How to Effectively Induct Students into the Flipped Classroom Paradigm

The flipped classroom format is a type of blended learning where students are required to do some preparatory work – such as watching lecture videos or completing some assignments – before coming to a face-to-face class to work on more challenging problems with the facilitation of an instructor.

However, one challenge of teaching flipped classroom modules is that a big proportion of students often came to class unprepared. They either do not watch the lecture videos or they quickly skim through them before the tutorials. Thus they lack a proper understanding of the content. The tutorial ends up becoming a lecture where we go over the lecture content instead of challenging them to go further, as many students are unable to participate in the activities.

When I asked my students why this happens, the most common reason was their unfamiliarity with this new learning paradigm. Raised in the traditional classroom paradigm, almost all students are not used to the flipped classroom. They enrol with the expectation that they can learn more effectively in the presence of a live teacher, where they can pick up hints and clues on what they should be focusing on when they review the course materials. This way, they feel assured that they are “on the right track” when they revise the course materials on their own.

Limited Effectiveness of Quizzes

One of the most common solutions is to implement graded online quizzes that are due right before face-to-face classes. I experimented with this and found the effects quite limited. Quizzes alone are insufficient in inducting students to this new learning paradigm.

Also, students can score well at online quizzes but still retain many defects in their learning. I like to think of the flipped classroom as analogous to learning to drive by watching videos. It is not possible to drive well from watching videos alone. Quizzes are insufficient in testing or reinforcing their driving abilities. More needs to be done to facilitate the student’s learning. The student cannot know what he or she does not know until the student has had the experience of being on the road, so to speak.

The Benefits of Pre-Tutorial Discussions

Over the semesters, I have found that a really effective way to induct students into the flipped classroom paradigm and ensure higher levels of pre-class preparation. This is achieved by introducing the Pre-Tutorial Discussion – an open-ended assignment of 600 to 800 words – that is due before each tutorial.

Students are given a scenario and a problem to solve. The discussion invokes their imagination by inviting them to role play. For example, an assignment topic could be: “Imagine that you are an intern and your boss has tasked you with developing an algorithm to determine a delivery route for emergency medical supplies.”

Role playing is powerful because it invokes the student’s imagination, forcing them to step out of themselves and, for that moment, pretend to be someone else. This compels them to feel a strong vested interest to solve the problem to the best of their abilities as they can sympathise with the people they are tasked to help. Furthermore, the sense of accomplishment for completing the task is a lot greater, making the activity very satisfying (almost like playing a game).

The scenario is designed such that it requires students to creatively apply what they learn in the lectures. This compels students to ensure that their understanding goes beyond a superficial level of comprehension as they try to apply their theoretical learning into something practical (analogous to attempting to drive a car instead of having the idea of driving it). It helps students discover and rectify defects in their learning. Students have provided feedback on how this has helped them think more deeply about the course materials as they revise the lectures and quizzes, or seek clarifications from my teaching team.

The scenario is designed such that there is no one clear answer. Instead, there are a myriad of possible solutions. This point is emphasised by basing assignment grading not on getting the right answer (because there are many possible ones), but on the way they explicate their thought process to demonstrate reflective, self-critical awareness. This encourages students to experiment and explore various approaches before presenting what they think to be the best solution.

I inform students that tutorials are built on what they have done for the Pre-Tutorials. This sets expectations on what needs to be prepared before coming to class. And when students see what is expected of them in the Pre-Tutorials, they put in more effort in ensuring that they are well-prepared for the greater challenge that awaits them later.

The introduction of the Pre-Tutorial has been very effective in flipped classroom courses. With a well-designed Pre-Tutorial activity, I was able to get about 80% of my students to come to class well-prepared for the challenging tutorial activities in Semester 2 of Academic Year 2020/2021. This is compared with about 40% to 50% of students in the earlier semesters when I was still experimenting. As a result, we were able to take their learning a lot further in class.

More importantly, students provided feedback that the Pre-Tutorial Discussions have helped to induct them into the flipped classroom paradigm. This has helped them learn to become more independent learners as the discussions provided them with the structure to confidently pursue self-directed learning and exploration.

This article is part of a series of articles on pedagogical methods and education.

Do you have any advice for someone who doesn’t mind studying but hates doing assignments, especially when they are more difficult and outside my comfort zone?

A student asked:

Do you have any advice for someone who doesn’t mind studying but hates doing assignments, especially when they are more difficult and outside my comfort zone?

I think for starters, it will help to approach assignments with a less negative perspective. It’s not useful to think about whether you love or hate doing something. Telling yourself that you hate it just increases the disdain you have for the assignments. There are a lot of things that I don’t like doing (writing essays included), but I just resign myself to doing it because it’s beneficial to me (or other people). This is something I actively tell myself: that the mark of a responsible person is one who goes beyond one’s likes and dislikes to do the things that’s required of him/her.

Anyway, it’s important to recognise why assignments are painful. They’re painful because they challenge us to go beyond our existing state of being, to grow and develop intellectually, emotionally, and even socially. They’re what I call growing pains.

If there’s anything I learnt from my years of work, it’s this: the experts, the big names in academia and industry, all continue to struggle with this “pain.” It never gets easier the higher you go. Well, it’s easy when you do similar tasks as before, but it never gets easier because, if you want to go far in your career, you need to constantly improve yourself, to do more than what you are currently capable of. So it’s going to be decades of productive struggle that will mould and shape you into a better, more capable person, and one that I hope will make a big difference in this world! This is the way to greatness.

If you continue to shun away from difficulties or the struggles of work, you will deprive yourself of these opportunities for growth. So embrace the struggle and the difficulties that comes with your assignments. It’s training that will prepare you for the bigger challenge to come after graduation.

A hot cup of toffee nut latte on a cold rainy day

I love how Christmas is coming. Every year Starbucks will offer its special Christmas brew. I look forward to it every year.

A cup of toffee nut latte with its fragrant smell and taste brings me so much happiness. And especially on a cold rainy day, this drink is the perfect beverage to compliment the lovely chilly weather. MMMmmm…

I’ll be honest and say that I don’t particularly like the drink so much anymore now. I guess as one grows with age, one outgrows one’s liking for sweet drinks.

So why do I still drink it? Mainly, for the nostalgia, but also as an annual reminder for what it now represents.

This was the drink that has accompanied me for so many cold and rainy nights back in my undergraduate days, where at the end of the semester (well, at the end of every Semester 1) I’d spend several, almost-consecutive nights in a row, working overnight on campus to write papers after papers, until the sun rose at about 6+am (no kidding!).

It was the drink that in many ways, stayed beside me, sitting with me, keeping me up, keeping me going. The fact that it was a seasonal brew made it all the more special. It also, in a way, gave me something to look forward to at the time when assignments are aplenty, and where stress is high.

Now that I have graduated and don’t need undergo such academic toiling, this drink brings me lovely memories of the those times where I stayed up to write papers. While in some ways, I hated the experience, I still loved it for the kind of peace and quiet that I enjoyed. There’s something really wonderful about sitting in a dim room in the middle of the night, with a small desk lamp over your head, with another one or two other students working in the study room. Maybe it’s the combination of the lack of sleep, stress and the caffeine, but the experience of solitude as you think and write is magical… But I digress.

More significantly, this drink stands as a symbol of the silent companion who stands by your side, cheering you, giving you (mental) strength to keep going, to keep thinking, to keep writing. That you’re never alone even as you’re writing at 4am in the middle of the night, where everyone else is asleep.

That companion, who transforms and gives new meaning and understanding to the experience of the toil and suffering of work; transforming toil into toil-AND-pleasure, adding an element of joy – sips of joy full of flavour, stimulating your senses as if setting off a series of fireworks in your mind – with every small sip I took, as I wrote my papers with frustration.

Toil transformed into toil-and-pleasure.

It is a hopeful drink. It serves as a reminder of those moments, and how I overcame those moments year after year till graduation, with this simple seasonal drink.

To drink it once again, today, on a cold rainy day in December. A timely reminder. A comforting thought. A heartening sip.