Developing pre-class activities for the flipped classroom

Four college students sitting at a large table talking with a professor

The flipped classroom approach has gained popularity in recent years. Educators are increasingly drawn to the pedagogy citing “the use of learning technologies that scaffold students, support problem solving, and engender self-directed learning skills1 (as beneficial outcomes supported by the flipped classroom model).” The most current research supports the potential impact of this model by arguing that for learning to be fully realized, the mode of delivery must incorporate a variety of retrieval practices. Knowledge gains through retrieval practice are maximized when the practice is appropriately spaced, varied, and interleaved. Student self-testing, though more effort, produces more gains in learning than reviewing material through reading (or watching) and leads to more long-term gains than memorization-based learning methods. Essentially, the research points to “active” forms of learning that require students to “retrieve” information and apply it, as the most effective method of learning.2 If this is the most effective form of long-term learning, it stands to reason that we should develop and support methods of teaching that emphasize these concepts. At least, that was my thinking when I began to move away from a lecture-based classroom some four or so years ago.

Five college students looking at a computer monitorWhat I actually learned at first is that the students who often performed best in my classes were those who could memorize the mathematics. How do you memorize mathematics? The short answer is you work through a specific problem type repeatedly until you learn the order of steps needed to recreate the solution. This algorithmic approach to learning often betrays students when questions appear differently than those being studied. Moreover, we as instructors can be complicit in engraining this behavior by not varying our assessments in wording, structure, or application.3 The end result is that we often end up assessing the wrong things and become predictable and robotic in our presentation of the material. It’s no wonder retention rates in mathematics remain low and student’s frequently lament their experiences in mathematics courses.

Both my students, and myself, have met many of the steps I’ve taken to implement a flipped classroom model with mixed reviews. One of the most successful though, has been the integration of Learning Catalytics as a tool to facilitate many of the learning experiences in the course. In many ways Learning Catalytics (used in conjunction with MyMathLab) acts like a connective tissue binding together the pre-class, inter-class, and post-class phases of a flipped classroom design. While I could talk at length about using Learning Catalytics in class and post-class, I want to share with you some of my experiences in using it during the very important pre-class phase. The goals of the pre-class activity are multi-faceted. A good pre-class assignment should:

  • Equip students with the requisite terminology and skills necessary to follow in-class lectures and activities more easily.
  • Provide a framework for students to establish the relative importance of topics in the lesson.  
  • Spark learner’s interest with open-ended questions and interesting applications of the lesson material.
  • Encourage students to become better note takers and provide an outline of the important topics in the lesson.

Each week before a new lesson begins, students are asked to complete an assignment in Learning Catalytics. The tool allows for assignments to be completed in a self-paced mode while specifying how long an assignment will remain open. Students have the freedom to work on the assignment at their own pace and are often given two to three days to complete the assignment, usually over the course of a weekend. The first question on each pre-class assignment consists of a priority question where students must rank the most important concepts from an assigned reading. This question type allows me to identify any disconnects with what I believe to be the most important concepts and what the students choose. We often begin each new lesson with a short discussion of the results of this question. Rather than assign a list of videos for students to watch, I will embed the video in the Learning Catalytics question prompt and then ask a question to specifically address some element of the video on which students should be most aware.

Screenshot of online module

Figure 1: Embedding video content in Calculus 1 through LC

If the video content is a demonstration of a calculation, the associated question will often be a practice problem based on the content along with a list of other problems in the textbook which can be answered based on a student understanding the calculation. By linking immediate practice and reflection with the video content I’m able to better control the student’s note taking process and guide students in establishing a more effective knowledge framework for the topic. By using the image upload option students can show their work of a problem that when uploaded can be used in class to demonstrate classic errors or promote exceptional work to other students in the course. With long answer format questions you can have a variety of open-ended experiences for students:

  • Provide students with a blank or partially filled concept map or outline and ask students to remark on what items should go in each blank. (This also works very well with matching format questions.)
  • Ask students to watch an interesting video to set up a problem you wish to cover in class.  Video introductions to problems require a great deal of effort in preparation, but I think they are among the most interesting things you can do to increase student “buy-in” during the pre-class phase.  A great example of this technique is exhibited by the excellent work of Dan Meyer.
  • Essay based answers lend themselves to a variety of very effective questioning strategies. For example, I can purposefully perform a calculation incorrectly or inefficiently and ask students to comment on the error. This has led to some of the more intense and rewarding discussions during class time.

The final question (there are usually a total of 10) on each pre-class assignment is a long answer formatted question that asks students to name the topics or concepts that gave them the most difficulty. Shortly after the pre-class assignment is completed, I review the answers to this question as a means to provide JiTT (just-in-time teaching) opportunities throughout the week.

I encourage anyone thinking of employing a flipped classroom to give these ideas and Learning Catalytics a try. I think you will find that students are very receptive to using the technology (it’s device ubiquitous and low cost). Admittedly, this has been only a small glimpse of the usefulness of this tool in the pre-class setting. We have yet to even begin discussing Learning Catalytics’ main use; as a peer instruction, student feedback tool in class. But, that is a topic for another day.


Dr. Ehrke was one of our featured speakers at ICTCM 2016. Access more than 30 dynamic sessions by registering through the virtual track. Or if you have an idea for next year, submit a proposal.


About the Author
John Ehrke, Ph.D.

John Ehrke, Ph.D.

Dr. John Ehrke is an associate professor of mathematics at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. He teaches Quantitative Reasoning, Calculus 1, Calculus 2, Ordinary Differential Equations, and Partial Differential Equations.

After receiving his Ph.D. from Baylor University in 2007, Dr. Ehrke has been working with ACU for the last nine years. His research interests include the role of emerging technologies in higher education mathematics, the assessment and design of mobile computing platforms, and Green’s functions methods for boundary value problems.   

In his spare time (greatly exaggerating the word “spare”), Dr. Ehrke enjoys hiking, fishing, and golfing. He believes that the use of technology for technology’s sake should be avoided; but, if you know where to look, you can find some truly exceptional learning tools.



[1] Using a Flipped Classroom Approach to Support Problem-Based Learning, Lilly, C., & Tawfik, A. A. (2015) Technology, Knowledge and Learning 20 (3), pp. 299-315.  

[2] Make It Stick:  The Science of Successful Learning, Brown, Peter C. & Roedinger, Henry L., & McDaniel, Mark A. (2014) Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[3] How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, Ambrose, Susan A., & Bridges, Michael W., & DiPietro, Michele, & Lovett, Marsha C., & Norman, Marie K. (2014) San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.