University of Vermont

UVM Flips for New Pedagogy

classroom with students using i-clickers
I-clickers, hand-held devices resembling remote controls, let professors like Laura Hill Bermingham gauge how students are faring in her class in real time -- and change her teaching tactics accordingly. (Photo Sally McCay)

Laura Hill Bermingham is introducing the students in her BCOR 12 class to animal physiology, the subject of the intro bio course's second half, and she’s hammering home the biological axiom that form follows function.

The immense ears of the desert-dwelling jack rabbit are big for a reason; they house a vast network of blood vessels that regulate its temperature during scorching days and frigid nights. Tuna, penguins, and seals, from three different animal classes, all have tapered “fusiform” shapes -- the better to rocket through the watery deep. Villi in the small intestines of animals use plant-like branched and folded shapes to increase their surface area and better absorb nutrients.

The thematic single-mindedness might seem obsessive, but it's actually the product of an innovative pedagogical style -- called "Just in Time Teaching" -- championed at UVM by Hill Bermingham, a lecturer in the Plant Biology Department who team teaches several courses in the integrated biological science major.

As part of the homework assignment for today’s class, students completed a short assignment on their reading that asked them to identify the four types of animal tissue and to elaborate on one. While most students got the tissue types right, their longer answers demonstrated -- via the course’s Blackboard site, which Hill Bermingham checked before class -- their shaky appreciation of the link between structure and function in animal biology.

Voila, Hill Bermingham had a theme she would modify her lecture notes to stress -- just in time for today’s class.  

Flipped out

It looks normal enough, but Hill Bermingham is actually presiding over a “flipped classroom,” where both in- and out-of-class learning take on a new complexion. Students absorb information outside of class that’s traditionally delivered in a lecture, often via multi-media content designed to keep them engaged and with graded assignments to keep them on track. Class time is used to promote just-in-time interactive learning, with lectures interrupted by frequent concept tests students answer with i-clickers, breaks for student-to-student peer instruction, and desk-side visits by professors to help struggling students, even in large classes.

“There are a number of studies, including ones funded by National Science Foundation and other federal agencies, that have tested specific models and techniques and demonstrated the effectiveness of these methods,” says  J. Dickinson, anthropology professor and director of UVM’s Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), which has embraced the pedagogy. 

The hard way

Hill Bermingham learned about the shortcomings of the traditional lecture the hard way. After she was hired as a full-time lecturer in the fall of 2009, she spent four semesters teaching the way she had been taught, loading her lectures with details she assumed students would absorb. But something was missing. “It didn’t seem like students were engaged,” Hill Bermingham says. “I quickly realized that it was an unfulfilling experience for everyone involved.” 

She made incremental improvements after her especially difficult first semester and achieved a modicum of comfort in the classroom. Then good luck struck. Plant Biology Chair Dave Barrington tapped Hill Bermingham to reinvent the department’s 150-student-plus genetics class, a failing enterprise that historically had received dismal student evaluations. 

In researching how the class could be reconceived, Hill Bermingham discovered the work of Eric Mazur, a Harvard physics professor who pioneered many of the flipped classroom pedagogies, notably peer learning, and had produced an interactive DVD Hill Bermingham found inspiring. Using Mazur’s principles, she spent the summer developing flipped lesson plans not only for the genetics class, but also her intro biology classes.

“It was a revelation,” she says of teaching the revamped classes that fall. “Students really responded well. The classes wouldn’t have gone nearly as well without these methods.”

Agony to ecstasy

Barrington was ecstatic. Dickinson became aware of Hill Bermingham’s work though a resource group for faculty teaching first year students co-organized by the CTL and the Writing in the Disciplines program. She was intrigued enough to ask her to present on her experiences during a multi-day workshop for faculty teaching large-enrollment courses in the summer of 2012. The faculty response was enthusiastic, and to follow up, the CTL has already offered a half-day workshop twice this year. Nearly 65 faculty have participated in these workshops and others sponsored by the CTL that conveyed elements of the flipped approach. 

“The traditional way of lecturing is that you have an assigned reading you expect your students to have read and synthesized and to come in with stimulating questions,” Hill Bermingham says. “But often students simply don’t do the reading, so you have to give them some sort of incentive to do it and think critically about what they read.” Hill Bermingham does that by assigning a weekly graded test, which often includes interactive animation, on the homework reading. The aggregate score of all the tests is equal to one exam grade.

That’s a big part of the flipped technique, “just getting students prepared for the lecture,” she says. “But the other, I think bigger, part is the opportunity you have in the classroom to create a feedback loop, so you’re not just there to deliver information but to both deliver information and gauge whether students are actually understanding it and conceptualizing it and, if not, backing up and doing it again in a different way.”

Dickinson stresses that, to be effective, the pedogy must be well implemented. In addition to the workshops, the CTL makes available numerous resources on the technique, including the Mazur DVD that hooked Hill Bermingham. “Flipped classroom should not be seen as simply a case of students learning from videos or online materials,” she says. “It is really about using technology to support effective use of face-to-face class time by faculty. For a flipped classroom to work, faculty really need to be present, dynamic, and responsive to the information they are getting about students' understanding of the course materials."