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Published April 1, 2019 | Physics

Flipping to Promote Active Learning and Engagement in a Physics Classroom

Patrick Rogers teaches Physics at Marianopolis College. Over the past 5 years he has redesigned his students’ learning environment. He now uses the flipped classroom approach to allow for more time to activate student engagement in class.

He started teaching in the style he had been taught in, the traditional lecture style, but then began including some active learning activities. Around the same time the college added extra white boards to the classroom and he could have the students work on problems in teams. However, this activity can take up a lot of time. He liked the active learning that was happening, but he still had to cover the material.

In 2016, with a number of his colleagues, he flipped the Mechanics course. It worked so well that in the fall 2018 he flipped Waves, Light and Modern Physics and in the winter 2019 session, he has been working on the Electricity and Magnetism course. The college has given him time to develop resources (a list of readings, some handouts as well as good problems to use) for other teachers who would be interested in flipping their physics classrooms in the future.

Student teamwork on the whiteboard (black) with teacher’s annotations (red). Screenshot by Patrick Rogers

Why Flip?

Patrick found that students really benefit from a flipped classroom model.

Students

  • have more time to do active learning activities that truly engage them  
  • are able to read and take information from a scientific textbook. Reading is an important skill that students going on to university should acquire
  • come to class ready with questions about the material

Use of existing platform and straightforward expectations

Students are used to a very specific mental model of how a classroom works. Any teacher who decides to flip the classroom has some marketing to do to get the students to buy into the fact that they have to be active participants.  Using technology students are familiar with and being up front with requirements makes it easier for the students.

Patrick has students read from their textbook and then do a reflective writing activity that they post in an Omnivox forum.  Very detailed instructions on the sections of the textbook he assigns are provided. He points to the parts of the chapters that are important, “pay attention to this figure, read this part closely”.

Then students produce short free-form writings describing what they are curious about or what causes confusion. They submit their reflections online before the class. This gives Patrick a chance to look at their writings and use that to design or emphasize certain parts of his lecture.

I like the free form because it allows for a certain amount of exploration on their part. Sometimes I’ll get good surprises such as students referring to something they learned elsewhere or in another class. I like this approach as I get to see how the students are thinking and if I can understand that a bit better, teaching them gets easier as well.

Patrick Rogers, Physics Teacher

Reflective writing: this student is coming to class ready with questions.

Screen capture by Patrick Rogers

This makes for a really interesting class, the students are much more engaged than when they are just lectured because they are not trying to catch up to the new ideas being presented; instead, they already have something to work with. They already have questions because they have had some time to think about it. He often ends up having to tell them to keep some questions for office hours.

What flipping has achieved

Over the course of several semesters, students began to realise that with the flipped classroom time actually spent with the instructor was truly efficient.

Patrick mentions that there’s evidence in physics education research that active learning improves students’ conceptual understanding. He wanted to see what impact it would have on his students so he started giving them a pre-instruction and a post-instruction test.  The significant gain in students’ understanding corresponded well with what’s in the research.

BLOCKQUOTE “My experience has been positive so I will not be going back to a purely traditional approach, on the contrary I am moving even further away. This year I have taught the 3 core physics classes using the flipped approach and I have really been enjoying it. It is much more engaging for me as an instructor because there are just so many questions from the students. My classrooms are much more dynamic so I’m a big fan.” – Patrick Rogers, Physics Teacher BLOCKQUOTE

Words of advice

If you are considering a flipped classroom, Patrick suggests that you:

  • Not flip the whole course at once. Do one section, learn from your experience and then broaden it out.
  • Need not stop lecturing completely.  Lectures have a place in a flipped classroom, but they can be shorter and more focused.
  • Find a group of colleagues that you can collaborate with.
  • First try cutting out some of the traditional lecture and incorporate more active learning activities, if you aren’t ready to flip.  Once you find there isn’t sufficient time for active learning, try replacing the lectures with a reading or video students will do before arriving in class.

How do you flip your classroom? Let us know in the comment section below.

2 comment(s)

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    Arash S. Khosravi wrote April 8, 2019 at 12:33 PM

    I love the sound of this method, but I want to know if it is practical for honours students to do it. Would you tell me how many hours per week is needed approximately?

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    Patrick Rogers wrote April 8, 2019 at 5:28 PM

    Hi Arash, 

I’ve taught enriched sections (where many, but not all, of the students are in honours) using the flipped and it has worked really well. I’ve found the students engage really well with the readings (and give me great reflective writings!) and are keen to participate in in-class active learning. There isn’t really a set amount of time per week needed for the flipped, so I can’t give you a specific answer. I’ve structured my courses so that the majority of the class time is reserved for active-learning activities, but I’m also still doing some lecturing where I’ve found it particularly effective (the amount depends on the topic). In fact, most of the time I spend on the extra enriched material is spent lecturing. As mentioned in the article, if you’re interested in flipping, I’d suggest targeting one section (or sub-section) of a course where you think the students could most benefit from having more time for active learning activities. That way, you can try it out and get a sense of how you want to spend the time.

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