Students Staff

6 October 2015

Flipping the Classroom in Teaching Conflict Resolution

Han Dorussen and Theodora-Ismene Gizelis from the Department of Government at the University of Essex describe their experience of ‘flipping’ classroom lectures in Conflict Resolution and share their conclusions and advice for effective ‘inverted teaching’.

Turning learning on its head

Conflict Resolution Seminar

Conflict resolution students making good use of class time

Flipped classroom is an increasingly used method of on-line assisted teaching. It is also known as ‘inverted teaching’ or ‘blended learning’, or even—and in our opinion somewhat inaccurately—as ‘peer instruction’. It combines the on-line delivery of lectures with in-class seminars and activities. Flipped classroom allows students to become active learners, absorb information at their own pace and then work through the material and its applications in the classroom.

What’s different about flipped classroom?

Whereas traditionally, students are expected to read and prepare for the lectures ‘at home’, flipped classroom allows students to watch actual lectures outside the university.  These are delivered as relatively short – in our case, three 15 – 25 minute each – videos covering key topics, concepts and ideas.

Apart from watching the videos, students are still expected to study assigned readings. Seminars are reserved for further explanations, answering questions and discussions, and applying analytical tools. During the seminars, students have time to prepare (or finish) presentations and assignments and engage in other activities such as simulations.

Using flipped classroom in humanities and social sciences

In 2014 we were awarded a Teaching and Learning Innovative Fund (TALIF) grant for developing flipped classroom in one of the core post-graduate modules – in Conflict Resolution – in the Department of Government.

In this module we combine academic content—covering standard topics such as causes of conflict, theories of negotiations and mediation, peacekeeping and state-building—with more practical elements such as group exercises, presentations and different types of simulations.

Our initial goal was to build on the existing strengths of the module and use flipped classroom to provide content and material for self-study in advance of lectures via a combination of 30-45 minutes lecture videos, articles and web material, thus maximizing the time available for practical work in seminars.

Implementing flipped classroom

Making the videos was very time consuming. It was necessary to rewrite existing lectures to ‘fit’ the video format. Most importantly, the videos needed to be quite short. As is generally known, the maximum time span for attention in regular lectures is about 20 minutes. If anything, it seemed to be shorter for the on-line videos. This may have been because of the format—students generally watch the videos from a small screen—or because there are more distractions at home compared to the classroom situation. Devices used to watch the videos are, of course, also a source of distraction with frequent incoming messages.

We posted the videos (alongside other supportive materials) on a dedicated Moodle page. The videos were assigned to particular weeks and only became available about five days before the relevant seminar. Access was restricted to students who were actually enrolled on the module. Moodle provided us with statistics about the students who had (or had not) opened the videos. (Of course, this did not necessarily mean that they had actually watched them!)

Since it was crucial that students engaged with the videos (and readings), we added small quizzes to follow each film. These included multiple-choice questions about the material covered in the videos and relevant readings. Students could only open the next video, if they ‘passed’ the quiz – they were allowed two attempts – and received a small contribution mark for doing so. Following the seminar, videos were opened to all registered students.

Did you mind being flipped? Student feedback…

Somewhat to our surprise, students really appreciated the on-line quizzes. They quickly became an important part of our lecturing because they allow us to identify the problems students have early on. They function similarly to asking questions during the lectures. Whereas students are often reluctant to respond to questions in public (and weaker students tend to be even more reluctant), the on-line quizzes don’t present this barrier. The feedback that we received via the quizzes guided us in the seminars. It also helped us to identify students who were struggling with the material, and to invite them for additional tutoring.

The benefits of flipped classroom

Apart from some inevitable teething problems, our experience of teaching in a flipped classroom format has been positive. It allows for more teacher-student interaction and students appear to be better prepared when they come to the seminars. There are also some unanticipated benefits, in particular the ability of identifying ‘weak’ students by means of on-line quizzes.

When asked about the main benefits for them, students emphasized the additional time for activities in the seminars. They also expected seminar activities, such as the simulations, to be relevant for ‘real life situations’. Most of them looked forward to the addition interaction with fellow students. There was also a generally positive attitude towards using new technologies: ‘new experience, more fun’. Of course, most students could also identify some potential problems. A few people were worried about technical aspects or being easily distracted when watching the videos at home. The most common concern was, however, ‘can’t ask questions when we watch videos at home’.

Top tips for effective flipped classroom

We found videos should have a clear ‘take-home message’ and it works best if you explain a concept or a specific argument. It is much more difficult to communicate effectively in a short video contrasting approaches (such ‘realist’ and ‘liberal’ approaches to mediation) or highly technical models (such as a bargaining game). As all teaching, videos benefit from focusing on topical and engaging examples, but events (and our understanding of these events) may change quickly. Of course, it also takes time for lecturers to get used to being taped.

Videos need to be edited carefully to make sure that they are presented clearly, requiring the involvement of professional staff. However, the format allows for a lot of creativity if you have the budget. It’s possible to include moving images or to present from more imaginative locations than the lecture room. It is possible to include short interviews, turning the videos into mini-documentaries.

Conflict resolution students conducting a simulation

Our students conducting a simulation

And then there is the question of what to do with the additional seminar time freed up by the flipped lectures. All we would say is that it is vital to use this time effectively and to tailor the content of these group sessions to reflect the experience the students have had with the videos.

In summary…

The format does require a significant investment from the lecturers (and support from their HEI). Moreover, it is becoming increasingly clear to us that continuing to use flipped classroom will require us to keep investing. In short, from a teacher/university perspective, the flipped classroom would appear to be an effective but not necessarily cost efficient way of teaching.

To read more about Han and Ismene’s flipped classroom project, click here.

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