The price that students and faculty pay for flipping a classroom

McCallum (SMU)
McCallum (SMU)

For all the talk of the benefits of flipped classrooms, I realized one drawback -- if you want to call it that -- during a recent interview with a St. Mary's University of Minnesota student and professor:

They're a heck of a lot of work.

In flipped classrooms, the timing of the lecture is turned around. Students usually watch a recorded lecture by the professor at home first and do some reading before they meet for class.

Class time is reserved for review, questions and exercises that apply what students have learned. Advocates of the technique say it makes class time more efficient and improves students' comprehension.

Associate business professor Shelly McCallum was one of the professors who flipped classes last spring. She said students expressed in focus groups how the technique had greatly improved their note-taking and studying.

But she says those same students expressed reservations about the workload:

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"It was universal that that was one of the negatives -- that students had to put a lot more time and effort into the class."

McCallum told me:

"They felt a lot of pressure to be prepared for class. You couldn't just sit and talk about the concepts. You had to figure out how to put them into practice."

Some faculty stand by the adage that a student should put in three hours of homework for every hour of class. McCallum said this new structure doesn't change that.

But the workload prompted students to wonder how many flipped classes they could handle, she recalled. (Even Erik Qvale, the student I interviewed who found that flipped classrooms really helped his style of learning, said he wasn't sure how many he could.)

They did recognize the benefits of the new routine: more control over the viewing pace of the videotaped lecture, better notes, better comprehension and a more interesting time in class.

But McCallum concluded:

"I don't know if they really are mindful enough to see that those dots connect."

Much like the University of Minnesota's experiment in massive, open online courses (MOOCs), St. Mary's endeavor consumed a lot of professors' time as well.

McCallum said:

"It was a tremendous amount of work. It's a decent investment [of time] to prep any class. This didn't double my work, but it was pretty close to that."

(A U of M professor has noticed the increased workload as well.)

McCallum said faculty must prepare the videotaped lecture, which is different from a standard lecture. She said the recorded lectures are generally shorter, more focused, with a more potent delivery.

Professors must post the videos a few days before class, and then prepare a set of class activities that are tied to the material.

She told me:

"You could probably rerun the lecture pieces [each semester], but I think there's something more valuable to have it customized. The group feels that you're talking to them -- and not to a previous semester -- [when you] mention particular days or something particular that's going on such as the discussion we had last class. So I'd redo those lectures each time."

I asked McCallum whether she'd be able to teach multiple flipped classrooms.

She told me:

"I'd like to say yes, but it depends on the load. It would be definitely a workout, and I'd have to stagger them in [by adding a new one each semester]."