Flipping learning in senior mathematics

August is STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) month here at Teacher. In the first of two articles on flipped learning, we find out about a research study into how Australian secondary school educators are using the approach to deliver senior mathematics courses. In tomorrow's follow-up we'll hear from one of the teachers involved in the research about adopting the model for Year 12 Specialist Maths and how it's evolved since the study.

In a flipped learning model, students spend their normal ‘homework' time learning about new concepts, freeing up class time to practice and apply what they've learnt with face-to-face support from their teacher and peers.

That's the basic premise, but the exact approach can vary in terms of how the content is created or sourced, when and how it's delivered and accessed, and how students are encouraged to use it.

Tracey Muir is a Senior Lecturer in Mathematics Education at the University of Tasmania. Since 2015, she's been researching how flipped learning is being used by secondary mathematics teachers in Tasmania and Victoria. ‘I was particularly interested in how it compared with what you'd call “traditional” mathematics instruction, and particularly in terms of senior secondary classes, which have traditionally high stakes assessment associated with them and that pressure to get through a crowded curriculum,' she tells Teacher.

Muir explored students' and teachers' experiences of flipped learning in 10 classrooms. She spoke about her research at last month's MERGA (Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia) conference, sharing three case studies with delegates.

Case study findings

In the first, the content was teacher paced and curated – students watched prescribed videos before class as part of an algebra unit and spent the majority of their class time working on textbook exercises, getting help from the teacher as needed. Muir found 89 per cent of the students agreed the tutorials helped them understand concepts, but 50 per cent said they found them boring.

Sourcing the videos also proved time-consuming for the teacher, who commented: ‘One video might only take about 12 minutes to watch, but it could have taken me an hour or more to find.'

In the second case study, students were again told which videos to watch before class, but this time the content was created by the teacher. At the time of Muir's study, the teacher had created 20 tutorials, all around one hour in length (although they were broken up into chunks for students to focus on certain sections). Class time involved brief revision of the video content, some class discussion, and students working on textbook questions with help from the teacher if needed. According to the students' feedback, 77 per cent found the tutorials boring but 85 per cent accessed all or most of them and all of the students said the content helped them understand the concepts.

The final case study Muir shared at MERGA involved Specialist Maths students working at their own pace, supported by almost 200 video tutorials created by their teacher on topics including complex numbers and differential equations. At the time of the study, lesson time was used for textbook exercises, supported by the teacher when needed, and some discussion and demonstration. All of the students accessed the videos and found them helpful, although 29 per cent said they found them boring. As with the second case study, students said they found the videos complemented the traditional textbook instruction and also improved their focus. One student commented: ‘There's no interruptions [at home] whereas in class there are so many interruptions … he might be halfway through an explanation and then somebody interrupts … if you get distracted [at home] you just pause the video and come back to it.'

Implications for educators

Muir says, despite the different enactments, students in all three classes were happy to take on the new approach and found it beneficial. ‘One of the implications for teachers who might be thinking about adopting this approach is that you can adopt it to varying degrees,' she tells Teacher. ‘You could start by sourcing some good quality videos and getting students used to that practice of watching the video before class. And … it's not about the video per se, it's about transforming their approach to teaching mathematics. The videos are a useful avenue to provide students with that information they wouldn't normally have in class.'

The academic adds flipped learning allows students who may be anxious about maths or making a contribution in class to get a ‘heads up' on topics and content so they can feel better prepared. ‘[From a teacher perspective] some of the more routine things can be moved to home and we can capitalise on what happens in class. Another enactment I've seen is where the teacher actually videos their lessons … and students can go home and watch it again.'

Another strong theme that emerged from the student feedback was that it didn't matter so much who made the videos, the most important thing was that the materials were relevant. ‘So, if they were having difficulty with how to work out the mean of something, they might Google that and get 15 million hits of how to do it … and so they waste time and can't find anything in particular. In this case the teacher has actually selected it for them or produced it for them and the students can be reassured that what they're viewing is relevant and accurate as well. That was rather important.

‘The other finding that came through was the idea of achieving their goal and making them autonomous in their learning. So, if they really wanted to improve with their mathematics then they could take control of that.'

For teachers, Muir found a flipped learning approach encouraged them to consider how best to scaffold the content, present material, follow up with questions and work with students one-on-one. ‘It's not meant to be a passive thing where students just watch the video. It works better if they've got questions that they actually might respond to, or if they're encouraged to pause and rewind the video and bring the questions back the next day. Make that classroom environment really interactive and capitalise on the fact that now you've got extra time to spend with students.'

Now the academic is planning to research the use of flipped learning in primary classrooms. Teachers interested in participating in this new study can email tracey.muir@utas.edu.au.

Stay tuned: In tomorrow's article we'll hear from one of the teachers involved in the research about adopting a flipped learning model for Year 12 Specialist Maths, how it's evolved since the study, and his advice for educators wanting to give it a try.

This researcher found flipped learning encouraged teachers to think about how best to present new concepts.

How do you scaffold new content? Is this a whole-class approach or does it depend on individual learning needs? Do you provide opportunities for follow-up discussion and one-on-one instruction?