Flipping the Classroom (and the Skeptics)

Dear Labby,

I am a third-year assistant professor at a research 1 university who has just been assigned to teach our very large introductory biochemistry class for undergraduates. My teaching experiences and my workshops on teaching have encouraged me to “flip the classroom,” no longer a novel approach, but one that will take me significant time to do effectively. However, it would be completely new to my department. Several of my senior colleagues are highly skeptical about adopting a non-lecture format; they have expressed concern that such approaches are a lazy way to avoid “teaching” for real. I want to use an effective, interactive approach with the students, but I also now worry that those evaluating me for promotion will wonder if I am a slacker in my teaching. How do I convince them, and my chair, that some of the “newer” approaches to educating in the science classroom are solidly grounded in research and also reflect my interest in giving students the best education? I do not expect that they will respond to a request to “read the literature.”

—Worried Assistant Professor

Dear Worried Assistant Professor,

Teaching approaches that differ from those used for decades can intimidate many faculty members. Indeed, Labby was initially resistant to innovations such as the flipped classroom but has now come to appreciate their value. You are right to try to be encouraging and convincing to your colleagues rather than provide them a sheaf of references.

First, discuss a carefully constructed and detailed outline of your course with your faculty mentors and chair. If you can convince your chair of the value of your approach, enlist him or her to remind your colleagues that introductory biochemistry is a very large class with many students of different interest levels, and the more interactive nature of a “flipped classroom” has been shown to engage students to a greater extent than traditional lecture-only classes.

Next, the best convincing evidence is YOUR convincing evidence, so be sure to conduct careful assessments before and after the course. If your campus has a Teaching and Learning Center, invite experienced staff members there to help with the evaluation and provide you with input. It will take more than one term of teaching the course to collect enough evidence to convince skeptical colleagues. Make sure your colleagues hear about your teaching evaluations, not just the first term you do this, but in subsequent terms.

Finally, provide all your colleagues with your teaching plan/syllabus and invite them to your classroom sometime during the term. Then encourage other faculty—both natural allies as well as the skeptics—to help you evaluate how you are doing.

Shifting a paradigm is very difficult, whether it is in your own science or in your teaching program. However, you are very likely to find that other assistant professors are curious how to do this type of teaching, and they may take on your approaches. Not all classes need to be flipped to provide excellent education in the sciences (or any other discipline). But as you know, the research indicates that you are on solid ground in implementing the interactive class activities that will help your students really “know” their biochemistry. Be brave and enjoy the class. Research also shows this approach is much more fun for the professor and the teaching assistants.


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