Flipping the Classroom

More professors are shunning the lecture and letting students do the talking.
August 6, 2012

After twelve years of teaching introductory and organic chemistry at Duke, Stephen Craig ’91 knows many of the most important moments in his students’ learning don’t happen in the classroom.

“They occur at 2:30 in the morning, in the commons room of their dormitory, probably the night before an exam,” laughs Craig, a professor and chair of chemistry. “It’s when students are trying to work through the material together.”

Last fall, Craig tried an experiment to see if he could capture more of that magic at a waking hour. He retooled his honors chemistry course, abandoning lectures and a single textbook to free up class time for interaction. Students were expected to bone up on the basics outside of class, using instructional materials, videos, and short segments of recorded lectures that Craig loaded onto the class’ website. Instead of listening to Craig drone on about the ideal gas law, they spent their class time working through problems in small groups, with Craig dropping in to nudge them along.

“It was a little unsettling at first to be in the room and not be talking,” he says. 


Chemistry on demand: One of Stephen Craig's video lectures. (Courtesy Stephen Craig)

While the lecture isn’t quite the bread-and-butter it once was, it’s still the dominant format of large survey courses like introductory chemistry, which in its various forms is taken by 700 Duke students each year. Often the sheer volume of material to be covered in such classes leaves professors feeling they have little time to engage students in discussion. But a glut of instructional material online—much of it free—has made it easier for professors to turn the task of mastering the basics over to students and devote time instead to synthesizing and applying knowledge.“But in the end, I got to know students at a different level intellectually and personally.” And that connection paid off: Although students in the class had identical test scores to those in a parallel course taught in the traditional format, they reported higher levels of confidence in their speaking and writing skills, and they appeared markedly better prepared to analyze alternative arguments, Craig says.

“It changes the focus of the interaction between a professor and student from just information transmittal to more of a process of shared discussion and discovery,” says Steve Nowicki, dean and vice provost for undergraduate education.

Nearly all of the classes at the Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore follow the team-based approach, sometimes referred to as a “flipped classroom” because it flips traditional notions of what happens in and outside of class. And more undergraduate classes are lined up to do the flip. This fall, public-policy associate professor Kathryn Whetten will teach an introductory course on global health in the format, and the economics departmen is exploring converting its three-course introductory sequence to center on team learning.

Meanwhile, Craig was sufficiently encouraged that this fall he will teach another, larger section of the honors course in the flipped format. And although he says he’ll miss the adrenaline rush of lecturing, that’s a trade he’s willing to make for better classroom chemistry.