Gareth Taylor investigates a ‘flipped classroom’ approach popular in universities and considers its usefulness in economics education.

One of the things I learnt early on in my economics teaching career is that getting to grips with the many models and concepts that purport to illustrate the workings of the real economy takes time. Developing the deep, as opposed to surface level, understanding necessary to use them to understand and potentially ‘solve’ real world problems takes still more time. There is not nearly as much opportunity for capable students to gain credit from the examiner for their general knowledge and assessment literacy as there is with a subject like business. For many students, especially those stronger in humanities and social science than STEM subjects, Economics A level is also a big intellectual step up. So steady engagement, with multiple sessions across the week, in class and at home is a pre-requisite for success. It follows that the teacher’s role then is to plan engaging lessons and to establish a ‘regime’ of mandatory homework with helpful feedback .
Although this approach can ensure students commit the time the subject requires, in recent years many people have questioned whether our time as teachers is being used effectively. At what point in a student’s understanding of a topic can our presence and intervention be most helpful?
In considering this many people turn to Bloom’s Taxonomy. Bloom is at the heart of any social science curriculum. In business and economics we tend to focus on knowledge, application, analysis and evaluation. We know that there is a scale here in terms of challenge for learners with knowledge described as being at the lower order end and evaluation being of a higher order. Advocates for a ‘flipped’ approach argue that teachers spend too much classroom time helping students grasp basic knowledge leaving less time for the development of higher order skills. Homework is often something done after class in which students grapple alone with analytical and evaluative problems. Not only does this mean students don’t have the support of teachers at this critical point in their learning but it flies in the face of what many educators believe about the social nature of learning.
According to the Higher Education Academy, flipped learning is: “a pedagogical approach in which the conventional notion of classroom-based learning is inverted, so that students are introduced to the learning material before class, with classroom time then being used to deepen understanding through discussion with peers and problem-solving activities facilitated by teachers.”
Although it has probably been used by teachers for many years in some form, as a ‘labeled’ approach ‘flipped learning’ was first articulated by Erik Mazur, a Harvard physics professor in the 1990s. For him, the spark was the discovery that though his lectures were acclaimed, many of his students weren’t grasping fundamental concepts. Didactic learning was delivering shallow learning. Bergman and Sams coined the phrase ‘flipped learning’ and popularized the approach. A good overview with tips for implementation I found at:
https://www.td.org/magazines/td-magazine/flipped-learning-maximizing-face-time.
Like a lot of teachers I’ve been attracted to the possibilities of this approach for a while. However one potentially fundamental flaw is that if students don’t complete the learning task before class they will not be in a position to achieve the learning outcomes in class.
I came across Team-Based Learning (TBL) a couple of years ago on a training course. It immediately struck me as an approach that could be effective in an economics classroom because, amongst other things the methodology uses intrinsic motivators to encourage students to participate in preparation tasks.
TBL is a pedagogical approach that is becoming increasingly popular in universities, especially for STEM subjects. The term and concept was first popularized by Larry Michaelsen, who developed the methodology while at University of Oklahoma in the 1970s. Students are set preparation tasks/reading to be completed prior to each session. On arrival at each taught session each student completes an MCQ test in order to assess knowledge/understanding/engagement with the preparation task. This is completed using an app on their mobile phone or online. Each team then completes the same test together using a scratch card system, facilitating peer learning. Scores are then collated with individual and team scores contributing to an overall score and ranking with other teams. Teams can contest answers and marks awarded in an open forum at the end.
This initial activity, it is argued by advocates of TBL, creates strong peer pressure to do the preparation and engage fully with the topic at the outset. The result is that didactic teaching time is restricted to going over the areas students clearly had difficulty with.
This leaves more of the available time for an active learning session. Here students are set a task or problem as a group in which, in theory, students are able to make more progress in problem solving armed with good background knowledge. Each team presents their solution to the full class and debate and discussion is encouraged.
Earlier this year I decided to have a go with my class of 25 economists. To minimise the risk to student learning I decided to initially try the approach for three weeks and only continue if results justified it. It is important to stress that my intention was to assess the practicalities of TBL and learn some of the basic implementation lessons anecdotally in this initial attempt and follow up with some action research if the approach shows some promise.
The first issue I faced was finding suitable preparation resources. This was quite easily resolved by identifying a range of online videos (Econplusdal) and textbook sections. It took a surprisingly long time however choosing the right resources to support the planned classroom activities.
The next step was setting up the multi-choice tests students would sit at the beginning of the lesson to establish whether they had completed the preparation test. Our VLE is Blackboard based and so I was able to set up a 20 question MCQ test for each topic relatively quickly that students were able to complete with their smart phone. There are lots of online test systems available however if you are not so lucky. The team test uses a scratch card system and scratch cards can be ordered from http://www.epsteineducation.com/home/ at a cost of about 10p a card. It is possible to manage without scratch cards but they do help to make TBL feel different for the students and create a bit of theatre to answering the questions.
For the problem-based team activities I chose to use case studies and questions similar (and identical!) to AQA Economics paper one and two. This has the added advantage that the mark scheme for use with 25 mark questions can be used to help students peer assess other teams’ answers.
The other practical issue is that in all classroom sessions students work in teams. I tend to move seating configurations around a bit to suit different groups so having to create ‘café style’ seating for each session was initially disruptive. However I quickly got students on side and this became an activity undertaken willingly by the first students into the room each time. I also gave each group a section of classroom wall and a plastic ‘sticky’ sheet for presenting their team solution to the problem set.
Following advice from the training session I attended with Beck McCarter from Bradford University I created mixed ability groups and also tried to make sure there was a range of personalities in each group. Students stayed in the same groups throughout. Team cohesion is one of the forces that advocates of TBL believe encourages engagement with both the preparation task and the problem-based activity. So it was important to give team selection careful consideration.
Reflections on the sessions
In the event, I used the approach for about ten sessions initially. Levels of preparation in the first session were around 60%, a little disappointing for an A level economics cohort. However, as individual test scores were displayed on the screen this improved dramatically and by week three onwards around 90% of students had clearly prepared for each session. The team test also helped create pressure on students to be a contributor by doing the preparation task. However, it was noticeable that both individual and team scores varied from topic to topic. This seemed to depend on the complexity and it was clear that some of my resources would need to be developed further if students were going to grasp those topics sufficiently well from independent study. What the test scores did enable me to do is identify the concepts students found difficult and restrict my initial teaching to these areas.
The team test seemed to be important in consolidating student learning. To avoid strong individuals dominating this process I encouraged students to seek consensus for their answers and extolled the benefits of learning from each other. Judging by the (relevant) conversation volume and the much higher scores, this was an important element in ensuring a wide understanding of the concepts to be used in the problem-based activity. Nevertheless, I need to think about how best to help students with low test scores who are still not confident at the end of the team test.
The time available for the problem-based activity I divided roughly into two, allowing 30-40 minutes for investigation and answering the question on their plastic flip chart and the same for feeding back and commenting on each other’s. On the whole, this session appeared to deliver all that you hope for from this kind of activity. Students were free to use any resources they wish and tackle the problem in their own way. The quality of answers was often very good and there was no doubt teams learnt a lot from each other’s answers. Two things occurred to me however. Firstly, I could see that some students dominated the engagement and thinking through force of personality. I couldn’t be confident from each presentation what each of the students individually could do or understood themselves. Secondly, whilst students certainly developed their knowledge and skills it did not allow students to practice answering the question in written form as they will have to in the exam.
Next steps
Overall, the higher levels of engagement across the cohort and the quality of some of the thinking skills displayed suggests to me that TBL is an approach that may well have a place in economics education at an introductory level. It is very difficult to judge based on this experience whether students made more progress than they would have done through traditional teaching. Further, more formal action research would be needed to do that. It is certainly the case that my economics students spent more time thinking about economics during an average week than with traditional teaching methods. In planning further TBL sessions however, based on this experience I would:
• Put more time into creating a bespoke pack of preparation materials for each session focusing particularly on some of the more complex topics. This would include more interactive tasks and online Q&A so learning away from class is interactive too.
• Follow up a TBL session with a homework and class devoted to individual written answers with feedback and peer assessment. That can also be used to focus support on weaker students.
• Use double lessons for TBL so that momentum isn’t lost when the session is split.
Further Reading:
I would recommend both the original Team Based Learning by Larry Michaelsen (the inventor of TBL) and Getting Started with TBL by Jim Sibley and Peter Ostafichuk. They are full of case studies and advice by TBL practitioners on how to start converting your material to TBL and how to troubleshoot a range of issues that you may encounter along the way.