Setting up students for success in the flipped classroom

Multiracial college students enjoying working together while studying

More and more educators have flipped their classrooms and thus, great ideas are emerging to contribute to the bigger conversation about this new model for teaching and learning. Educational technology advances are also contributing new tools to help educators interact with their students like never before. Dr. Matthew Stoltzfus from The Ohio State University flipped his classroom several years ago and has been able to improve student engagement and achievement in his chemistry courses. I asked him a few questions about this topic and his use of educational technology to give us a glimpse into how he engages students in the flipped classroom.


Q. As we see the first year of Gen Z students enter college campuses, what are some of the characteristics you notice?

At a recent conference a speaker recommended the book “Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning” by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger, and Mark A. McDaniel. This book sounded great and I wanted to purchase a hard copy of it. During the presentation, I opened up my Amazon app and ordered the book. It was on my doorstep the next morning. This was out of the realm of possibility when I was in school. Gen Z students have every bit of information at their fingertips and they have grown up this way. Some ideas that seem very practical to the older generation might seem foreign or odd to a Gen Z student. At orientation, should students expect to be handed a paper campus map equipped with a legend of the classrooms? Or are they expecting an app with GPS allowing them to search for their classrooms? Students carry smartphones with them everywhere. Smart phones equipped with Snapchat, Instagram, GroupMe, and a variety of other apps and games, but there is one thing we cannot overlook… Many students are very proficient with the social interactions associated with their devices, but this does not mean students are proficient in using their devices as a learning tool. This is a skill we must cultivate and develop with our students. It is a very important step in the path of lifelong learning.

Q. When you think about creating your lesson plan in a flipped classroom, what are some of the first things you take into consideration?

More specifically, I use peer instruction in my classroom. I give a brief summary of the concept we are covering in class, then deliver a question to the students, who must answer it individually. After students make a commitment to their answer, they are placed in groups to discuss their response with classmates. In creating lesson plans in this type of classroom environment, the biggest challenge is to write questions that facilitate the best discussions between students. Eric Mazur, who has pioneered peer instruction, recommends instructors write questions where 30-70% answer correctly in the individual round. This is a rather challenging task.

Q. I have heard you say that you try to understand your students and their varying degrees of readiness for your course, beyond giving an assessment at the beginning of the course, how else do you gather information that helps you understand them?

Last fall, I put together a plan for what I thought was a great pathway for student success. In addition to a pre-assessment at the beginning of the course, I gave students survey questions about their high school instruction. Questions like “how much chemistry content do you remember from high school?” “How would you rate the effectiveness of your high school teacher to communicate chemistry concepts clearly?” “Did you take AP Chemistry?” I took these results, along with the results from the pre-assessment, and placed students into five different groups. Based on their group placement they were recommended to attend a study skills session, office hours, peer-led team study sessions, and/or assigned an academic coach from our Dennis Learning Center.

I thought I had the perfect plan, but there was one major issue… The students didn’t take advantage of the recommendations I was giving them. Last fall, the focus was on setting up the right program. This fall, the focus will be on increasing student participation. In order to do so, peer mentors will be selected from previous classes and they will facilitate three sessions for students throughout the semester to discuss effective study habits, test taking skills, and they will more importantly promote the various events we have planned throughout the semester.

Q. How has educational technology helped you create a more active classroom?

To create an active classroom, each instructor must consider two things: How to prepare students for class and what to do in class. I would argue that what an instructor assigns before class is more important than what they do in class. Before class, students are graded on their comments and annotations on the textbook through the Perusal platform, then they complete tutorial problems in Mastering Chemistry. So before students step foot into the classroom, they have read the textbook and have completed practice problems. There are also traditional lecture videos students can watch, but there are less emphasized.

By having students think about the topics we are covering in class before they arrive, the discussions are now much more in depth. It allows a much better opportunity to engage students in conversation about what they have already seen and it becomes much more than me delivering content to the students.

Q. What insights will you share about what works in engaging students?

Make sure to place an emphasis on exposing the students to the concepts before they come to class. We live in a time where students can gain access 24/7 to all of the information they would typically receive in a traditional lecture. So in theory, students can prepare themselves incredibly well for each lecture. There is one huge drawback… It requires much more work on the students end than they might be used to. Instructors must place high emphasis on encouraging students to come prepared to class and motivate them to do so. Unfortunately, the best motivation we have is to give homework assignments with points associated with them. As instructors, it’s our role to find the best assignments to give and, more importantly, select the due dates at an appropriate time to facilitate learning.

Q. In your opinion and experience, why do you think the flipped classroom works?

You set students up for success when you have them read and prepare ahead of time. Then posing a question to the students where they have to first think about it, then discuss it with classmates, that helps fill in the gaps where they are lacking. When a concept expert is present in the classroom to fill in the gaps, that is where the most effective learning can happen.


Dr. Stoltzfus goes more into depth about engaging students in the flipped classroom in the webinar below.



About Matthew Stoltzfus

Matthew Stoltzfus, Ph.D.

Matthew W. Stoltzfus, Ph.D., or “Dr. Fus” to his students, is an accomplished chemistry lecturer and Digital First Faculty Fellow at The Ohio State University, where he has taught general and advanced inorganic chemistry. He is experimenting with the “flipping the classroom” lecture approach, which has been featured recently on ESPN and NPR mainly due to his iTunesU General Chemistry course, which has an enrollment of over 175,000 students. In addition he is currently a contributing author on the 13th Edition of “Chemistry the Central Science” textbook, co-authors the “Chemistry the Central Science” lab manual,a recent recipient of The Ohio State University Provost’s Award for Distinguished Teaching by a Lecturer and was announced as an Apple Distinguished Educator. Follow him on Twitter: @Dr_Fus