Chris Persichilli, PhD, Department of Physics & Astronomy

The Problem

These are unstable times. The insurgence of the Internet into all facets of modern life has had a transformative impact on every industry, whether they like it or not. Education is no exception, of course; and with the continued reduction in barriers to knowledge brought on by the information age, there are questions about the role and utility of traditional university education.

The question is: if a student can find a lifetime’s worth of free educational content on the Internet, then why pay tuition just to have a professor tell it to them in a classroom? This is far from a hypothetical situation. Projects such as Khan Academy and Crash Course have made high quality lectures in a variety of subjects available for free to anyone with an internet connection. Meanwhile, we’ve got Youtube creators such as Smarter Every Day putting out physics demonstration videos with off-the-charts production values, and 3blue1brown creating beautifully animated math lessons to which a white-board session is simply no contest.

The Flipped Classroom – A Way Forward

So, how does a lecturer compete with all this freely available knowledge? The answer is, don’t; at least not directly. We’ve known for years that traditional lecturing isn’t the most effective method of teaching in science and engineering [1]. In particular, many universities have adopted “flipped classrooms” in their STEM courses. Here, students learn the core material before class and the instructor uses the in-class time to guide students through activity based learning.

From this perspective, the plethora of online resources available to students is not the competition, but a resource for educators. Even the founder of Khan Academy views the organization’s videos as a supplement to a complete education, not a replacement [2]. After all, instructors can dedicate some of their effort in course design towards curating a library of resources for their students, providing them with a knowledge base and a starting-off point for discussion. This allows the instructor to play to the strengths of the in-person environment, shifting roles from a source of knowledge to that of a guide and mentor.

There are several benefits to this approach:

  • Students are more free to learn at their own pace, allowing time for reflection.
  • The teacher is around to provide feedback and guidance during the more involved aspects of learning (applying, analyzing, and creating).
  • More one-on-one interaction allows teachers to better cater to student needs, allows for more formative assessment, and helps to humanize the classroom.
  • Active learning tasks naturally include breaking points, which can help reduce cognitive load and increase student attention.
  • Acquiring knowledge outside the classroom better prepares students for continued learning after graduation, developing a critical, and often underdeveloped, skill.

Dealing with a Non-Ideal World

At this point, many STEM faculty will ask, “That’s great for English teachers, but what about my 300 person [STEM subject] 101 course?”. For many STEM teachers with larger classes, the think-pair-share type of active learning activities that are typically associated with flipped classrooms can seem a bit unwieldy.

Thankfully, there are a number of low-effort ways to implement a flipped classroom for those huge lecture courses [2]. For instance, Kahoot! quizzes and iClickers can break up the monotony and keep students active in the classroom; while pre-class quizzes can be used as a formative assessment, and to keep students up-to-date on their assigned reading/viewing. TAs can be used as a force multiplier in the classroom by fanning out and engaging with students during lecture. Also, they can lead activity-focused discussion sessions outside the main lecture.

In Closing

In order to continue providing value to students, STEM education needs to refocus towards facilitating learning. Educators can play to the strengths of the in-person environment by leveraging modern, evidence based educational techniques, and positioning themselves as guides and mentors, as opposed to fountains of knowledge.


[1] Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., Mcdonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410-8415. 

[2] Eichler, J. F., & Peeples, J. (2016). Flipped classroom modules for large enrollment general chemistry courses: a low barrier approach to increase active learning and improve student grades. Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 17(1), 197-208. 

[3] Khan, S. (2011). Let’s Use Video to Reinvent Education. Talk presented at TED 2011. Retrieved May 22, 2019.

Matthew Mahavongtrakul edited this post on June 6th, 2019.