Life of Learning
3:00 am
Mon April 28, 2014

Flipping The Classroom Turns Classwork, Homework Model On Its Head

Students in Susan Marino's junior physics class at Chartiers Valley High School learn in a "flipped classroom." They get their lessons at home and do the work in class.
Credit Deanna Garcia / 90.5 WESA

When you think back to your school days, or even if you’re still in school, you likely sat through numerous lectures, then went home and worked on math or science problems on your own.  

Now, some teachers, such as Sue Marino at Chartiers Valley High School, are turning the traditional notion of schoolwork and homework on its head by “flipping the classroom.”

As the school bell rings signaling the start of Marino’s junior physics class, the students get settled into their seats. Not to hear a lecture about physics — but to work out problems in class. That’s because Marino has already given them their lecture at home the night before.

“And then when they come in to class, what used to be their homework assignment, which in physics is mostly problems, they used to go home and do those at home on their own," Marino said. "Now when they come into school, they get into groups, and they’re able to work on what used to be their homework — but now it’s class work.”  

This Is A Flipped Classroom

Marino uses what’s called a “Smart Pen” that records her voice and what she is writing on a special piece of paper. The students then access what is called a “pencast” at home. It’s a .pdf file on which they see what she wrote and hear what she is saying.

“The way this is designed now, I’m able to help them,” Marino said. "They don’t have that take home homework anymore. They come into class, and they work with me, like they’ll ask me the questions and they’ll get all of their questions answered during class when I’m there to help them.”

The students themselves, overall, say they like the flipped classroom, though some say it does take getting used to.

I kind of like it,” Nick Calla said. “Sometimes it has its ups and downs. Sometimes it’s hard for me to learn from just a pencast whenever I don’t have a teacher there. Then again, I’ll come in with the information, and this way I get to do the homework in here when I have the chance to ask her questions about the homework instead of asking her questions about what I’m actually learning.” 

Drawing from past experience, Marino said that is key.

Teacher Susan Marino outlines a few key points before the students delve into physics problems. They got the full lesson at home via pencast.
Credit Deanna Garcia / 90.5 WESA

“During the lecture part of the class where I’m explaining something, there are rarely any questions, and if they would have a question now that they’re at home listening to my lectures, they can always ask at the beginning of class the next day,” she said.

Benefits Of Flipping

Marino has been teaching for more than 20 years and has been flipping the classroom for three. During that time, she has seen numerous benefits.

“Some students that normally would have dropped my class because they just could not do the work, they’re now able to take the class,” Marino said. "Some of the kids will say, ‘I have to watch those two or three times ...' I see more students are succeeding, and it’s a college-level physics course.”

It’s also been good for students’ emotional health.

“Kids used to come in, and they would be in tears, and they would say, ‘I looked at this. I spent two hours on this; I don’t know how to do it.' Two minutes with me now — I don’t get those emotional outbreaks anymore,” she said.

Mixed Reviews

One complaint about the classroom model came from student Julia Cipriani.

“I think it can be good, for like people who have the time when they go home, but I know a lot of us are involved in like the drill team and majorettes and the dance troupe and stuff, so we practice after school for a while then plus other after-school activities, and then you have to go home and sometimes watch like a 20-minute pencast, and it takes a lot of time, as opposed to where you have a 41-minute class period where you can actually learn it and spend 15 to 20 minutes on problems that night that don’t take as long," she said.

Other students see it differently.

“It’s actually beneficial because, I mean, she’s not asking much from us; she’s just asking us to watch a video. They’re usually under 10 minutes – so just watch the video, and you’ll be on top of things,” Ashley Riley said.

The videos can be up to about 20 minutes long, and they don’t expire. Once the lessons are available, they are available for the students to refer back to again and again. There is no mechanism in place to make sure the students actually watch pencasts at home but, mostly, the students do watch them.

“They learn quickly that if they want to do well, then need to watch them,”  Marino said.

Growing and Developing the Flipped Classroom Model

The flipped classroom model was developed in the 1990s and as technology has improved, so has the delivery. As a long-time educator Marino said the pencasts have made an impact.

“As we’ve changed through the years, different things came about and I would be like, ‘Wow, you can’t get any better than this,’” she said. "Like with the overhead projector and then the LCD, or I would teach from the back of the classroom using my air slate, and I’d think, 'Oh, this changed everything!' Nothing changed it for the students, for the instruction of the students, as much as flipping the classroom.”

But not all classrooms and schools can take advantage; students at Chartiers Valley High School have access that many larger districts do not. Each student is supplied with one school-issued laptop he or she can take home each night.

“Without that, I don’t think I could have done this,” Marino said. "Because I don’t think all students would have had access.”

And not all classes are built for the flipped classroom model.

“For my course - it doesn’t fit every course - but for my course, I can’t think of a better way of teaching the class,” she said. 

Alex Mosesso and Zach Davies working on physics problems in Marino's class.
Credit Deanna Garcia / 90.5 WESA

Student Zach Davies wants to be an engineer and said physics is a passion of his. He said he likes the concept of the flipped classroom, but he agreed with Marino that it’s not suited for every subject.

“Like I take AP Calculus ,and I think it would be absolutely great if my teacher was able to have pencasts because, obviously in advanced placement calculus there’s a lot of work behind it, and if he was able to take you step by step through each problem when he’s not there, that would definitely be helpful," Davies said. "But I would say like in a history class, there wouldn’t be a point to it other than, ‘read your book.'"

The students in Marino’s class said it’s the only one they have at the school using the flipped model, and while some complained, they are all focused and working hard on the day’s assigned problems while Marino walks from group to group answering questions. She said she is pleased with this model of teaching.

“No going back,” Marino said. “I can’t imagine. It has helped the students with their confidence level and their ability to do the physics, the higher level physics, whereas I don’t know how many of them, well, a portion of them would have succeeded, but now we’re bringing the other ones along that would not have been able to do it.”

Marino said former students have told her they continue to use the pencasts after leaving her class, some for help with their college courses. The flipped classroom trend is growing across the nation, and Marino said she’s seen interest grow among her colleagues as well.