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LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — Granted, it was only their second day in the class. But students in professor Susan Williams' afternoon Material and Energy Balances section at Kansas University were still warming up to the newfangled format of their 158-person "lecture" course.
After the second problem of the day was displayed, students spoke to their neighbors in whispers, the Lawrence Journal-World (http://bit.ly/1UiniQ9 ) reported.
"Just a reminder," Williams said, "it is OK and expected for the noise level in this classroom to be really high."
A murmur instantly turned into a din, and that's by design.
This class — a sophomore-level chemical and petroleum engineering course in one of the new engineering building's high-tech "active-learning" classrooms — is one of the most all-in examples of a growing teaching and learning trend at KU and other universities across the country: the flipped classroom.
Basically, the concept flips around the age-old college class format where the instructor lectures, then sends students home with problems to complete on their own. Instead, students take in the lecture — often an online video lecture recorded by the teacher, a slideshow or a combination — at home, then come to class to work on problems and discussions in groups with the teacher there to offer feedback.
While teachers can try it anywhere, certain classroom setups are more conducive to this approach than others, especially for large classes.
"I've been doing that since 2011 in Spahr, and it was not ideal," Williams said. "Not that that auditorium isn't nice. It was like a track meet, going up and down the stairs the whole time."
Williams' new classroom is full of eight- or nine-person round tables with rolling chairs. Each table has a microphone for students to speak into when sharing results with the whole class, and a document camera they can slide their work under so it displays on video monitors that encircle the room.
It's the largest of six active-learning classrooms in the building, LEEP2, which opened to its first classes this semester.
Williams said Material and Energy Balances is a typical "weed-out" class for engineering majors.
When she first started teaching it, she said, about 38 percent of students got grades of D or F, or withdrew. After she flipped her teaching approach — though still in Spahr auditorium where students were limited to collaborating with seatmates on either side — that rate shrank to 23 percent, she said.
Williams said she's excited to track students' success after combining flipped-style teaching and the flipped style classroom.
As long as they're willing to work, Williams said, students can spend as long as they need with lecture material at home on their own time. In class, their peers and the teacher are right there to help, and sharing work from a whole table is less intimidating than going up to the blackboard of a lecture hall solo to do a problem.
A 2012 Chronicle of Higher Education article on the flipped trend's emergence cited several reasons for increasing interest.
In addition to technological innovation enabling such things as at-home online lectures, the article says policy makers and advocacy groups seeking to improve higher education want to see more evidence that students are really learning.
"As pressure mounts to graduate more students, and as cognitive psychology produces new insights into how students learn, these observers say professors can no longer simply pump out information and take it on faith that students understand it," according to the Chronicle.
At KU, the university's Center for Teaching Excellence is leading an initiative to transform courses to be more active and engaged, and ultimately improve student retention and graduation rates, said Sara Rosen, senior vice provost for academic affairs.
"We are targeting large freshman-enrolled courses, particularly those with higher failure rates, for redesign using active learning approaches," Rosen said. "As opportunity arises, we are transforming classroom space to enhance the active learning experience for students and faculty."
Andrea Greenhoot, psychology professor and director of the Center, said there's an active-learning classroom similar to the engineering classrooms in Wescoe Hall and several under construction in the new school of business building.
Many more classrooms across campus, though they lack the cutting-edge technology, have been reconfigured for active learning, she said, with multiple white-boards and moveable furniture.
Likewise, she said, many courses are different degrees of flipped, with some like Williams' being fully so and others, sometimes referred to as hybrid classes, employing some aspects of a flipped classroom.
"We've known for years ... that if you get people actively involved in practicing information that they're going to learn more than by simply trying to memorize it," Greenhoot said.
"What we're really trying to do is shift delivery to out-of-class time, so in-class time can be used on activities that promote deeper and longer-lasting learning."
Five faculty members participated formally in the Center's course redesign effort in 2012, Greenhoot said. Last spring there were 72 faculty members participating, resulting in a total of almost 50 flipped courses (to varying degrees) across 25 departments. She assumes additional teachers are redesigning courses outside of the Center's program.
"My dream is that someday this is the norm, and we don't have to call it course transformation or course redesign, and that everybody's teaching in this way," Greenhoot said.
That doesn't necessarily mean the Budig Hall auditorium will become defunct, though.
Greenhoot's group is still studying outcomes, but so far, she said, universities are in a budget situation where it would be challenging to get rid of those 1,000-person lectures and it would be hard to flip them because they are so big.
"We're going to have to figure this out," Greenhoot said. "But I think that's where a hybrid format for the course might become really useful."
Back in Material and Energy Balances class, Bridgette Befort, sophomore chemical engineering major from Topeka, said she liked the flipped style so far. The class experience, she assumes, is similar to what she'll one day be doing in the "real world."
"It's a lot more conducive to working in groups," she said. "You learn by working in groups and by collaborating, so we're able to do that here."
Spencer Kaba, sophomore chemical engineering major from Wichita, said he liked being able to learn at his own pace and also liked the new classroom.
"I highly enjoy the technology aspect," he said. "The classroom's very good for being able to show information easily."
One complaint against flipped classes is that some students want the passive learning experience of a lecture, or don't want to work in groups.
Kaba said he was shy talking with strangers but that he was working on it. On day two of class he eased into the collaborative format by sitting at a table between two friends he already knew from his dorm.
"That tends to help," he said.
Information from: Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World, http://www.ljworld.com
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