Innovative Teaching Engages Students

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A growing number of UMass Lowell faculty members are embracing innovative teaching methods like the flipped classroom to promote active learning.

By Jill Gambon

Javier Horta, who teaches physiological and organic chemistry in the College of Health Sciences, believes classroom time offers students precious opportunities to apply the concepts they are learning to address real-world health problems. 

So, to optimize learning, Horta decided to try a new approach in a lab class last fall. He recorded his lectures and posted them online for students to view as homework, freeing up class time for discussions and hands-on assignments.

Class Becomes an Experience

“Students have to be active participants,” says Horta. “This teaching model supports experiential learning. Students come into the classroom to have an experience, rather than just absorb data.”

Horta is using a teaching method known as the “flipped” or “inverted” classroom, an approach that leverages instructional technology so professors can record and post lectures and related material online, and emphasizes participation and problem-solving in class.

“This allows students to focus on the application of the concepts they are learning,” says Horta. 

As a first step, Horta recorded audio of his pre-lab introductory lectures along with the related PowerPoint slides and posted the material on the Blackboard learning management platform. 

“We could devote more class time to discussing examples and students could spend more time in the lab,” says Horta.

Interest in using methods like the flipped classroom is growing among faculty members as they seek to create opportunities for experiential and collaborative learning. Nationally, there is a growing body of research from such institutions as San Jose State University and Vanderbilt University that points to improved learning outcomes in flipped classrooms.

“It’s a great way to do team-based learning,” says Assoc. Prof. of Nursing Lisa Abdallah who tried the flipped classroom approach in her Nursing Assessment class.

To evaluate how it would work, Abdallah incorporated the flipped model halfway through the semester. For the first seven weeks, she presented the material in the traditional format, and for the following seven she had students watch recorded lectures outside of class. Class time was devoted to collaboration and interaction and featured group discussions and case studies.

“Students gave me great feedback,” says Abdallah. “They like active learning.”

Abdallah used multiple-choice quizzes with answer forms that look like scratch tickets to assess students’ grasp of their assignments. She developed the questions and would pose them in class. Students would then take out coins and scratch the responses to see if they had the correct answer. Abdallah says the quizzes were an effective tool in measuring students’ mastery of the material and fostering interaction in class.

“The quizzes were a hit. The students know immediately if they’ve got the right answer,” she says.

Abdallah and other researchers are pursuing a grant that would fund further research on the effectiveness of the flipped classroom model.

Support for Active Learning

The University is putting in place everything from desks and chairs on wheels to the software and hardware needed to make course materials available online to support active-learning classrooms.

To date, about a dozen faculty members have tried the flipped method, says Mike Lucas, director of instructional technology services. With Echo360 lecture capture technology installed in more than 80 classrooms across campus, more faculty members are recording their lectures and posting them online. During the 2012-2013 academic year, 240 courses were recorded and were viewed 98,000 times, according to Lucas.

New furniture is making it easier to reconfigure classrooms for the student interaction that results in a flipped class. Desks and chairs purchased for classrooms in the Health and Social Sciences Building, the soon-to-open Riverview Suites residence hall and other buildings are equipped with wheels so they can be easily moved to accommodate students working in groups.

“We wanted furniture that would enable active learning and collaboration and also the flexibility to have a traditional classroom,” says Marg Dion, a project manager in Facilities Planning and Management who oversaw the furniture selection.

In August, Horta will lead a faculty development technology workshop on the flipped classroom for faculty members who want to learn more about implementing the model in their courses.