When astronomy lecturer Michael Faison taught the large lecture course “Planets and Stars” last spring, he became frustrated at the lack of student engagement in the class: Although one-third of the students paid close attention during lecture, took notes and participated in discussions, he said, the other two-thirds either rarely came to lecture or sat through the class “glued” to laptops or cellphones.

“It seemed to me that some students took class time to be a very passive experience, during which they might as well get some work done, with my lecture going on in the background, like I do myself on the couch at home with my laptop while my wife is watching something on Netflix,” Faison said. “It also seemed like … the format was not serving [my students] for meeting their learning goals nor mine for meeting my teaching goals.”

So Faison decided to make a change when he taught “Galaxies and the Universe” that semester and “Planets and Stars” again this spring — instead of giving in-class lectures, Faison set up a system in which students watch videos of the lecture before class, and actively engage with the material during class time, through activities including tackling sample problems.

Faison’s “Planets and Stars” and “Galaxies and the Universe” courses are two of an increasing number of undergraduate classes taught in the “flipped classroom” format, in which material typically covered in lecture is delivered outside of class, and class time focuses on “active learning strategies” like discussion, problem sets and group activities. The increasing number of “flipped classes” at Yale reflects a national trend at both high schools and universities to incorporate active learning into courses, especially in STEM, according to chemistry professor Timothy Newhouse, who teaches the first semester of first-year organic chemistry in a “flipped” format.

The “flipped” course design varies across instructors and departments. For, Faison’s “Planets and Stars” and “Galaxies and the Universe” courses, students are assigned videos of the lectures before class. Faison taught “Galaxies and the Universe” in the newly built TEAL classroom — which has round tables and whiteboards around the rooms — and designed sample problems, discussion questions, lab demos and computer-based projects to work on with students during class.

But Newhouse assigns problems the night before class, which students have the opportunity to work on with their peers and teaching assistants in study halls. Then, in class, Newhouse focuses on complicated problems, especially in the context of biologically or medically relevant organic chemistry and syntheses.

Flipped classrooms require far more work than preparing for a traditional passive lecture, Faison said. Before class, he has to deliver his lectures to a camera, edit and upload them to Canvas, as well as write exercises and discussion questions for class time and spend time training teaching assistants. But the work pays off, he said, leading to a more fun and rewarding teaching experience.

“Having offloaded the delivery of that content to lecture videos, I can spend class time talking to the students and listening to them talk to each other. I get to know the students better — I learn everyone’s name — and learn more about their interests and their goals for taking the class,” Faison said. “I feel like the time is better spent and it’s much more fun for me to interact with students a lot during class.”

Mathematics lecturer and “Calculus of Functions of One Variable II” coordinator Sarah Vigliotta, who taught three sections of the course this year, said the flipped class format fosters more “vibrant” class discussion and gives her more flexibility in how she spends her limited “face-to-face” time with students. The course’s switch to a flipped course design began in 2013.

Both Faison and Newhouse said student feedback has been generally positive. According to Faison, student grades on exams were better in “Galaxies and the Universe” last fall than in past semesters, though he said there could have been “a strong selection effect,” since students who did not like the format dropped the class over the course of the semester.

Although students who have never taken a flipped class are “skeptical” of the course format at first, Newhouse said, by the end of the semester, anecdotal and quantitative evidence indicated that participants enjoyed the course. The organic chemistry course received both a 4.0 quality rating and above a 4.0 workload rating, based on a 5.0 scale, on online course evaluations last semester, according to Newhouse.

“Students have been pretty positive about the course, even though it’s very challenging course material,” Newhouse said. “Thinking about organic chemistry, as far as its reputation goes nationally, it’s generally a course that’s very disliked, but with this kind of course design that de-emphasizes memorization and emphasizes applications to related fields, I think students really enjoy it.”

According to Vigliotta, feedback related to the “Calculus of Functions of One Variable II” flipped course design has been mixed. In order to have a successful flipped classroom, both instructors and students have to buy into the format, Vigliotta said, adding that while lots of students see value in flipped classrooms, some want a more traditional lecture.

Mei Shinomiya ’21, who took Faison’s “Galaxies and the Universe” class last semester, said she did not find the flipped classroom conducive to learning. Watching the recorded lectures outside of class required a lot of work, Shinomiya said, adding that it was more difficult to detect what information was actually important from the recorded lecture compared to an in-class one, since the recorded lectures covered some information that was beyond the scope of the class.

“I felt like I had to study all the material,” she said.

Caleb Cohen ’21, who took “Calculus of Functions of One Variable II” last semester, said the class format was “really unhelpful” since it was only half-flipped. The video lectures did not cover a sufficient amount of content, he said, so the instructor still had to give a lecture in class. Cohen said that to improve, the course should become either more or less “flipped” rather than maintain the status quo.

Faison acknowledged that the flipped course teaching style is not ideal for every student or every instructor. Still, he emphasized the importance of incorporating elements of active learning into all courses.

“Almost all education research has shown that any teaching style that improves active engagement of students improves learning outcomes and learning retention,” Faison said. “Doing anything to force students to talk and engage, especially challenging their preconceptions, helps.”

Adelaide Feibel | adelaide.feibel@yale.edu