Managing time in flipped learning

Managing time in flipped learning

The article below originally appeared in the Faculty Focus newsletter on March 25, 2019. Here it is in its entirety; at the end, I'll add some new information to this article that appeared in the webinar I did on this subject last week.

In a flipped learning model of teaching, students get first contact with new ideas not during class time but in structured independent activities done prior to class time. This frees up class time to be used for more active work, digging more deeply into advanced ideas. This inversion of the use of time is a key difference between the flipped and traditional models of instruction—and when instructors flip, it brings up issues about time management for both instructors and students that require special attention.

Let’s take a look at three specific questions about time management that often arise when planning and teaching a flipped course.

1. How can instructors best manage time when building a flipped course for the first time? Preparing a flipped learning environment, especially if you’ve never done it before, is complex and time-consuming. It requires detailed enumeration of learning objectives, careful planning and sequencing of activities, and (especially) the creation of high-quality materials for students to learn with outside of class. Flipped learning doesn’t require the use of video, but many flipped learning instructors do use video, and this alone can be immensely time-consuming even if you are just curating existing content rather than creating it.

The best way to manage time in preparing for a flipped course is to make sure you start early, so you have plenty of time to manage. I recommend starting one calendar year out from the start of the class you intend to flip. Assuming that class is in the fall term, here’s how this might look:

  • In the fall term one year before, focus on building good habits of active learning in the classes you teach. Start by using simple classroom activities and frequent low-stakes formative assessments to gauge student learning and guide instruction. Also try to completely flip a couple class meetings during that semester to get the flavor of how it works, and take notes and gather student feedback on how it went.
  • In the spring term, keep doing all of the above, and flip the last one-third to one-half of the course. Building up to these flipped lessons by gradually releasing responsibility to students will ease the students into it.
  • During the summer, go to work on the fully-flipped class: Decide on the learning objectives, sequence the activities for the class, and prepare the materials up to about one month into the term. This way you won’t be scrambling to finish the materials for week 2 during week 1.

By giving yourself breathing room and having a plan for building your learning environment, you’ll avoid stress and make the transition to flipped learning in a calm and orderly manner.

2. How can instructors best manage time while teaching a flipped course?What makes flipped learning truly effective is its focus on using class time almost exclusively for active work on advanced ideas. But a lot can go wrong during that time: What if students don’t come prepared? What if the in-class activity takes too long?

The key to managing flipped instructional time well and avoiding in-class disasters is in the learning objectives you set for your lesson. It’s well known that writing good learning objectives benefits students in a number of ways. Having good learning objectives anchors student activities and provides boundaries within which students can focus their efforts, and it makes the use of time in class more purposeful.

The above is true for any class, flipped or otherwise. But in a flipped setting, the learning objectives become even more useful when you divide them up. Once you’ve made your list of learning objectives, split the list into the objectives that students can learn in their pre-class activities (the “basic” objectives) and the the ones they will learn during and after class (the “advanced” objectives). Basic objectives are those that live on the lower two levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy—recall of simple facts and explanation or categorization of basic concepts. In a flipped learning environment, students learn those objectives through their pre-class work and not during class time. Class time, instead, is focused on the middle third of Bloom’s Taxonomy—applying basic knowledge to new ideas and drawing connections among ideas. Class time is not to be used on re-teaching the basics, just like pre-class time is not to be used on advanced ideas.

This division of labor provides useful constraints on how time should be used both before and during class. By restricting pre-class work to just the basics, students are given work that they can be reasonably expected to complete, along with permission not to fully understand the advanced material yet. Likewise, by insisting that class time only be focused on higher-level concepts, time isn’t wasted on redoing something students did before class.

3: How can we help students manage their time effectively while they are taking a flipped course? Finally, we should always remember that the purpose of flipped learning is to improve student learning, and students are our partners in this process. But flipping a class changes the rules of engagement for learning, and students need our help in navigating this new environment. Here are two things we can do:

  1. Make expectations clear. Instructors can help by giving clear explanations of expectations for student work, the outcomes of that work, and why they are doing that work. Writing clear learning objectives and splitting that list into basic and advanced objectives as we described above is one way to do this; it tells students what they can expect to learn and when they can expect to learn it. We should also have conversations, early and often, in which we talk with students about what their roles are in a flipped environment and what our roles are, as well as the reasons why the class is flipped in the first place.
  2. Make a calendar with suggested activities on each day. Although students sometimes say flipped classes are too much work outside of class, a recent study indicates that students in flipped environment don’t work any more outside of class than students in a traditional environment. What matters is how that time is used, and students often need pointers in how best to use that time. In my classes, students get a biweekly calendar that gives recommended study plans for each day. Here’s an example from a recent class. This reinforces the expectations for out-of-class work while promoting healthy work-life balance (it includes scheduled breaks and arranges work so that students don’t need to work on the weekends).

Learning to manage time well, itself takes time. But the payoffs go well beyond the classroom. Having a more organized, orderly course design helps students, particularly those who need help the most, and it makes the path clearer to a truly transformative learning experience.

Here are a couple of additional thoughts on this article that happened after I wrote it, especially during the webinar:

  • David Allen makes this great point in his book Making It All Work that there's really no such thing as time management. We cannot "manage" time in the sense of creating it, destroying it, or making it run faster or slower. Instead what we manage is ourselves, and how we focus our attention on things that happen to us in the moment. So when we talk about managing time in any classroom situation, what we really mean is managing our plans and our attention to what's happening as those plans meet reality.
  • Someone asked on the discussion thread, what do you have students do during the time in class? I responded with an idea that came to me recently: Just as we can use Bloom's Taxonomy to map out good learning objectives, the Bloom pyramid is also a kind of roadmap for how to use pre-, in-, and post-class activities in a flipped environment. Namely: The pre-class work should focus on the bottom 1/3 of Bloom's Taxonomy ("Understand" and "Remember"), class time focuses on the middle 1/3 ("Analyze" and "Apply"), and post-class work on the top 1/3 ("Evaluate" and "Create"). In flipped learning, students encounter new ideas for the first time in their individual spaces before group activities, and that's best focused on the simplest tasks, hence the bottom 1/3. Then, crucially, we trust students to learn those things and then focus class time on building upon them — the middle 1/3. Then we address the highest level tasks after class, since these often take up more time and space than 50-75 minutes allows. By dividing up work like this and hardening the edges on the kinds of work you will and won't address in each context – i.e. don't spend time in class on basics, and don't put lots of advanced tasks in the students' pre-class first-contact work – you end up with both focus and perspective in each phase. And the combination of focus and perspective (another David Allen/GTD idea) is the master key to anything we call "time management".  
Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.