In a flipped class, students’ first exposure to the material can be through multiple channels: reading a textbook, studying primary sources, watching a video created by the course instructor (including sections of previously recorded lectures), watching an extant video created by another expert, etc. Current technologies have broadened the types of media that an instructor can assign for students’ first exposure to the course content, but there is no requirement that a flipped classroom has to use technology or multimedia resources. For example, research by Deslauriers, et al. (2011) used short (3-4 pages) readings to expose students to the content they would need to know to participate in the in-class activities. At U-M, faculty are using a range of low-tech to high-tech options for the pre-class work they assign to their students. For example, Michael Witgen (History) has created a website that hosts or links to the primary sources students must examine before class, Tami Remington (Pharmacy) has students read sections from the course textbook, and Dana Muir (Business) has created videos of her narrating a slide presentation.
Regardless of the medium in which the first exposure is delivered, there are key components to an effective first exposure assignment:
- The quantity of the material is manageable for a student to complete between class meetings.
- The relative difficulty of the material is aligned with the goals of the course and is appropriate for the level of students in the course.
- The material is necessary for students to engage with the in-class activities.
- Students are held accountable for completing the pre-class work.
One of the greatest challenges for faculty new to the flipped classroom is assigning the “right” amount of pre-class work. It takes relative novices much longer to read a piece of literature than it does an expert, especially if the piece is heavy with jargon or technical terms. Even with video, in which it seems as if it is obvious how much time it will take someone to watch the video, instructors need to account for students watching videos at a slower speed (especially if the speaker speaks at a rapid pace or is not a particularly clear speaker, or if the student’s first language is not English), or watching the video multiple times to ensure they understand the material. It is helpful to account for any other assignments or “homework” the students are expected to complete when making a determination of how much pre-class work is assigned to students. Some instructors choose to convert all of the work that was “homework” in previous incarnations of the course into activities for the face-to-face class meetings, while other instructors decide that it is important for students to still have some “homework” that they complete outside of class and to extend learning beyond face-to-face sessions.
Designing the “right” pre-class work is often an iterative process. It is important to make it clear to students how much time you expect they will spend on their assignments prior to class and check-in periodically with them about how much time they are actually spending. Instructors also will need to make tough choices regarding syllabus content. If a particular reading is sufficient, one need not make an instructional video to accompany it, unless there is clear added value for the students (e.g., the instructor is modeling how an expert uses disciplinary skills to analyze the reading). Otherwise, the instructor may need to choose between the video and the reading, but not burden students (and themselves) with both. If an instructor adds something significant to the preparatory materials, something else might need to be removed from the syllabus to maintain feasibility for students.
When assigning pre-class work, it is critical for an instructor to align it, including the relative challenge of the material, with the goals of the class. If one of the learning goals for a course, for example, is that students learn how to engage with analyzing a primary source, the assigned pre-class work will need to require that of students. If the goal of the assignment is to make sure students have a basic vocabulary about and cursory understanding of the course content so that they can apply it during the in-class activities, the pre-class work can be a well digested summary of the basics without significant nuance so that students are focusing their efforts on mastering those basics; the nuances can be highlighted and explored in class.
One of the implicit goals of flipping a class is to enable your students to get a deeper understanding of the course content and to have the immediate support of the expert (the instructor) as they do the more cognitively demanding work of synthesis, application, and evaluation. In order to facilitate student participation, the most effective pre-class work will enable your students to build a foundation before they can move on to synthesizing and applying their new knowledge in the face-to-face class sessions. Students (and faculty) need to have confidence that students are ready to move on to more challenging tasks so it is critical to ensure that the preparation before class sets students up for success in the activities planned for the day.
Additionally, research on motivation (reviewed in Ambrose et al., 2011) shows that we all lose motivation to engage in an activity when there is not a clear purpose or value to the task. The link between the pre-class assignments and the in-class activities needs to be obvious to the students or made explicit so that students do not develop the impression that they can “get away with” not doing the pre-work and still get value from the face-to-face sessions. This clear alignment is the first stepping stone toward ensuring your students are accountable for completing the pre-work.