and try and convince their partner to change their answer. This helps students discover the logic behind who is correct.

“Students have to take the time to understand themselves before they can talk to someone else,” Niemeyer said.

Despite the extra work involved in flipped classrooms, Niemeyer said she doesn’t have any plans to go back to teaching the old way.

“I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t feel comfortable standing up in a class lecturing anymore,” she said.