Flipping out: What it's like in a “backwards” classroom

Organic chemistry is the worst.

Or so I thought.

Going into my second year, I was downright terrified of Chemistry (CHEM) 233, UBC’s introductory organic chemistry class. But as a current CHEM 233 student, I think that its reputation as incredibly difficult is more myth than reality.

CHEM 233 deserved that reputation in the past. Just 10 years ago, it had failure rates of up to 30 per cent and the average grade was in the 50s. However, UBC professors have worked to improve the course and today, it has failure rates around 16 per cent and class averages are typically around 65 per cent, comparable to that of other second-year science courses. 

There have been many changes to get CHEM 233 to where it is now, one of them being adopting the flipped classroom model. This switch in classroom pedagogy was inspired by current-day educational research — research that has been saying, for some time now, that traditional lectures are outdated and ineffective in comparison to newer, active style classrooms where students are more engaged with their learning. 

What is a flipped classroom? 

Dr. Jackie Stewart, a UBC chemistry professor involved in the switch, describes it as “where the transmission of content happens outside of class, before class, and then class time is where we use and apply the content.” 

For CHEM 233, the structure of the flipped classroom consists of two parts. Before class, students are assigned to watch and take notes on one or two short videos, as well as a worksheet and bridge assignment — a short set of problems meant to review the concepts that the video covered. Then, instead of a lecture, class time is spent reviewing the bridge assignment and working on the worksheet problems.

By spending class time on problem solving, the proposed benefit of this model is that when students are really struggling with problems, a teacher is there to help. Stewart hopes that in the ideal scenario, teaching this way will reduce the cramming students have to do before exams because it requires them to keep up with material, and leads to a deeper understanding of the concepts. 

Do flipped classrooms actually help? 

CHEM 233 was flipped in 2013, and although the switch was not intended to test the efficacy of flipped classrooms, slight changes were observed between 2012 and 2013 in student performance. 

Comparison of final exam results and chemistry learning attitude surveys showed similar results between 2012 and 2013. 

“Everyone hopes to see a 5 or 10 per cent improvement. I think that what we see is that sometimes in large education studies, even three or four per cent is kind of huge on such a big scale,” said Stewart.

chart created with amCharts | amCharts

What do students think about the change?

In general, CHEM 233 students liked the flipped classroom — at least in theory. 

Students’ main critique was that not all of the videos available are useful. Many students felt that the videos didn’t always provide enough information on the topic, and found themselves having to go to other sources to fully understand the concept.

“I don’t really know if [the flipped classroom] has been helpful or not, but I know I’ve never done this well in a university chemistry course,” said Navid Saleh, a CHEM 233 student. “[I’ve] gotten into a nice rhythm where I watch the videos at my own pace, make sure I have the basic concept down with some practice and by the time I get to class, I already have an idea of what is going on.” 

What needs to happen for flipped classrooms to work (better)?

A key factor in flipped classrooms working well is that students must be proactive in their learning. 

“A lot of things have to work together, so if a piece falls out and if students are too busy to watch the videos, then it all kind of crumbles — which is a definite challenge,” said Stewart. 

Even though students do active learning in class, they still have to prepare for it. Ultimately, there’s nothing instructors can do to make learning simple and easy. No matter the teaching style, students still have to put in the work.

“Just because people implement a pedagogy, doesn’t necessarily mean that we are implementing it well,” said Stewart. 

She said that there is still a lot of room for improvement and work to be done such as aligning the videos more to the learning objectives, making the worksheets more helpful or even, in the future, creating a more comprehensive resource for students. This could be something like a workbook that includes several problems and text specifically for the course, similar to the one used in CHEM 121.

Despite room for improvement, Stewart said that she will never go back to just lecturing. 

Students should prepare to see more flipped classrooms. Future UBC Okanagan (UBCO) first-year science students will be learning chemistry in a flipped classroom setting in the coming year.

chart created with amCharts | amCharts

Flipping UBCO

The initiative at UBCO to flip first-year chemistry classes is being led by chemistry professors Dr. Stephen McNeil and Dr. Tamara Freeman, who plan to start in the following school year. Their development of the new course model is based on literature on flipped classrooms, as well as conversations with chemistry professors at UBC and across the country. Discussions with professors in UBC’s chemistry department regarding which classes are flipped — and what is or isn’t working — helped McNeil and Freeman feel prepared coming into the switch, knowing about the difficulties involved with flipped classroom development and how, if implemented correctly, they can be successful. 

The flipped classrooms at UBCO won’t be exactly the same as those at UBC. McNeil and Freeman said that only about 40 per cent of their class will be flipped, as they plan on teaching only particular concepts as flipped. Other differences to the way that CHEM 233 is taught will include group work and inquiry-based projects.

Something many institutions struggle with is creating long-term change. Often, one professor will change the way they teach, but this change won’t stick around after the professors leaves. What McNeil and Freeman would like to do is prevent this from happening by developing their flipped class course into a pre-packaged form. If an instructor is interested in trying flipped classrooms out, the resources are already available, saving professors time and energy which might have prevented them from trying it out in the first place. 

McNeil, Freeman, Stewart and all others involved in teaching flipped classrooms at UBC are acting as enzymes catalyzing the shift from lectures to flipped classrooms. 

What does this mean for the future of science teaching?

It would look like the days of traditional lectures may be reaching their end. The growing body of literature supporting more active learning, along with UBC’s positive experience with flipping CHEM 233 and UBCO’s future plans, indicate that flipped classrooms are here to stay. 

Meanwhile, I’m glad that CHEM 233 is taught the flipped way — it’s made my learning of organic chemistry a more organic process.

The data from the graphs is available here.