Flipping a History Classroom (Steve Volk, Oberlin)

Steve Volk
Professor of History, Emeritus and Director, Center for Teaching Innovation and Excellence,
Oberlin College

Some years ago, encouraged by the emerging literature regarding the “flipped classroom,” and particularly after having read about Eric Mazur’s work at Harvard, I thought (both naively and impulsively, as is my wont): why not try this for my lecture-formatted classes? I started with my survey of Latin American history and prepared videos to replace the bulk of the lectures (i.e., about 30+ per semester x two semesters), then moved on to replace those classes where I lectured more irregularly in intermediate-level classes (about 20 more). Each semester, I would update the videos where I could, or replace whole lectures if I thought that was necessary or unavoidable. I continued this until I retired at the end of the 2015-16 year (a retirement perhaps brought on by all this work???)

Here are some brief observations on the experience for those who may be interested in adopting the “flipped” experience, with a particular relevance to the history classroom:

  1. As many have pointed out, “flipping” a classroom implies moving “content-delivery” (those parts of the class that can purposefully be delivered to the entire group) outside of class time and replacing it with the kinds of exercises (formerly known as “homework”) that are often best accomplished collectively. The practice doesn’t require videos, although that’s what many do, including myself.
  2. I decided on videos because of the nature of my discipline, history. What historians as either teachers or scholars provide are our own reasoned narratives to explain/analyze/interpret historical events. Give up that narrative, and you might as well just assign a textbook. If I were to give up my classroom lectures, the only place to provide my own narrative would be in videos, I reasoned.
  3. Videos are hard to produce. Strike that: Good videos, with production values that don’t make the viewers want to gouge out their eyes, are hard to do. They are time consuming (a 25-minute video would take me about 8 hours to make), require learning a new set of skills (which I don’t regret), and can truly get in the way of everything else one has to do that week. To do a weeks’ worth of videos would take me the entire weekend, from early morning to late evening. (I remember one public comment left on Vimeo about one of my videos that suggested that it was the worst thing he ever had witnessed and that I should be locked up before subjecting anyone to anything like that again.)
  4. To boil down a 50-minute lecture into a 20-25 minute video (which, really, should have been more on the 15-20 minute order of things) required an essential “pruning” that all lecturers actually should be forced through: What is really essential that we want to communicate in a class session? One is required to think, metaphorically, of those things we would take on a journey if we only could take a small bag. When you’re forced to pack the essentials, a lot will be left behind. Sometimes you discover you have left your pajamas behind and you really could have used them; most often you find that you didn’t need that extra pairs of socks.
  5. It takes students a while to get into the rhythm of watching videos as a way of absorbing class content. If video-viewing is simply added on to the workload of the course, you could run into trouble; best is to trim something else. I posted all my videos on a public-access Vimeo account (more on this in a minute), which turned out daily statistics on usage. After a few weeks, I saw that the number of “viewers” was declining, and I asked my students what was going on (with more than a hint of annoyance in my voice). I discovered that they had begun to watch the videos in groups (so it would only record one “viewer”), which, of course, was excellent.
  6. Class discussions were based on an expectation that the students had watched the videos outside of class. To insure some kind of compliance, prior to forming discussion groups in class, I would ask those who had watched the videos to raise their hands and then to form into groups. I would then ask those who hadn’t raised their hands to wait until the groups were formed before joining one. The approach had two objectives: 1) to make sure that students who joined the groups after the others were recognized as not having watched the videos and therefore couldn’t “hijack” the discussion based on not having done the work – which can often happen in discussion groups; and 2) to add a bit of pressure to insure that the students would do the required out-of-class work. Did this work perfectly and all the time? No, but it did help.

So, what were the results? Hard to say in terms of student learning since I didn’t set up an experimental design to measure this. I only teach one section of all my classes, so couldn’t run parallel classes in the same semester and measure learning outcomes, nor did I do a week of videos, followed by a week of lectures, and try to measure student learning differences between the weeks. So many other variables were involved that it didn’t seem reasonable to even attempt this.

But here’s what I observed and what students said in their end-of-semester evaluations:

  1. From my perspective, they were more engaged in the class; the better I set up the discussions, the higher the level of engagement, the more people were involved. And this happened every class.
  2. Based on the discussions in class, I could more easily discover which conceptual elements were in need of more attention and then address them in a mini-lecture.
  3. Not all the students “liked” the videos, but most students in end-of-semester evaluations found them useful. Those who didn’t like them, really didn’t like them.
  4. In terms of my own teaching, I couldn’t have been more pleased by the switch. By dumping 20-years of lectures, I was forced to rethink my goals and objectives in each class. I found teaching to become much more engaging. I described every class as being on a trapeze without a safety net. Lectures based on notes – even if refreshed each year, even if engaging, and I think mine were – are actually very safe; teaching a flipped class meant that I really didn’t know what would happen in each class, and that was wonderful.

And, finally, some advice for those interested in flipping:

  1. Go slowly. Attempting to flip an entire class with video content (or other content) almost did me in. Try a few weeks or a section first, see how it goes, and proceed from there. Understand what you’re getting involved in.
  2. Get all the technical help you can from your AV and Ed Tech folks. I did all my videos by myself at home. Sound design? Ken Burns? Yikes! One of my big mistakes in the first iteration was to cement the sound track and image track together; that meant that when I wanted to update or add new content, I couldn’t easily “break into” the single file, but rather had to do the whole thing over. Bottom line: talk it over with people who know what they are doing.
  3. Don’t necessarily think of videos in terms of flipping – there are other ways to deliver content. But if you do use videos, consider how you want to distribute them. I am a huge believer in open content access. Everything I do goes onto public sites and is available for everyone to use, steal, download, etc. I’m fine with that – not everyone will be, particularly if you’re not tenured and don’t want someone else taking credit for what you have done. But, because I post online, it means I also get into conversations with lots of people who view and use my materials, and that’s been very productive.
  4. Think of the ways you’ll assess this experiment, both for your self-reflection and to understand if the switch makes a difference in terms of student engagement or learning. This may not involve a true experimental design, but there are other methods of authentic assessment of your work that you can use.
  5. Share your experiences with your colleagues.

Written by