Using the flipped classroom approach to engage with students

06 June 2016 | Story Chido Mbambe. Photo Michael Hammond.
Bastienne Klein, academic mentor and part-time lecturer in the Faculty of Commerce Professional Communication Unit, encourages student to draw on her academic expertise.
Bastienne Klein, academic mentor and part-time lecturer in the Faculty of Commerce Professional Communication Unit, encourages student to draw on her academic expertise.

Bastienne Klein enrolled at UCT to study Afrikaans and English with the intention of becoming a teacher. But she ended up completing a master's degree in religious studies.

Klein's master's focused on a story her mother had told her as a child about the mythological figure of Hermes the trickster. At the same time she started teaching critical thinking skills to undergraduates.

“It was a new course and I was particularly interested by the fact that students grappled with how to write an argument,” explains Klein. “Between English and religious studies, I felt that by the time I got past my honours I knew quite a lot about how to teach these things.”

“I was particularly interested in why students plagiarise, what problems students had and what interventions you could do that would help students – first-year students in particular – to improve their writing,” says Klein.

Klein holds a wealth of academic mentoring knowledge, having worked in the NGO sector and in adult literacy. She has also worked in various units within UCT. At the Careers Service she produced a guide for school leavers called Bridging the Gap, which touched on how difficult it can be to make the change from school to university. Her time in the Careers Service has informed her teaching in the Professional Communication Unit.

“I teach how to write CVs, covering letters, and I learnt a lot from the students I interacted with back then in the early 90s.”

While writing her masters, students she had assisted at undergraduate level were now approaching her for help with their post graduate work.

Discovering the flipped classroom

“From working in the non-profit sector, I realised that you have to be very practical and you have to do something while people waited,” explains Klein. “I worked out that it was no good giving anybody advice and telling them to go away and do it like homework.”

So Klein developed her method of teaching, which she discussed at a workshop at the Teaching and Learning Conference 2015, called the flipped postgraduate classroom. This was inspired in part by her past learning experiences. She started university when assignments were typed out on typewriters; computers only came later in her academic career.

“I was very happy to learn those [computer] skills. Nobody taught you. You went into a lab and sat down. The instructions were on the wall and there were two printers. You bought a disk at the bookshop and you learnt how to use it from other people,” says Klein. “When I remembered that method … I realised that it's actually very difficult if you only have one screen. … You can't work without a computer, and people who came to me were stuck because they couldn't see all their work – the computer is just one screen.”

So she bought a long roll of white paper, which she stuck on the wall, and a bunch of colourful Koki pens.

“I found that if you give people … Koki's to write on the wall, cut up their work in little pieces and stick it up and be playful about it, then they have a much greater chance of leaving the session that you're giving them with something that they can take away and put back in the computer.”

How does the flipped classroom work?

Her method works on the principle of the flipped classroom in which students get to watch the lecture or read the course material online before the class and lecturers are facilitators in the classroom. The principle excites her because as a facilitator she has to “leave her ego at home” and work with whatever the student brings.

“They have to bring a question and you have to work out if you can answer it or not and be honest about that,” says Klein. “In my method for postgrads particularly, I say, 'I'm in the room now and you can ask me anything. I'm here to support you, so do the thing you fear most here.' They can draw on my expertise and help.”

Her role as a mother has also influenced her teaching with her postgrad students. She refers to an incident where she was trying to teach her five-year-old stepdaughter how to tie a shoelace.

“Here I was, this academic mentor, getting frustrated because she couldn't get it right. After doing it in such a way that she could see what I was doing, and actually having to sit behind her and retie it so she could see, I asked her if she could do it now. Having her say, 'Well now I can see that the loops have to go through the hole you made from the tie,' I realised reflectively what my method was about,” says Klein.

She further explains, “If the student can't see what you're seeing, if you tell them there's a gap in their writing, they probably won't get it. But if you've got it up on a huge piece of paper and they've cut and pasted their different parts of the chapter and haven't filled in the argument, they will physically see that … and you can only do that in a flipped classroom. You can't do that by standing at the front and telling them, 'Your writing mustn't have gaps.”

Klein mostly spends an hour with her students, which is often ample time to cover ground and address any issues the student may be facing.

“They can ask you questions and, as a facilitator, you learn to understand that when somebody asks a question, they have half the answer inside them and you have to draw the other half out,” says Klein.

The students often respond well to the method as they enjoy engaging with their work. The method works well with any course that involves prose writing.

“Many postgrads haven't received this kind of training in their degrees,” says Klein. “I would love to teach incoming university lecturers who are interested. I think they think that they don't have time, but if you have all your postgrads in one room, it should only take a once-off three-hour workshop with your students and perhaps a follow up one-to-one session,” says Klein.

Klein believes that with development in the standard of learning in public schools, and more support to teachers, education in South Africa would improve.

“I don't think we have enough teachers, and I think we need to change the way we teach. The flipped-classroom approach would work. Instead of having someone breathing down your throat saying, 'Where's your homework? Why isn't it done?' teachers should be saying, 'Come, bring your homework. Let's do it now.' But it might not work for everything,” says Klein. “It's like a phys ed class – you will get the theory and be taught the rules of the game, but you learn by playing.”

“If you tell somebody, they'll forget. If you show somebody, they might remember. But if you involve them, they'll get it. Then they're empowered and can go on and do it themselves,” says Klein.

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