The Electric Educator: Flip your classroom through reverse instruction

Monday, September 6, 2010

Flip your classroom through reverse instruction

Have you ever experienced the unique and rare moment when, after doing something the same way for year and years, you have an epiphany and wonder, "why am I doing it this way?" Most of the time the answer is tradition, that's the way we've always done it. At one time, there probably was a sound, logical, reasonable explanation for the decision to do it that way.

The Radcliffe Camera in Oxford
Take, for example, the Bodleian Library in Oxford. It is one of the world's literary repositories and one of the largest libraries in the world. It has within its vaults every book published in the English language after 1911, and a lot of those published before that time. Almost entirely underground, the primary fixture of the Bodleian is the Radcliffe Camera which I had the good fortune to visit on a regular basis during my semester at Oxford. The stacks (shelves) of the Bodleian are closed to the public. To read a volume, you must request that it be delivered to one of the many reading rooms throughout Oxford. "Little elves" work underground to catalog and retrieve the books. Organization is key for such a large library. Ironically, however, the books of the Bodleian are organized, not by subject, author, date, or publisher, but by size. Yes, big books over there, small books over here. At one point, this probably made perfect sense, however now that the volume of the library has grown to over 11million titles, it might be time to consider a new method. Why is the Bodleian organized by size? Because that's how it's always been done. Tradition is good, to a point.

I stumbled across an interesting article in THE Journal a little over a year ago and had a moment like I described above. High School chemistry teachers Aaron Sams and Jonathan Bergman were having trouble with their students leaving class early due to sports events. These students were missing lectures and because they missed important information, they were unable to complete the assigned homework later that evening. Sams and Bergman asked a fundamental question: why are lectures delivered at school and problems worked at home? It's always been done that way, but it doesn't have to be.

Sams and Bergman were the first people, to my knowledge, to suggest the idea of "reverse instruction." Together they began to record their lectures and post them on iTunes. The students downloaded them to their computers and mobile devices and watched them at home, at their convenience. When in the classroom Sams and Bergsma spent their time interacting with the students individually on "homework" assignments. When a student got stuck, they were there to help. They flipped the classroom to make it more flexible and dynamic, matching it with the needs of the students.

Last year I began implementing reverse instruction into my high school Anatomy & Physiology class.  It was the third time I had taught the class and I knew that I spent a lot of time lecturing. For most of my lectures I had already created PowerPoint presentations. I began the labor intensive process of putting them on the web for students to view. For some of them I created screencasts with voice narration. Others were simply Google Docs presentations shared on my classroom wiki. For each unit I provided a lecture note outline that I required students to fill out.

With class time liberated from lectures I was able to incorporate more hands-on activities, projects, and helping students better understand confusing and challenging concepts.

I would not say that my first year was a complete success. I have not mastered the art of reverse instruction, but I've made progress. Here are some of the lessons that I've learned:
  • Make sure that you clearly and carefully explain the purpose of reverse instruction to students. This is a radical idea for students as well as teachers. I did this in a class "commercial" which I show at the beginning of the year
  • Stress the importance of the lectures. Students cannot "zone out" and simply copy down the notes in five minutes and be done. They must be actively engaged as they view the lecture notes, writing down questions and fitting in the new information with what they already know. 
  • Hold students accountable to the lectures. I did a credit/no credit lecture notes check at the beginning of each class period to ensure that students were actually viewing the lectures. Another idea (which I haven't tried yet) is including a secret word or number somewhere in the lecture and asking students to write it down in class the following day. They only way to find out what the number/word is, is to watch/listen to the lecture. 
  • Beware of technical problems. YouTube is a good way to share videos, but my school blocks YouTube. I ended up posting my screencasts as both YouTube videos and Google Docs presentations.
  • If students don't have internet access at home (this is becoming less and less of a problem), you will need to pre-load your lectures onto an iPod, print out your slides, or burn them to a CD. 
  • Create a portal for students to go to watch your lectures, download lectures notes, and converse with one another. Google Sites and Wikispaces are both viable options for this. I've used them both. Posting lectures on iTunes is also an option. It is free (you have to provide the hosting), but takes a little while to setup and configure it correctly. 
  • Use Google Docs! If you're like me, you are always updating, tweaking, and improving your lectures and presentations. Making sure that the most updated copy is available for students can become a nightmare. If you use Google Docs to share all of your presentations and handouts, when you make a change, all of the public copies are automatically updated throughout the web. What a time saver!
  • Now that you've freed up class time, you need to use it productively. This can be a challenge. You've spent all of your time and energy developing your lectures and now you don't have the time/energy to develop new, innovative, interactive classroom activities. This is where I need to improve. It takes a while!
Reverse Instruction Resources: 
Helpful Reverse Instruction Tools

  • Camtasia Studio: the best screencasting software on the web. Free 30 day trial, $179 for educators.
  • Jing: a web-based screencasting service. There is a free version (limited filetypes) and a subscription version. Made by TechSmith, the same company that makes Camtasia. 
  • Google Docs: a great way to create presentations and share them with students. You can even upload and convert PowerPoint files!

Do you have other resources or tools that should be added to the list? Have you been using reverse instruction in your classroom? Please leave comment briefly describing your experience. Or, if you've written a blog post about it, include a link!


  1. John,

    What an awesome post! I've never read about this approach, but it makes so much sense! It's so important to keep on questioning why we do what we do. I'm unsure how I'd implement it in English classes, but thanks for making me consider it and question what I can do better to "flip" instruction.


    1. There are several English flipped classrooms that I have come across. Just google it and they usually pop up.

      @John: Excellent work! I am a middle school science teacher and have done a little flipping, but am planning on the "full" flip for next year. Thanks for the motivation.

  2. I love the reverse classroom model. On an interesting side note, Aaron Sams and I grew up across the street from each other in Wyoming. My brother helped us reconnect over the summer in Denver at ISTE. I was able to attend his presentation with Jonathon Bergman and was blown away. I've been telling everyone I can about it since. Make sure you check out Dan Spencer who tweets as @runfardvs and blogs his reverse classroom reflections here He's based in SE Michigan as well and would be a great person to connect with.

  3. Michelle: glad that you enjoyed it. The reverse instruction model works best in science/math classes. I've never heard of anyone using it in an English classroom. It might lend itself well to grammar instruction. I'll have to ponder that one.

    Kit: Thanks for letting me know about Dan. I'll try to connect with him. I always enjoy meeting educators from Michigan! We're going to extend the conversation using the hashtag #revlearn. Please join us!

  4. I have been doing this basic thing for years and didn't know it had a name! My situation is that I teach an elective to 7th & 8th graders who don't like to listen anyway. I give them a worksheet (I know, that's a bad word) but the questions correspond to a website to which I have given them the link. The questions are very simple (is is basic knowledge) and correspond directly to the information in the website. They must type the answer - no copy/paste unless there are sped mods. After everyone is done, we go over the information to make sure everyone understands and has all the questions answered.
    Everyone is busy working on their own assignment and I don't have too many discipline problems. I do allow them to "help" each other as long as they don't do the whole project for the other person.

  5. Welcome, Anne. Do your students complete the worksheets at home or in class? The reverse instructional model does seem like it would work well in a Middle School setting.

  6. Way cool article: Aaron and I are humbled that so many folks have adopted our system. We certainly aren't going back to the old ways.

    Jonathan Bergmann

  7. This is a super-interesting concept. I'm going to try it out with a few lessons and see how it goes. I wonder if the kids still think of listening/watching the lesson as homework, or if it seems different enough to them to make it more palatable. Hmmmm.

  8. This is very intriguing, and I would be very interested in learning more about how it's done! I don't spend a lot of time lecturing in French class, but I'm sure there's a way I could adapt the concept and apply it.

  9. Hi Renee. You should give it a try. The basic idea is to save the independent, non-technical assignments for homework and use class time for the challenging, dynamic activities that students will struggle with.

    I will say that it takes a while to organize your class in a way that reverse instruction works. I had to go through Anatomy & Physiology three times before I had the material and vision to start reverse instruction.

  10. This is an interesting idea with a lot of merit. However, and you touch upon this in your discussion, it is important to remember that a well-crafted in-person presentation can be very good teaching, so let's be careful not to toss exciting lectures/presentations away.

    Recording of Jane Goodall talking about chimps, or Jane Goodall in person. Hmm...


  11. A great blog: I thought I would share with your audience that ISTE has contrated Aaron Sams and I to write a book on the flipped classroom. I just finished chatper 2. We don't have any kind of firm date for release, but look for it in the next 10-12 months.

  12. Congratulations, Jon. Send me a copy when it's ready. I'll be happy to put up a book review for you! = )

  13. John,

    this concept of reverse instruction is exactly what I need to learn about. I`m a new teacher, teaching physics, chemistry and biology with the latter being my passion (in Churchbridge, Canada). Thank you so much for posting these ideas, I found out about you via youtube while preparing my pea dna lab for this Monday (go figure!) -- I hope to get to know you better in the times to come, I think I`ll try out the meiosis poker idea with my students later this week as well, take care,

    Rob Gosselin

  14. Thanks for your contribution, Rob. I'm glad that you found my blog and youtube videos helpful! Stay in touch. Are you a Twitter user? If so, send me a message: @jrsowash.

  15. Great article and great way to get out the word about the Flipped Classroom. I started using the method at the beginning of this school year. After the first semester I am happy to report that when I compared overall scores for this year's first semester to the last 4 years, there was an overall improvement of 5 points on the average. While this doesn't seem huge, please note that we covered one more unit in this, the first semester, than we have in the past. So we covered more, and the students did better. Because of the amount of time/work needed to make the vodcasts and get used to the new way of conducting class, the second semester I have gone to using Jon and Aaron's vodcasts of their chemistry course. This gives me time to prepare activities and refine the method. I will work on making the rest of my vodcasts over the summer.

    I also incorporate the Mastery Method in my class. Briefly, a student must master a unit, topic, objective, etc before being allowed to move. In the regular chem class, a student must make a 75 or better to demonstrate mastery of the material (80 for honors). If a student makes less than this, they must continue retaking the test until they make the grade. Tests are taken online using Moodle so that each time the test is taken, it is a new version. Using the Flipped Classroom combined with Mastery, the course is self paced (within reason)and I can offer differentiated instruction in a combined setting.

  16. Thank you for sharing this excellent demo with the practical steps you used in creating a Flipped classroom. It is so exciting to see you and others take the risk in developing a learning environment that mirrors what many are doing to stay relevant in and outside the classroom. I am curious to know how the parents of your students are reacting to this approach and how you kept them in the loop? Flipped parent teacher conferences are they next?

  17. Hi Lorna,

    I typically explain the structure of my class at our parent night. The parents who don't come miss out on this explanation. I also post a very brief explanation on my class webpage. I haven't had any push-back from parents because of this model of instruction. It's a very logical idea therefore it seems to be easily accepted.

  18. Cool post John.

    Another great site for posting podcasts for free is My church uses it to post sermons. Unlike iTunes, it doesn't require you to host.

  19. Hi John, Thanks for your excellent and informative articles.

  20. Hi John,

    Got to this post through the eLearn space blog and found it most interesting.

    First, working in a company that specializes on empowering students for self-study, reverse instruction poses some questions. For example, where does the notion of self motivation comes in? our biggest problem is with creating an incentive for our students to find their own time for studying. Respectfully, I don't think that the secret word technique would work, as students will just pass the word around.

    Secondly, As a recent college student myself, and in addition to Brett's Mastery Method, I suggest using a method that was used in one of my classes" We were required to assign each other reading in turns, each bringing some of their own interests and opinions to affect the class.


  21. Great post! I've referenced it, along with 6 others, in this article, "7 Stories from Educators About Teaching in the Flipped Classroom" (URL:

    By the way, you have a typo ("year and years") at the start of the post, and the second embedded video is not working (at least not as I read it).

  22. Thanks for the link, Kelly. I appreciate the feedback.

  23. Like the article and posts. very innovative!!

  24. Hi Mr. Sowash! I am a student EDM310 at the University of South Alabama. I enjoyed your blog. I have recently interviewed a high school teacher about his use of technology in his classroom, and flipping the classroom is his min approach. I feel that flipping the classroom gives students a chance to take notes that they missed in class or did not get a chance to take down. Also if drives questions that may not have come to mind in class. The next day when students come into class they will have the questions ready. Once again I enjoyed the blog!!

  25. Hi Mr. Sowash! I am a student EDM310 at the University of South Alabama. I enjoyed your blog. I have recently interviewed a high school teacher about his use of technology in his classroom, and flipping the classroom is his min approach. I feel that flipping the classroom gives students a chance to take notes that they missed in class or did not get a chance to take down. Also if drives questions that may not have come to mind in class. The next day when students come into class they will have the questions ready. Once again I enjoyed the blog!!


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