David Marcey decided to mix things up in his biology classes last fall.
The professor at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, Calif., decided he wouldn't lecture in class anymore. Instead, he put his lectures on YouTube so students could listen to them whenever they liked.
In the meantime, his students worked on activities in class, usually in groups. One time, they built a model of a molecule.
Marcey's theory: Students will learn more if they're actively involved in what they're learning, rather than sitting passively and taking notes.
His approach-- called "flipping the classroom" --is catching on nationwide. The University of Texas at Austin even offered a class on flipping recently, to help professors understand the technique, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Flipping the classroom approaches vary, but students generally are required to take more responsibility for what they learn. That can be challenging, students say.
Priscilla Clough, 26, put off taking a biochemistry class at California State University Channel Islands in Camarillo because she knew it was flipped.
"I was a little intimidated," Clough said. "I thought the videos outside of class would take a lot of time. I wondered if I could keep up, if I could contribute. You're really accountable."
Blake Gillespie, the chemistry professor who teaches the class, has flipped two of the three courses he's teaching this semester. In his biochemistry course, students watch video lectures outside class and read research papers and their textbook. In class, they engage in activities, usually problems based on the research papers.
Gillespie takes a similar approach in his "Chemistry of the Kitchen" class, trying to get students to see science as not just a series of facts to memorize.
"There isn't a truth we can glean from a book somewhere," Gillespie said. "We're handing it over to the students, telling them, 'You are the person who's assembling the knowledge.' "
James Ball, 22, is taking the biochemistry class after experiencing another flipped class taught by Gillespie. Ball and Clough said they appreciate learning from their peers, who sometimes explain things more clearly during activities than professors do in lectures.
"Once you get over the shock, you get a lot more out of the materials," Ball said.
Like the scientist he is, Marcey developed an experiment to find out whether students actually learn better in a flipped classroom. He was teaching two sections of the same class. He taught one class in the traditional way, lecturing in the classroom and assigning homework for outside class. He flipped that approach in the other section, having students watch video lectures at home and do activities in class.
He found the students in the flipped class were doing better on quizzes and tests.
But then the experiment hit a bump. The students in the traditional class heard about the videos and started watching them. And their grades improved.
"The differences in test scores disappeared," Marcey said.
He thought initially that classroom flipping might be a new technique, but soon learned that it's become increasingly popular nationwide.
Not everyone is convinced, though. Students, especially, can resist the approach because they're accustomed to lectures, said Ed Nuhfer, a Channel Islands professor and faculty developer who is teaching a class in critical thinking.
"You have to work them into it gradually," Nuhfer said. "You get students coming in, expecting to be lectured to. ... They think of (education) as: I sit, you talk, and I write it down."
Professors, especially those without tenure, may be uneasy about trying something so different. And technology and innovation alone won't make the flipped classroom engaging.
But Gillespie and other professors say they're committed to the approach.
"We're trying to introduce to them all the big questions of biology," Gillespie said. "When we just talk to them, it's killing it. Freeing up the classroom allows you to bring it to life."
Copyright 2012 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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