A teaching method called the flipped classroom is lately the rage. Taken simply, as the phrase indicates, lectures on video are viewed at home and homework is done during class meetings. Often quizzes are given during class time to enforce student preparation – viewing and learning from the videos.

My question: How does this model fit into the standard allocation of student effort defined by the credit hour? That is, given that there is no change in scheduled class hours, say the class still meets the standard three hours per week, will the students learn the given content at a sufficient depth?

On the surface, if the credit hours allocated to the course are correct, the answer would be no. As I understand it, for each unit of credit, every hour spent in class corresponds to two hours out of class – working problems, reading, writing, etc. Flipping the classroom trades the hour of lecture in class for a video lecture at home and the two hours of homework at home for one hour in class or less if there are quizzes. Something has to give. That something will be hard to detect. Here’s why.

The success of a flipped classroom is usually defined by better student performance – a higher comprehensive final exam average or a greater number passing the course. This apparent success can be attributed to two causes. First, student are generally quizzed as part of their class meetings. Of course they will do better on subsequent tests since that they have already been tested on the material at least once. In my algebra classes students are tested three times on the same material – by daily quizzes, by midterm tests and by a comprehensive final exam. I don’t know if I am more successful with students since I have no base case but my process, I think, causes students to retain more, longer.

Secondly, there is the question of exactly what is on the test. Classroom sessions could be, probably are, focused on the questions and problems that will be on the test. This is what students expect. It determines what they study. These are typical questions. “What will be on the test?” “How long is the test?” “Where can I get sample tests?” This is the way students optimize (minimize) their time spent studying and most of them, I am guessing, spend far less than two hours per lecture hour working with course materials. The flipped classroom just helps them with this process except this time they will attempt to minimize their time spent viewing lectures. I often have a vague sense of satisfaction watching my students take quizzes or tests or work on problems to turn in. At least I know that at that precise time they are thinking about math. Any other time – lecture or discussing adminstrative matters, I can’t guess what is going on in their heads. So, of course, if I have a class session full of quizzes and group work at least I know they are doing/ thinking math for an hour. This is probably more time per class period than they usually put in on the math given the prevalence of shared homework and internet help.

There is an even more important issue with flipped classrooms. When does deep learning happen? Such learning occurs when attempting “hard” problems and or trying to understand deep theorems or other concepts. This learning is hard to test for. Generally a small percentage of a problem set or math exam requires this knowledge. Somehow we hope that if students can work standard problems there is a model in their brains that reflects the structure of the mathematics being taught though I expect most students are performing by rote. We assign difficult problems to encourage a deeper type of learning because we know, at least hope, that if a student works alone, emphasis alone, their brain will change as they gain the deep understanding that engaging in the process should involve. Where is this in the flipped classroom structure? Where are the measurements of this type of learning?

Our lectures be they in person or on video are designed to provide our individual insight into the structures and approaches to a specific subject. We want, otherwise why do we profess, students to gain this understanding. Do we really test for it? Will the flipped classroom help?

Flipping the classroom trades the hour of lecture in class for a video lecture at home and the two hours of homework at home for one hour in class or less if there are quizzes.This sounds like a rather strict interpretation of “flipping”. What if you traded the one class hour for one of the two outside hours? Would this still feel flipped?