Courses “Flipped” to Increase Student Engagement

You won’t find Western Carolina University physics professor Dr. Enrique Gomez lecturing in front of the classroom much this term.

In response to a body of research that says students learn best when they engage with the material, Gomez has “flipped” the classroom of his algebra-based physics course.

This term, Gomez’s students prepare for classes by completing readings and watching videos Gomez created to introduce key concepts, then taking quizzes on their comprehension.

Dr. Gomez works with students during a newly redesigned physics class.WCU professor, Dr. Enrique Gomez encourages discussion and participation, engaging students in in-class problem solving and projects with their classmates.

In the classroom, they build on what they learned at home through exercises that require them to engage in discussion, problem solving and projects with their classmates. 

“This is a drastic change from what students are used to,” Gomez said. “Thus far in their careers, they‘re used to being passive learners, where someone talks to them and they take notes. But what students do in the classroom matters. They have to expend time and mental energy to acquire the material.”

The UNC system has begun supporting faculty in redesigning courses to incorporate at-home technological components that make class time more productive. During the 2013-2014 academic year, the University awarded 72 instructors across 12 institutions a total of $400,000 to fund the redesign of 32 courses.

This academic year, the University held a course redesign competition among the campuses and awarded eight winners a total of $290,000 to further their redesign efforts. Western Carolina University, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Eastern Carolina University, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, North Carolina Central University, North Carolina State University and Elizabeth City State University will use the funds to integrate the innovation deeper into their departments.

"The course redesign competition funds innovative faculty members across our system to take up the challenge of figuring how to make the best use of tech-enabled instructional and assessment tools to foster more engaging learning environments in which students are more likely to succeed,” said Matthew Rascoff, vice president for technology-based learning and innovation. “My colleagues and I are proud to be working with these leading educators from eight institutions of the University."

To flip his classroom, Gomez developed more than eight hours of videos that students watch on their own time. In class, he evaluates students’ understanding of the material they encountered at home by asking them to answer multiple-choice questions with an app on their smartphones or tablets or cards labeled A, B, C and D. When Gomez sees about half of his students responding correctly, he encourages students to begin discussing the material with their classmates.

“The students with the baseline understanding help their peers,” Gomez said. “You then see the shift from 50 to 75 to 80 percent of the students ready to participate in [full-class] discussion.” 

In addition to advancing students’ understanding, increasing out-of-class engagement frees up class time for educational opportunities such as guest speakers and field trips, Gomez said. His students visited the Jackson County Green Energy Park in Dillsboro, for example, to learn how harmful methane from a retired landfill is turned into energy that then powers greenhouses, artist studios and other ventures.

“If we were to be focusing on introducing the concept and material in the classroom, there wouldn’t be the opportunity to pursue real-world educational opportunities like field trips,” Gomez said.

The Highest Impact Possible

The University’s course redesign effort is part of the strategy to strengthen academic quality outlined in its 2013-2018 Strategic Directions plan, Our Time, Our Future: The UNC Compact with North Carolina.

By leveraging technology to support student learning, the University is hoping to improve the quality of instruction and reduce the time students take to earn their degrees, thereby increasing their chances of graduation, said Katharine Stewart, vice president for academic planning and quality.

“If students fail the first class in their sequences, they have to wait for the course to come back around, and sometimes it isn’t just a one-semester hiccup—it can cause a stutter step in the student’s degree plan that can slow them down,” Stewart said. “That’s hugely costly. If they have to stay on campus another semester, it’s not just tuition—it’s also room and board. We know this is a huge factor in degree completion.”

Increasing the number of students receiving their degrees in four years, rather than six or more, will not only help students and their families save money, but the system as a whole, Stewart said.

Additionally, research from within the UNC system and across the country shows that students learn more in classes that make effective use of technology, Rascoff said. “While fully online learning may not be for everyone, in the future I suspect most of our classes will be ‘blended,’ he said. “The different types of blends will vary by academic discipline.”

In order for the redesign to have the highest impact possible, the University targeted its efforts at high-enrollment courses (i.e. more than 300 students annually) with DWIF rates—or rates of students who receive D’s, F’s or incompletes or withdraw completely—of more than 20 percent.

At NC State, biology professor Betty Black is in the process of redesigning the two-semester introductory biology courses, which together enroll about 2,800 students per year.

In their traditional state, the courses do not serve students as well as they could, Black said. The cavernous, 200+-seat lecture halls do not make for effective learning environments, and students’ shortened attention spans mean they do not learn well through listening to lectures and reading the textbook. 

“Students have much more trouble focusing than they used to,” Black said. “There’s so much multi-tasking going on.”

While another professor is overseeing the effort to make class time more interactive, Black is developing online learning objects for students to complete outside of class to make homework more engaging. One online learning object enables students to click on the names of plant and animal cell organelles to see them appear along with descriptions of their functions. In a related object, students can view pictures of a plant cell’s walls and plasma membranes through light and electron microscopes.

Moving forward, Black plans to design activities to test students’ comprehension and create templates other instructors can use to build their own learning objects and demonstrations.

Eventually, she would like the online information and activities to replace the biology textbook, which costs close to $200 and weighed 8.5 pounds last time she put it on the scale.

When instructors relinquish too much control to textbooks, she said, they can’t account for the needs of their particular students and their particular institutions, she said, and the quality of instruction is much lower.

“There’s no way you’re going to get a good outcome,” she said of textbook-reliant courses. “The faculty really want to teach—they want to use their creativity.”

A Lot of Momentum

One of the biggest challenges of the course redesign, Gomez said, is convincing students that the change is beneficial. 

“There are students out there that really hate it, because the burden of work falls on them rather than the teacher,” Gomez said. Once they realize the style of teaching positively impacts their work in subsequent classes and on tests like the MCAT, though, they begin to soften, he said.

Kirkpatrick Hicks, right, a student in Gomez's class.Kirkpatrick Hicks, a senior biology major in Gomez’s class last semester, says the class is a departure from the lecture classes that have dominated his educational experience.

“It takes a while for people to buy into the idea,” Gomez said, “but once they see their peers have bought in and come out ahead, they are willing to participate.” 

Kirkpatrick Hicks, a senior biology major in Gomez’s class last semester, says while the class is a departure from the lecture classes that have dominated his educational experience, he prefers the active learning.

“In Dr. Gomez’s classroom, it’s amazing how much faster time passes than with a normal lecture,” he said. “If you’re listening to someone in a lecture, time creeps by. In this class, you look up at the clock, and there are only five to 10 minutes left.” 

Hicks said he also retains what he learns in Dr. Gomez’s class more than others. If he understands a problem, he furthers his understanding by helping other students; if he doesn’t, other students use their understanding to help him.

“For a normal class, you take notes on a lecture and memorize them, then you take an exam and they’re gone,” Hicks said. “In this class, you’re understanding the concepts behind what the teacher is teaching you, so you’re able to keep them longer.” 

Stewart acknowledged that redesigning college courses—especially large introductory classes—is a monumental task. 

“It takes an enormous amount of effort to really thoughtfully examine what could be changed in a course as big as an intro physics or English composition course to more deeply engage students,” she said. 

Still, she said, the campuses that participated in the first round of system-supported redesign “got some really impressive results and have a lot of momentum.” 


Homepage caption:  Western Carolina University physics professor Dr. Enrique Gomez has "flipped" the classroom of his algebra-based physics course, engaging students through in-class exercises that build upon what they learn at home.

Story written by Christina Cooke
Photos by Mark Haskett, WCU photographer