Washington college instructors are ‘flipping’ the way they teach

In a trend called flipping the classroom, new technology tools and different approaches to learning are changing the way some college faculty teach their courses. That may mean turning a lecture into homework so more class time can be spent on practice and problem-solving.

For years, Scott Freeman taught Biology 180 — a gateway class — by standing in front of his students at the University of Washington and lecturing about biological systems, evolution and the chromosome theory of inheritance.

And Freeman always received great reviews from students, even though 17 percent routinely flunked his class — a failure rate he considered “gruesome.”

Freeman knew what was wrong: His students weren’t adept at applying information in a new context to solve problems, and he told them so. But one day, a student threw the ball back in his court. He just wasn’t doing enough to prepare her for the tests — she needed his help to practice.

“I thought, I am so busted,” Freeman said. “She is right. That still rings in my ears.”

Freeman is now part of a new wave of Washington college instructors who are rethinking the college lecture hall. They’re finding better ways to spot students’ weaknesses, helping them practice new ways of thinking and shoring up basic materials — often with the aid of new, easy-to-use tech tools.

Some are seizing on a relatively recent idea: “flipping” the class, by turning a lecture or other basic materials into homework, and spending more class time in practice and problem-solving. Other colleges are using the new tech toolbox to save money while reaching more students — a necessity in these days of steep budget cuts to higher education.

Students say classes that make the most of tech tools and give them opportunities to practice skills are still the exception, not the rule. But when done right, they make a course both more challenging and more enjoyable.

The new tools allow faculty members to home in on the areas where students need the most practice, assistance and instruction, said Beth Kalikoff, who directs the Center for Teaching and Learning at the UW.

“There’s every reason to be excited about it,” she said. “It’s student-centered. The reason faculty members are seeking it out is that it supports student learning and engagement.”

Recording lectures

A Thanksgiving snowstorm that paralyzed traffic two years ago prompted Guy Hamilton, who heads the biotechnology program at Shoreline Community College, to try new software that allowed him to record lectures and post them online. He set up his MacBook in the basement and began lecturing to his computer.

“The students just loved it,” he said, especially because they could watch lectures on difficult topics over and over. When Hamilton graded the final exams, he found his students had done 15 to 20 percent better than expected.

That was the end of live lectures for Hamilton, who now records all of his lectures and spends class time on group discussions and problem-solving. “I won’t do it any other way now,” he said.

Most of Hamilton’s students are working adults who already hold four-year degrees. They can play a recorded lecture anytime, even while commuting on the bus. And Hamilton can monitor which students watched the assigned lecture, and which did not.

Among the state’s technical and community colleges in the Puget Sound area, Shoreline is the heaviest user of the software that allows faculty to record lectures.

Many weren’t even aware that “flipping the classroom” is an educational trend; they’re just doing it because it makes sense, said Ann Garnsey-Harter, director of Shoreline’s virtual college and e-learning support services. Students like recorded lectures because “you can go back and listen again to what was said — you can go back as many times as you want,” she said.

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