Flipping a Chemistry Lecture Course

Andy Parsons discusses the introduction of a new Biochemistry module which gave the Department of Chemistry the opportunity to innovate by using flipped teaching.

Strategy to Synthesis in Organic Chemistry - Retrosynthetic Analysis

Last year, a newly introduced Strategy to Synthesis in Organic Chemistry module included a lecture course on Retrosynthetic Analysis, abbreviated RSA. (This is a technique for determining how to prepare valuable chemicals, such as medicines, in the laboratory.) I deliver this 6-lecture course in the Autumn Term for the chemists, but the same course was required in the Spring Term for the biochemists (and the chemistry lecture course could not be moved to later in the year). So, should we repeat the same lecture course, or take the opportunity to introduce a ‘flipped’ activity with the same contact time? No surprise, we decided on the latter.

Some of the reasons behind this decision included:

  • the content of the lecture course (RSA) is well suited to lecture flipping – it requires students to develop in-depth problem solving skills;
  • the pre-workshop material had already been developed – videos (produced using Camtasia) of the lectures were available, along with numerous practice-makes-perfect worked examples, including examination question walkthroughs;
  • the cohort was small (18 students).

Before the module started, an email was sent to the students briefly explaining the concept of flipped teaching and that the contact time would be spent working on problems in three 2-hour workshops. The importance of students engaging with the pre-workshop material was emphasised. In advance of each of the workshops, the students were required to look through the appropriate videos (posted on the VLE) and to fill in the gaps in a handout, and to make their own notes. Each face-to-face workshop session started with a very brief review of the key concepts covered in the videos, followed by students working in small groups (of four to five) to tackle problems. This was an opportunity to focus on areas that were known to be challenging to students, to apply the concepts to biochemistry examples, and for students to ask questions and discuss the videos.

What was especially rewarding was the opportunity to get to know this group of students and see their progress and confidence grow. The student engagement was exceptional – all of the students looked at the screencasts (this was tracked on the VLE), every student came along with annotated notes prior to each session and there were many questions about the material in the videos. The group problems made it more collaborative, and perhaps gave a friendlier environment than they were expecting.

At the end of the course students were assessed by a written examination question, after-which they were asked to complete a feedback form. The feedback results are summarised below.

Question Score out of 5*
The flipped lecture course was well organised and presented 4.67
The flipped lecture course was interesting and enjoyable 4.67
The workload was reasonable 4.50
The assessment was fair 3.81
I would like to see more courses use flipped teaching 4.22

*Where 5 = strongly agree, 4 = agree, 3 = neutral, 2 = disagree and 1 = strongly disagree

Student comments included:

I felt I was more in control of how I learn
A lot better doing questions during contact time than just learning the content
Encouraged self-motivation and better engagement with the course
Fantastic change of pace from usual lectures, making learning incredibly engaging

There were also some constructive suggestions for ways to improve the course, including further examination practice, which will be introduced next year.

In terms of examination grades it is difficult to determine if the biochemistry students had a better grasp of the course material than the chemists, because, for example, the two groups of students tackled different examination questions. However, the biochemists scored a very respectable average, not out of line with that for chemistry students taught using a traditional lecture format.

So, would I encourage others to ‘flip’? Certainly, for the right topic, and for a relatively small group of students, I have found it can be very rewarding. Students benefitted from seeing the lecture material on a video (which they can stop, rewind, fast-forward, play at different times as needed) and then have a contact time in which to discuss their thoughts on the video and to answer problems. It is a lot of work preparing the videos and running the interactive sessions (perhaps more demanding than presenting a traditional lecture), but, variety is important in learning and it can empower students to take control of their own learning. In the words of Bobby Nunn (American R&B vocalist and producer), I encourage you to ‘don’t knock it, until you try it’!

A6_AndyParsonsAndy Parsons is the Deputy Head of Department in Chemistry, the Undergraduate Admissions Tutor for both Chemistry and Natural Sciences, and the Chemistry Subject Specialist for Natural Sciences. He is a co-author of Chemistry3, the leading undergraduate Chemistry textbook for year 1 students and his teaching has been recognised by a Vice-Chancellor’s Teaching Award and a Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) Higher Education Teaching Award. andy.parsons@york.ac.uk

One thought on “Flipping a Chemistry Lecture Course

  1. Pingback: Lunchtime Webinar: Flipped classroom approaches | E-Learning Development Team

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