To Flip or not to Flip? That is the Tough Question

To Flip or not to Flip? That is the Tough Question

Have you heard of flipped classrooms? You probably have, especially if you’ve attended a teaching workshop recently. In a flipped class, the “lecture” and “homework” are effectively swapped; students learn new concepts as homework that is due before the class period in which students apply the concepts in an active learning environment.

If you teach in the liberal arts then you are probably like, “pssshh, we’ve been flipping classes FOR YEARS” … and it’s true. In an English class, for example, the professor assigns a passage to be read before the next class period. The next class period rolls around and the professor runs a classwide discussion and several small group discussions. Yes, that is a form of a flipped classroom. The key here is class time is active and interactive. Students engage with the material, the professor, and each other. Contrast this with the traditional lecture. A professor lectures by reading off a powerpoint or writing on the board for an hour. A third of the students write the information down, a third of the students are on their phones, and the other third probably didn’t even show up for class. The purpose of a flipped classroom is to make the most out of the in-person class time: swap the passive activities for the active activities. Sounds fun right?

I don’t know exactly when I first heard the term, but I do remember exactly when I decided to invest the time to flip my CS1 class. Before telling my story, I want to let you know a few things ahead of time. First, I’m not going to pretend like flipping a class was a light decision I made, it wasn’t. I’m also not going to pretend like I only spent a couple of hours to make it work, I didn’t. I’m also not going to pretend 100% of my students loved the flipped classroom, they didn’t. I’m also not going to pretend like it is for everyone or every class, it’s not. I’m going to tell you my story of deciding to flip my CS1 class (details of the actual flipping part will come later, in another post down the road). Along the way, I’m going to give you some practical advice and most importantly, a call to action. At the end, my goal is for you to have a better sense of whether or not flipping your class is in your best interest and in your students’ best interest. If I miss a detail along the way that would help you in your flipping journey, don’t hesitate to reach out. Okay, let’s start!

My Sign from the Universe

Okay, it wasn’t really from the universe. It was from a really great conference I’ve started going to annually, SIGCSE. SIGCSE stands for ACM’s Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education and they hold a conference every year you should try to attend. I went to my first SIGCSE in 2017 and I was a kid in a candy story. No really, I was that student in the front row who hangs on every word of the speaker, furiously writing everything down. Where was this conference when I was first figuring out how to teach a college class? You don’t get any training or education on how to train and educate. We all struggle through our first college class we teach (or second class, or third class, or if you are like me, you’re still trying to figure it out). SIGCSE was the beacon of light I didn’t know I’d been looking for.

>>Begin tangent
I know funds for travel to attend conferences can be extremely difficult to come by, especially for education conferences that are likely not related to your main research area. Never fear, the ACM may have you covered! There are travel grants first-time attendees can apply for, check it out at In fact, that is how I went to my first SIGCSE in 2017. Take a look at the list of travel grant awardees, you’ll see me under 2017 (thank you ACM and SIGCSE)!
>>End tangent

Anyways, it was Friday, February 23rd, 2018 and I was in a SIGCSE session called CS1. I heard a presentation on a paper called, “Longitudinal Data on Flipped Class Effects on Performance in CS1 and Retention After CS1” (paper link). The presenter showed us all sorts of data supporting the positive effects of flipped CS1 courses on student learning and retention. The speaker also referred to their prior SIGCSE 2015 paper and how it had all these details about “gamification,” “flipped classes,” and “lightweight teams.” The paper was titled, “Structuring Flipped Classes with Lightweight Teams and Gamification” (paper link) and I read it and it was a game-changer for me. It moved me so greatly that I was convinced that if I didn’t flip my classroom I wasn’t doing right by my students. It was my sign from the universe.

A Call to Action

Flash forward two months or so to mid-May 2018. The semester was about to come to a close, I was about to finish my first year of my tenure-track, and I was about to allocate the rest of May to flipping my CS1 course. The summer after my first year in my new job was supposed to be a precious time for research and I knew I had to be productive and the time had to be justified. I didn’t know much about flipping a class, but I had my Latulipe et al. paper from SIGCSE 2015 printed, highlighted, and marked up. I was as ready as I was gonna be.

If you’re waiting to be “ready” or waiting for someone else to design a step-by-step plan for flipping your specific class, you’re never going to do it because you’re being reactive instead of proactive. Consider this: I was a college student from 2008-2016 and I recently started taking college classes again, so I’ve been a student in the modern age. I reckon I’ve probably taken 50+ college classes. I’ve never taken a STEM class that was “flipped.” This means my knowledge of flipped classrooms was limited book smarts from that SIGCSE 2015 paper and I didn’t have any street smarts on the subject! I didn’t even know a colleague who had flipped a class, I had no mentor! You just have to get started. I recently read a book where the author stated, “an ounce of action is worth a ton of theory.” I know that can be hard for us academics to accept, but it’s true. If you’re thinking about flipping your class, stop thinking and start trying. Get started and see what it is like.

Here is my call to action for you: Download screen recorder software and make a video covering 10 minutes of your favorite lecture from the class you’re considering flipping. Afterward, if you see value in the video for your students and you kinda had fun making the video, that’s great. If you didn’t like making the video and thought it was a waste of time, that doesn’t mean flipping is not for you. There are loads of other ways to flip your class that don’t involve making videos. I’ll write about them in a future post.

>>Begin tangent
If you don’t know which recording software to use, I recommend calling your IT support desk at your university. Chances are your university is paying for a site license for a screen/webcam capture software and you can use it for free! One of the universities I worked for used Panopto and my current university uses Kaltura. Worst case scenario is your university doesn’t have a site license you can use. If that is the case, you download a free trial of Camtasia. Here is one of my courses on YouTube I made with Kaltura that you can check out right now: CPSC 121 YouTube Playlist. Here is the first video of the playlist:

Command Line Video

>>End tangent

Helping you Decide

Here are some questions you can ask yourself to help you decide if a flipped class is right for you, your class, and your students.

Have you Taught the Course 3x?

Have you ever heard a fantastic piece of advice and every time you tell someone about it you want to give credit to who you heard it from but you can’t remember that is!? Well here is a gem of advice and I don’t know who to credit it to (if you’re reading this and it’s you, I’m sorry and let me know!), “Don’t flip your course until you’ve taught that course three times.” Being a junior faculty member, I’m always teaching new courses and rarely get to repeat a course; however, CS1 was a course I’ve taught in one form or another seven times. I was teaching it for the fifth time when I read that wonderful SIGCSE 2015 paper. I had taught CS1 two summers as a grad student in C, two semesters as faculty in Python (as a CS0), and once as faculty in C++ (the semester I decided to take the plunge).

I’d like to note that rules of thumb are just guidelines to help you investigate something further. In this case, the 3x rule is just a rule of thumb and isn’t all-encompassing. But think about, have you taught a course three times? Are you super satisfied with your course material and are not likely to overhaul/restructure it any time soon? Flipping a class can be a lot of work and you want to optimize your time so you only do it once and then tweak it over time.

Is Something not Working in your Current Setup?

When I taught CS0/1 at my former institution, there were weekly 3-hour labs students attended in addition to 2-3 hours of lecture. The lab was run by an undergrad TA who would answer questions while students worked through small to medium-sized programming tasks in a low-stakes, safe environment. So long as the students showed up and made a genuine effort to solve some tasks, they would get full credit for the lab. The purpose of the lab was to complement the lecture with hands-on learning where someone was there to help them if they got stuck, which is expected when first learning to program. On a side note, a three-hour block of programming was exhausting for the students and the TA. I think a two-hour session or two 1.5 hour sessions would have been better.

Anyways, CS1 at my current university does not have an associated lab. It has three hours of lecture a week and that’s it. I spent most of the class time quickly “lecturing” about a new topic on the whiteboard so I could leave some time for working through examples. I did have some active learning activities I’d run at the beginning of class, but there wasn’t enough time for more and my students really needed more. I was also going so fast, trying to introduce the topic so they could get some hands-on practice in class. Here is a course evaluation comment describing how I’m pretty sure most of my students felt, “Sometimes Gina goes too fast and I fall behind and just can’t keep up from there. And though she does ask if everyone is ready, I don’t feel good having to stop everyone else just because I did something wrong and fell behind.” I was trying to do too much and I wasn’t doing right by my students.

The first time my students would practice programming without my step-by-step guidance was for high-stakes programming assignments. And guess what? Those programming assignments really stressed them out. At night, they’d encounter compiler errors they’d never seen before and they’d hit an instant roadblock. In CS1 they hadn’t sharpened their debugging skills enough yet to figure out the compiler error and move on. Consequently, they would send panicked emails and the next day they’d jump from me to the TAs to the tutors to their friends to the internet and to anyone and anything that would get them through their awful programming assignments! It stressed me out too. I had lines during office hours and emails coming in late at night I’d wake up and read in the morning. It wasn’t fun. Something wasn’t working and something needed to change.

That semester really made me realize the value of safe, low-stakes practice. CS1 students really benefit from having someone there to help as they figure new things out at their own pace. I knew I had to figure out how to free up time in class to recreate those kinds of learning activities. As you know, my solution was to flip the class. I made videos of my lectures and guided examples, I assigned the videos as homework due before class, and I restructured class time around lab-like/active learning activities. And I didn’t stop there. I followed that SIGCSE 2015 paper and I implemented lightweight teams and gamification. I’ve taught CS1 as a flipped classroom for two semesters since I made the flip and it was worth it.

While your class is probably wildly different than my CS1, did reading my anecdote make you think of something in your class that is not going so well? Or did you think of something you wish you had time for in-class but you just can’t fit in and cover the required curriculum at the same time?

Are there Topics in your Course that could be Easily Flipped?

Good news! You could flip your course just for a few topics here and there. Next time you teach this course you’re considering flipping, have a few of your classes video recorded, either professionally or just with a screen recording tool like I mentioned earlier. Preferably choose a class that is very textbooky and has little dated material in (e.g. you’re not discussing something in the news that day, as that probably won’t be relevant in six months). Next time you teach the class, assign that video as homework, spend the first five minutes of the class giving a quiz over the video to ensure the students actually watch the video, then spend the rest of class doing the fun hands-on activity you’ve been dying to do!

Other Things to Consider

I have more important questions you should ask yourself before diving into flipping your course. Each of the following questions is important, but not important enough to have their own sections (I also try to keep the posts short and to the point):

  • Are you teaching with material that rarely changes? For example, the if statement in C++ is not going to change anytime soon, nor is logarithms in algebra. These class periods are great candidates for videos!
  • Is there a great active learning e-book you could use instead of a textbook? I’ve used zyBooks before in my CS1 course. This company has several STEM e-books with animations, self-check exercises, and challenge activities. Student progress is tracked with the system and downloadable as a CSV file that you can use for grading. You can flip your class without making videos if you assign reading from such an e-book before class. Just make sure you choose a good platform that your students are fans of too.
  • Are you likely to teach this class again in the near future? You want a good return on your time investment. Make sure you’re scheduled to teach this class again soon, otherwise it might not be worth spending a lot of time fully flipping it. Instead, consider making a few videos here and there instead.
  • Does your university have a center for teaching development/excellence or an online teaching office? If so, you probably have access to resources and mentors who can greatly help you flip your class. They might be able to come to your class and record your current lectures and maybe even help out with video editing. It doesn’t hurt to ask.
  • Are you excited about sprucing your class up with some tech? Students these days are super tech-savvy and they expect to use software to help them learn. Is your class stuck in the 90s and you’re ready to meet your students in the 2010s?

You might notice that I didn’t mention anything about, “Do you have the time?” I know time is hard to come by but I also know you’re a great teacher who wants what is best for his/her students. If you’re convinced flipping some or all of your class is in the best interest of your students, you will find the time to do it. Remember my call to action? Try swapping one lecture out with a video you make this weekend or this upcoming winter/summer break. Tell your students you’re doing an experiment and you want their feedback. They’ll let you know what is working and what isn’t if you ask them!

What about assigning videos for your students to watch that you didn’t make? YouTube and online learning platforms have lots of really great videos out there for you to link to. This is an option if you don’t have the time to make your own videos; however, I’m always wary of over assigning external videos. Students are paying tuition to learn from you, not from YouTube. Some students have a negative impression of flipped classrooms because they had a class one time where “the professor didn’t teach anything.” I imagine in these situations the class morphed into a patch-work online class because the instructor tried to outsource his/her job to YouTube. I always advocate for making your own original videos when possible.

If you’re interested, here are the videos I made for that CS1 course I was talking about: CPSC 121 YouTube Playlist. In a future post, I’ll go into detail about how I made them and advice I’d like to share what I’d do differently if I flipped a course again. By now I hope you have a better sense of whether of not flipping your class is right for you.

Remember my call to action, go try making a video right now! If nothing else, you’ll learn something how to use a new software tool,


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *