Flipping the Art History Classroom: Where do you even begin? Part 1

[This is post 1 of several posts that I will write about flipping the classroom. Stay tuned!]

I recently gave a presentation at our center for teaching excellence about some ways in which I’ve flipped my classes. As a long-time “user” of team-based learning (TBL), I’ve had lots of successes and failures when it comes to flipping the classroom. I don’t always use TBL either, but instead use other types of flipped classroom strategies.

Some of the questions or conversations I hear repeatedly are: how do you even begin to flip a class? Where do I start? How long does it take? How can I do it in [name my discipline]?

These are important questions, and they can be difficult to answer. I usually suggest that someone starts small. Flip a single class session. Don’t do what I’ve done in the past and decide to flip your entire class in a month (just. say. no.) Once you feel comfortable with one class, the next time try a couple or perhaps a unit.

Where do you start? This is harder to answer, but I recall the first lesson I ever flipped. For years I felt dissatisfied beginning my art history survey class with two lectures on the basics of a formal description and analysis, before sending students off to write a formal analysis paper–often due later in the semester. The papers were often of poor quality, and I knew part of that was my fault. They simply needed more time to practice before we were off on our whirlwind semester survey of global art.

One day I thought: wouldn’t it be great if they could write these papers during class time so I can be there to answer questions? And the idea grew from there. I ended up recording two lectures (both 30-45 minutes, which I were far too long, but I didn’t know any better at that time). The students watched the lecture, then came to class prepared to take a short quiz. We did a few formal analysis together as a class. For homework they had to examine an artwork (that I chose) and complete an assignment. The following class session I had students work in groups to write the formal analysis paper together, using the same object they had examined for homework.

The papers, while handwritten in class, were so much better. Students learned from one another. They discussed what to include. They drafted the paper before writing it out. They referred to their notes. They asked questions. It didn’t hurt that rather than having to read 50 papers I instead only had to read 8-10. Most importantly, they were of much better quality.

I started to wonder how else I could transform this class to one that embraced this idea more fully (what I’d later learn was called the flipped classroom). And that’s how it all started.

To flip those two class sessions took some time–I had to record two videos, create some worksheets, and then grade them–but it didn’t take that much more time. Frankly, it saved me time. I didn’t have to read 50 papers of varying quality. (Here is more on this assignment.)

I am a believer that every discipline can find a way to flip a class, even if it is just a single class session. My best piece of advice is to talk to colleagues who have done it, regardless of their discipline. Search the web. Find conference sessions that talk about the flipped classroom or team-based learning.

And don’t feel pressured to create something new and exciting. It can be the tried-and-true lecture that you’ve delivered for years. Or perhaps a lecture that just never feels “right.” Or maybe you know you need to update or adapt a lecture but you just haven’t been able to get yourself to do it.

Think of it as an experiment. Start small. It’s OK to fail. Students are forgiving. In fact, ask students what types of activities might be useful in a flipped classroom setting. Embrace the change. And know that there are lots of people out there eager and willing to share ideas and learn from you.


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