The Post-Lecture Classroom: How Will Students Fare?

A new study finds moderate student gains in courses where lectures take place at home and "homework" happens in the classroom.
Russell Mumper, Vice Dean of the University of North Carolina Eshelman School of Pharmacy, teaches his “flipped” Pharmaceutics class. (Echo360)

If college professors spent less time lecturing, would their students do better?

A three-year study examining student performance in a “flipped classroom” — a class in which students watch short lecture videos at home and work on activities during class time — has found statistically significant gains in student performance in “flipped” settings and significant student preference for “flipped” methods.

The study, provided exclusively to The Atlantic, is one of the first to examine a “flipped” classroom in the current state of its technology. Russell Mumper, a Vice Dean at the University of North Carolina’s Eshelman School of Pharmacy, conducted the study, and two separate articles based on its findings are now in press in the journals Academic Medicine and The American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education. The education technology company Echo360, whose technology was used in the classes examined, funded the study with a $10,000 grant.

The study examined three years of a foundational pharmaceutics course, required for all doctor of pharmacy (Pharm.D.) students attending UNC. In 2011, Mumper taught the course in a standard, PowerPoint-aided lecture format. In 2012 and 2013, he taught it using “flipped” methods. Student performance on an identical final exam improved by 2.5 percent between 2011 and 2012—results now in press at Academic Medicine—and by an additional 2.6 percent in 2013. Overall, student performance on an identical final exam improved between 2011 and 2013 by 5.1 percent.

Students also came to prefer the flipped model to the lecture model. While 75 percent of students in 2012 said, before Mumper’s class, that they preferred lectures, almost 90 percent of students said they preferred the flipped model after the class.

“As I always like to say, we flipped their preference,” Mumper told me. “They went from largely wanting and valuing lectures to just the opposite.”

Comments from a student echoed that change in preferences. “It was a little hard to get used to begin with,” Natalie Young, a second-year doctorate of pharmacy student at UNC said, of Mumper’s class. “But then, as I got going with it, I realized that [the “flipped” class] was actually facilitating my learning.”

“Overall, I'd say the study adds a useful contribution to the growing literature on flipped instruction and active learning in higher education,” Justin Reich, a Harvard researcher, said about its findings. The study was “about as good a quasi-experimental study as could be done,” he added on the phone.

* * *

So: In one setting, in one class, over 3 years, student performance improved in a statistically significant way in a flipped classroom model. That’s the news. Educational studies, especially studies of this type, are difficult to place into context. They are quasi-experimental. Their samples are determined by circumstance, not by random assortment. And, as here, they’re often underwritten by private companies, with agendas of their own.

Not that that’s a bad thing. Education rises and falls in specificity, and if digital educational technology ever permeates a classroom in a big way, college or otherwise, it will be a specific technology, likely sold by a specific company. Every use will be used in a specific setting. So it’s worth examining Dean Mumper’s class to see how technology specifically shaped it: how “the Internet,” a large and nebulous thing, specifically changed the experiences of his students.

* * *

Mumper teaching his Pharmaceutics class (Echo360)

In 2011, Mumper was teaching Pharmaceutics to 153 first-year UNC Pharm. D. students. Pharmaceutics is “basically the discipline of dosage forms and pharmaceutical dosage forms and delivery systems, so it’s core to our school,” he says. Students came to his class twice a week, for an hour and a half, heard Mumper’s lecture, and then read an introductory textbook between classes. They took two midterms and a final. Mumper had taught the class for almost a decade, and he could predict — very, very well — how each class would do, on average, on that final: They’d score near 80 percent.

And in his mind, the class was hitting a wall.

“There’s so much content, and so many places to access that content, that if our burden, our challenge, as instructors is to relay that content, there’s never enough time,” he told me. “And if your interaction is solely based on PowerPoint slides,” he added, “[students] are no longer paying attention. They’re distracted.”

So, with the help of Echo360, he devised a flipped model for the classroom.

In 2012, that flipped model looked like this:

At home, before class, students watched brief lecture modules, which introduced them to the day’s content. They also read a textbook — the same, introductory-level book as in 2011 — before they arrived.

When they got to class, Mumper would begin by asking them “audience response” questions. He’d put a multiple-choice question about the previous night’s lectures on a PowerPoint slide and ask all the students to respond via small, cheap clickers. He’d then look at their response, live, as they answered, and address any inconsistencies or incorrect beliefs revealed. Maybe 50 percent of the class got the wrong answer to one of these questions: This gave him an opportunity to lecture just enough so that students could understand what they got wrong.

Then, the class would split up into pairs, and Mumper would ask them a question which required them to apply the previous night’s content, such as: “Given your knowledge of the skin and transdermal delivery, describe how you might treat this patient who had breakthrough cancer pain.” The pairs would discuss an answer, then share their findings with the class. At the end of that section, Mumper would go over any points relevant to the question which he felt the class failed to bring up.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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