Flipping Large Classes

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[Originally published by David Rieck on July 7, 2014]


I started flipping some of the content in my general chemistry class about three years ago. When I began, my classes typically had a maximum of 44 students, but recently I have had classes of 66 and on one occasion 88 students. (Our lectures increase in 22 student increments because that is the number of students per lab.  Thus, adding one more lab section to a class increases the lecture by 22.) While there are certainly some obstacles to flipping larger classes, some of which are out of the instructor’s control, I find that it is still a useful and effective instructional method.

In a flipped class, students watch the lecture on their own time, and then spend the class working problems in small groups. The students work through packets of problems progressing from very simple questions to more challenging problems.  The most significant difficulty I encounter in larger classes is making sure I give each group enough of my attention. With anywhere from 10 to more than 20 groups and a total class time that may be only 50 minutes, it becomes a mathematical certainty that some groups will get very little of my time. I am especially concerned that students might think they are doing things correctly when they are not, and they may continue working additional, more challenging problems when they have not mastered the basic concepts. Ultimately such students will run into trouble and they could end up confused and frustrated simply because I was not able to correct some simple errors or misconceptions before they advanced.

One way to minimize this particular issue is by using 
clickers. During class I monitor students’ progress on the packets and when it looks like most groups are finishing a section of problems, I display a similar problem as a clicker question. Groups who answer incorrectly either figure things out on their own, or ask for help before proceeding. Usually only a few groups need help, but this way I can target my attention where it is most needed.

The clicker questions definitely help, but I also discovered that fewer students need my help than I had anticipated. It seems that students not only work together within their own groups, but they are also usually very willing to help other groups nearby. I encourage this sort of 
inter-group association, and emphasize that this sharing of ideas and information is part of how science is really done – science is much more of a social endeavor than most people realize. 

A few other difficulties are beyond my control so I just work around them as well as I can. For example, large classes are almost always in lecture rooms that are not designed for group work. It can be hard to get to groups in the middle of seating sections, but students seem to enjoy watching me climb over rows of desks to reach them when they need help.

The obstacles I encounter flipping larger classes definitely change how class operates. Most obstacles can be minimized, and others just need to be dealt with as well as possible. In the end, however, even though it is different from a small class environment, I find classroom flipping to be effective, engaging and actually more fun than a traditional lecture.

About the Author
I am a Professor of Chemistry at Salisbury University where I have been teaching since 1987. I teach primarily general chemistry, inorganic chemistry, and physical science for non-science majors. Over the years, however, I have also taught organic chemistry, instrumental analysis, and physical chemistry. I received my Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison where I studied the organometallic chemistry of metal cluster compounds. For the past few years I have been incorporating a variety of instructional methods in my classes. In particular, I have spent quite a bit of time developing materials for flipping general chemistry classes. I continue to develop new materials, but I am now also exploring ways to gather quantitative data to assess the effectiveness of class flipping. Besides teaching chemistry at Salisbury University, I periodically conduct workshops for regional elementary and middle school teachers. In these workshops we focus on giving the teachers a deeper understanding of physical science content so that they can be more confident and comfortable teaching science in their classes. Outside of chemistry I spend time with my wife chasing after our dogs, and I enjoy hiking, running, and curling. Yes, curling.