Lecture ‘flipping’: a student-centred approach for undergraduate teaching

Lecture ‘flipping’: a student-centred approach for undergraduate teaching

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‘Flipping’ describes an educational approach where students typically acquire new information through online lectures or reading (rather than the first delivery of knowledge through a traditional lecture), which is then followed by a session of student-centred learning. In such a class, active, engaging strategies with the instructor and peers allow the student to use higher-level thinking approaches and take charge of their learning and assessment. Here, I  share an experience of introducing this strategy at the School of Biosciences at Birmingham University, UK.

I started lecture flipping because I was bored: bored of the same old didactic delivery, bored of the weary faces in front of me and bored of the constant question ‘will this be in the exam?’. Lecture flipping has become very trendy – a buzz word at teaching conferences across the globe – but it is actually very simple and just good teaching. So for these reasons and also to try to deliver a deeper set of skills to the students, including group work, presentation and critical analysis, I undertook to ‘flip’ part of a final-year module in a BSc Biology degree at the School of Biosciences at the University of Birmingham, UK. A central part of this was to use our Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), Canvas, to facilitate delivery and student engagement. The topic was plant adaptation to a changing environment and I had previously lectured conventionally on this course and so had all the relevant material available.

Student control of the curriculum

In addition to wanting to make more engaging and interactive use of the teaching time, I also sought to deliver material in a modern context. My starting point was a recently published report from the Royal Society of Biology on ‘UK Plant Science: Current status and future challenges’, which revealed that the UK’s position as a world leader in plant science is under threat from a shortage of funding and a lack of stable investment in essential skills, and outlined actions to ensure the UK can respond to significant global challenges such as guaranteeing food security. Before the session, via Canvas students were asked to read the report, complete a proforma to pick out the main issues, and upload this to Canvas. They then peer reviewed two other proformas and on the basis of those and their own submission listed the top five stressors of plants. The five ranked stresses formed the topics for subsequent teaching, effectively giving students control of the curriculum and context.

Examples of flipped sessions

For me, the most challenging part of lecture flipping is designing the flipped class session to make sure the students are prepared and engaged – this is essential for it success. Various approaches were taken to deliver a diverse range of skills

The first topic, as chosen by the students, was pests and diseases. One of 11 subtopics was allocated to each student group, who were asked to produce a one-page report to be presented in class (and also uploaded on Canvas). The students then pulled all the information back together in the flipped session as a ‘mind map’ compilation on the board at the front of the class.

For the topic of drought, each group member independently identified a research paper. The group then agreed the ‘best’ paper and uploaded the title and abstract to the VLE with one line justifying its importance. The students next had to indicate where their paper fitted on a ‘test tube to plate pipeline’ diagram on the blackboard, and were asked to consider what they would need to do to move their paper towards the ‘food on a plate’ end. In essence this is the sort of critical analysis of the literature that they should be doing generally in all modules.

For the ‘elevated CO2’ topic, groups were asked to draft a seminar question based on four relevant papers listed on the VLE in advance of a 20-min talk from Prof. Rob Mackenzie, Director of the Birmingham Institute of Forest Research – thus giving them some supported experience of the research seminar environment.

Writing an exam question

Innovating in teaching using flipping is good, but doesn’t fit with conventional, knowledge-based final exams. Accordingly, I asked the students to develop their own exam question for this module component. After being presented with a generic structure for this – (1) Context, (2) What do we know? (3) What do we need to do or know to make a difference? – each student drafted an exam question to submit to Canvas, which was followed by selection of the best by group and then class. Over the next few weeks of the course, students edited the question draft on Google Docs and we discussed progress. Following my approval, the class-authored question was then used as one question option in the final exam.


Students generally appreciated the flipped sessions and understood the move away from knowledge recall and the real world connection with comments such as: ‘Seen’ exam questions encourage wider reading...’ and ‘Like the approach and seen question as it stops us just having to learn lectures’. However, presentation is key as this negative comment from a student shows: ‘Really disliked how little effort he put in to lectures [and] felt like we had to teach ourselves everything.’ The latter is an interesting comment as in this final-year module students are concerned about good performance and unsettled by a different delivery they are not used to.

Setting up flipped teaching delivery can have benefits in staff time in future but does have upfront set-up costs. Students need to see that their engagement is delivering benefits in terms of improved study skills as well as enhanced employability prospects. I will continue to use this flipped approach as I think it’s the right way to go, However I don’t expect to please all of the people all of the time!

• Tie flipped classroom content very obviously to assessment, so students see the value
• Be clear with students what is being done and how it will help them learn
• Make sure there is a strong plan for the face-to-face sessions
• When contact time is more interactive, go with the flow if students want to take things in a different direction
• Not everything lends itself to flipping, so make choices depending on resources and the students

Further information
More introductions to flipping:
Flipping the Classroom, Vanderbilt University: https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/flipping-the-classroom/
Flipping at the University of Birmingham: https://panopto.docsend.com/view/za2jbip
Investigations of effectiveness:
There are links to several papers at http://www.flippedclassroomworkshop.com/results-studies-supporting-benefits-of-flipped-classroom/

Jeremy Pritchard
School of Biosciences; Director of Education, College of Life and Environmental Sciences; University of Birmingham, UK

Photo by WavebreakMediaMicro

This article is modified from a version first published in FEBS News November 2016, pages 11–12: http://www.febs.org/news/newsletter

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