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Q&A: Insights from a Flipped-Classroom Innovator

An early adopter of flipped teaching, professor and researcher Dr. Chaya Gopalan shares how she made the switch, and why you should try it, too.

Educator

Chaya Gopalan, PhD

Associate Professor of Anatomy, Physiology, and Pathophysiology, Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville

PhD in Reproductive Neuroendocrinology; MS in Zoology; BS in Chemistry, Botany, and Zoology

As a professor of physiology and an avid researcher in the field of education, Chaya Gopalan, PhD, has used her overlapping interests to engage in some highly specific research. In addition to studying the role of gonadal steroids in the differentiation of brain sex and (separately) the mental fatigue of obese rats undergoing intermittent fasting, she has dedicated her time to finding uncommon solutions to common teaching problems. Among her most successful and interesting strategies is one that has become increasingly common in the last few years: the flipped classroom.

As one of the “early adopters” of this approach, Dr. Gopalan has become a leading expert on the subject, conducting scientific research, writing numerous journal articles (see sidebar), and presenting workshops on flipped instruction all over the world. For her work, she has received the Two-Year College Teaching Award from the National Association of Biology Teachers and the Teaching Career Enhancement Award from the American Physiological Society, as well as several major grants—including, with her department, a half-million dollars from the National Science Foundation to help spread flipped teaching throughout STEM subjects.

Below, this innovative associate professor at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville shares some insights from her early years of flipped teaching—and time-tested tips for educators interested in giving it a try.

Context

“The flipped teaching model—in-class activities involving application of knowledge in a collaborative space with the guidance of the instructor—has been shown to benefit students, as it allows for self-pacing, encourages students to become independent learners, and assists them to remain engaged in the classroom.”

— Chaya Gopalan, PhD

Course: NURS 514 Advanced Human Physiology

Course description: An organ system approach is used to examine physiological processes across the lifespan. Requires Graduate standing.

 

 

 

See resources shared by Chaya Gopalan, PhD

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Q: Course Hero: What first got you interested in flipped teaching?

A: Chaya Gopalan: I have been teaching since 1994, which is also when I became interested in how to get students more engaged and accountable for their work. The students I had at the time were not motivated and not showing up for class. The questions were constantly percolating in my head: Why aren’t students showing up? What would motivate these students to come to class and participate?

In watching my classes engage in group work, I observed that students enjoyed working together versus having me lecture. I also noticed that they were more accountable to peers on their team who were relying on them than they were to me as their professor. I thought perhaps a class structure that emphasized more peer interaction could be the answer.

The problem was that, to do deeper work, they would need to learn the bulk of the material outside of class. I knew that would be difficult. Already many students were not doing the reading and were falling behind.

Q: What were the biggest influences on your flipped classroom approach?

A: Technology has played a big part in how I teach. In 2008, I moved to a college that was starting to computerize a lot of the work teachers do. There were systems for managing grades, creating Wikis for a class, and giving exams on the computer, which all saved me time. This allowed me to begin creating my own teaching manuals that would become part of the foundation of my flipped classroom. When I introduced the manuals, I finally succeeded in getting students to start learning the basics on their own.

A Look at Gopalan’s Teaching Research

The following is a partial list of research papers by or coauthored by Gopalan. All of these have been published in the journal Advances in Physiology Education, from the American Physiological Society.

Then, in 2009, I applied for and got a research grant. I happened to be teaching two very similar-size classes of about 250 students each. I had one class form study groups, while the other prepared for quizzes individually. The research clearly showed that when students related to learning emotionally via the groups, they were better able to retain information and use it in class. I concluded then that group or “peer-to-peer” learning could help students be better prepared.

A bit later, I attended a conference on Team-Based Learning (TBL) that influenced me greatly. I took from TBL some ideas and created my own system that focused on student collaboration using formally structured activities to help build relationships between students. This format is, years later, still essential to my flipped classroom.

Q: Does every teacher doing a flipped classroom need to create new course materials?

A: No, you can use the textbooks you have. You can make the videos or use ones made by others. At first, I created my own lab manual and made it available online to students, assigning chapters as the semester progressed. Then, around 2012, I began to create short videos of lectures that students could watch at home—before class—thereby opening up class time for student-centered activities and thoughtful discussion. [Here is a video by Gopalan on the pancreas.]

Q: What else have you had to adapt for this approach?

A: Assessments. A central question in my mind when I teach is, “What part of the assignment or reading did you not understand?” I used to go over homework in class, but that ate up a lot of time, so I needed to find a quicker way to check for understanding.

Because of my love of technology, I found Poll Everywhere, an app that students use to take quick assessments on their phones. I began using it at the beginning of at least two classes a week to give students a five-question quiz. It is not graded; it is more for me. The better they do on the quiz, the more prepared they are for the in-class application of knowledge.

Their answers are tabulated by the app, so I immediately know what the majority of students got wrong. To review the material, the class works peer-to-peer, teaching each other—not with me lecturing and pointing at a slide.

Q: What happens after the poll is completed?

A: After we review the quiz results, students work in groups to do a worksheet of three or four pages on the topic we are studying. For example, when studying metabolism, a worksheet prompt might be something like this:

“Kyle goes to the Little Taste of Heaven Bakery on occasion to grab a few doughnuts and a few scones along with a butter pecan coffee. After eating a LARGE portion size of this sugary food, which parameters does his body attempt to maintain in regard to blood glucose levels?”

Then I watch the groups and answer questions as they work. When I’m dealing with a large class—I often have 250 graduate students at once—having a clear system for creating work groups is necessary. I assign seats in the auditorium and ask that people choose five or six students seated closest to them to work with for the semester. This also means I can easily see if someone is absent or unprepared for the group activity.

Q: At the end of the day, what is the best reason to flip a classroom?

A: The flipped teaching model has been shown to benefit students as it allows self-pacing, encourages students to become independent learners, and helps them remain engaged in the classroom. Also, repeated retrieval through exercises involving inquiry of information is shown to improve learning. And it is not boring: The longer it takes to review the foundational work—pointing to the cranial nerve, showing how it meets up with another nerve—the more bored everyone gets. Flipped learning avoids that.

Most importantly, doing pre-class work takes lectures out of the classroom and allows for peer-to-peer learning, which helps with communication, listening, and critical thinking. As the small pockets of students get to know each other, stronger team skills develop—and those skills are essential in any career today.

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