Experiments in flipping content


This year I have been experimenting with content flipping in my teaching. The idea of content flipping is that students first encounter the course material in their own time, so that teaching time can be spent discussing, applying or interpreting the material. The aim is to make more effective use of both time together and time apart.

I have had two opportunities this year to take a flipped approach. The first was as part of a Think Up commission at the University of Cambridge to assist in the coordination of a residential Masters module in innovation in construction engineering. It was my job to provide a theoretical framework that would weave together the themes of the week’s speakers. I decided it would be a better use of class time if the students could arrive at the residential week having already got to grips with conceptual ideas around notions of ‘future’ and ‘innovation’. These frameworks having been established before students arrive, we’d then be able to use our contact time to interpret what the course speakers had said against these frameworks.

The flipped exercises I sent out as two documents we called ‘Think Up Think Pieces’, one on ‘Future’ and one on ‘Innovation’. [link coming soon] These were sent to the students along with pre-reading papers from the more ‘traditional’ lecturers. In my first session with the students, I asked if anyone had covered the flipped content – only two out of twenty had. Not a great success – I’ll come on to my reflections on this in a moment.

Where I have had more success with flipping is with the graduate training programme I designed as part of a Think Up commission for a large construction management company. Here the aim was to introduce their first-year graduate intake to the key stages in the construction life-cycle of a building. The programme was to involve five intensive role-play-based workshops in which the graduates, working in teams, would take on the role of a team engineers as it managed the key stages in the construction process of a building. In order to have the maximum time available for role-play we decided to flip the theory. Two weeks before each workshop, we sent the participants a pre-briefing worksheet of activities and reading they needed to carry out to prepare them for the contact time.

In this instance, the majority of the students actually did the ‘flipped’ exercises. So what was the difference?

  • In the Cambridge scenario, there was just one set of flipped exercise, followed by a back-to-back set of lectures and contact time. In the corporate training scenario, there were several sessions with long gaps in between when the participants could do their flipped work. In the latter case, the participants could see the benefits of doing the flipped work, and if they didn’t do so for the first workshop, they probably made sure they did for the second one.
  • In the Cambridge scenario, my hopefully-interesting flipped exercises were bundled with more traditional reading lists sent out by the other lecturers. They weren’t to know there was something maybe a little different inside the material I’d sent over, and so probably didn’t look (I didn’t get the chance to ask students why they hadn’t read my material, or whether they had read anyone else’s)
  • In the corporate training scenario, I got to brief the participants several weeks before the start of the course on the pedagogical model we were adopting, and in particular the importance of the flipped learning exercises. In other words, they knew what was expected of them, and so may have been more motivated to follow that learning scheme.
  • Unfortunately I was not able to bring a reflective learning element into the work at Cambridge, but in the corporate training example, the teams were required to complete a reflective learning diary post after each workshop during which they were asked to reflect on the value of what they had learnt in the pre-briefing phase, which I am sure helped participants to see the value of this approach.
  • Finally, in some of the flipped exercises in the corporate training example, I required participants to write a short summary of what they had learnt in the run-up to the session.

The flipped learning exercises were clearly of benefit to the graduate participants. They arrived at the role-play scenarios with a clearer idea of how they might be able to succeed at the tasks they were being set, and had more contact time with the facilitators to discuss the issues that they didn’t understand.

So what do I conclude about flipping? In the case where it worked I was very happy with the impact of the approach, and I will continue to adopt the approach where I can. To anyone else trying it, I would recommend:

  • Being clear with the learners in advance that this is the approach you are going to take and why.
  • Keep the reading or exercises concise and achievable rather than sending out a lengthy reading list that no one is capable of reading.
  • Consider setting a short exercise to check participants have completed the flipped activities.
  • If you are using a reflective learning approach, ask students to think about what they learnt from the flipped compoment of the teaching.

So, what do you think? Have you tried this approach? What are you experiences?