Course design: planning a flipped class

Cartoon upsidedownIn a flipped classroom students engage with lectures or other materials outside of class to prepare for an active learning experience in the classroom. 

This is not a new idea, but the current usage of the term “flipped” is generally associated with students engaging with materials online followed by in-class activities that involve peer learning or small-group work that engages students in discussion or problem solving. There are many other activities that can be part of a flipped class such as debates, clicker questions, Q and A, demonstrations, simulations, peer tutoring and feedback, and role playing. An instructor may choose to flip just a few classes a term, where the concepts lend themselves to active learning experiences, or to flip all classes.  As in all class planning, the objectives of the class must be determined before the activities are planned. See CTE Teaching Tips, “Writing learning outcomes”.

Why Flip?

  • In a lecture, the attention of most students starts to decrease after ten or fifteen minutes, so flipping the class can help keep students focused and learning for the whole period.
  • Flipping the classroom means that students have time to process and reflect on concepts and increase their knowledge base before coming to class to apply their learning.
  • Instructors can get a sense of where students are having difficulty with the course material or have questions or misconceptions about concepts (possibly through an online assessment or discussion forum) before they come to class. Instructors can then adjust what will be done in class depending on this feedback. This is often called “just-in-time teaching” (JITT).
  • Students can control the time, pace and place of learning with the online materials. Many students find it useful to repeat segments of an online presentation when they are having difficulty with a particular concept or when they are studying for the final exam. For some students the ability to rewind and listen to a presentation or explanation again can help them make more meaningful notes or overcome language fluency difficulties.
  • Although an up-front investment of time is necessary to to create online materials, including video content, the materials can be reused by the instructor from year to year.
  • Flipping some classes can add some variety and change of pace to classes and make the course more interesting for both students and instructor.
  • There is evidence that having students engage in active learning and peer learning in class leads to deeper understanding and greater retention of concepts than traditional lecture information transfer in class.

A Planning Model for Flipped Classes

Planning a  flipped class

Often when instructors are planning to flip a class they focus all their attention on planning the activities that the students will do in class and on what the students will do online to prepare for that active learning in class. However, there are two other aspects of the flipped-class design that require planning; how the activities will be introduced to the students and how the instructor and the students will know that they have adequately prepared for the in-class experience.

Introduce the Task

The goal of this stage of the flipped class is to maximize student participation/readiness for the activities they will be doing online and in-class. Instructors should introduce the tasks by clearly explaining their expectations for what the students will be doing and the amount of time the students will need to invest to be ready for the class activity.  Explaining what they will be doing and why being prepared for the in-class activities is also important. For some students, active learning in the classroom will be a new experience so a “no surprises” approach can reduce possible anxiety about a more participatory approach to learning.

Out of Class Task

Carefully consider the choice of media for the online activities and materials. Instructors can create their own materials such as narrated PowerPoints, screencasts and podcasts, or reuse online content such as websites, readings and videos. Video content should be concise -- no more than 10-15 minute segments -- and it can be helpful to students if there are guiding questions or prompts to help them recognize the keys objectives of the preparatory work. If instructors include an online means for students to submit questions about difficult concepts or other questions, they can use some class time to discuss these issues. For examples of activities see CTE Teaching Tips, "Online activities and assessment for the flipped classroom".

Assess the Learning

Before the in-class session both the instructor and the students can benefit from knowing if the students are adequately prepared for the in-class activity. Self-assessment quizzes or low-stakes online quizzes can be a good way to assess if students are adequately prepared. Ideally these assessments are short (3 to 4 questions), and include questions that provide an opportunity for students to apply what they have learned rather than questions that merely test factual knowledge. Formative feedback on the assessment questions and an opportunity for students to pose their own questions to the instructor can also be included. Evidence of preparation can also be provided through a short assignment or assessment at the beginning of the in-class portion of the flipped class. Learning and assessment are interconnected: low stakes or formative assessment is a valuable learning tool for students.

In-class Activities

Activities that foster peer-to-peer and student-instructor dialogue and that create opportunities for collaboration and peer learning and other forms of active learning are most effective for promoting a deep-learning approach. The objectives of an activity should be clearly linked to course objectives and assessments; the in-class activity time can be used to encourage students to be creative and make discoveries (and errors) in a relaxed, low-risk environment. For examples of activities see CTE Teaching Tips, "Active learning activities" and " In-class activities and assessment for the flipped classroom".


Student motivation, which underlies the whole learning process, can be affected by the design of the activity. An enthusiastic instructor who has good rapport with students and creates an open and positive atmosphere in class can motivate student participation and learning. Activities that are designed to be challenging, but achievable, can help motivate students. Also students will be more motivated if they find personal meaning and value in the material and see that the course is relevant and linked to their future success. Providing frequent feedback to students as they complete their learning can also increase motivation.

What are the potential challenges of flipping?

Trying a new approach for a single class or many classes in a term will have its challenges. The following are real but not insurmountable.

  • Increased work load for the instructor. Time and effort is required to rethink and prepare both pre-class and in-class activities; however, activities can often be reused without too much effort the next time the class is offered.
  • Instructors might need to decrease the course content. With more student participation and dialogue, instructors may find that they are not able to “cover” as much material as they have in that past, so rethinking  the learning outcomes of the course may be necessary. The concepts that are learned are likely to be retained for longer and applied more effectively with the active learning component.
  • Not all active-learning strategies are feasible in large classes. The activities that can be feasible facilitated in a really large class are fewer than those in a small class, but there are still many ways to engage students in applying concepts and peer learning. A mixture of mini-lectures and think-pair-share and/or the use of clickers can be effective even in really large classes – see Activities for Large Classes.
  • Students might resist changing from a lecture approach. For many students being passive in a lecture is easier and less intimidating than being actively involved in a class. However, if asked, students often acknowledge that more active, deeper learning experiences are very valuable and that they prefer meaningful learning in the classroom.  (See Gary Smith's article for a strategy to introduce students to active learning.)
  • Be prepared for some students not being prepared. Hopefully instructors have taken the requisite steps to ensure that students are prepared for class, but if students do come to class unprepared,  don’t re-lecture -- move forward anyway. Once students see that you are serious about supporting active learning in the classroom, they will likely be better prepared the next time.
  • Technology. Who has ever used a new technology without some kind of technical issue? Be prepared for blips along the way and contact your CTE liaison to find out how to get support with using teaching technologies.


CTE Teaching Tips "Active learning activities", "Activities for large classes" and "Course design: planning a class"

Gary Smith (2008) The National Teaching & Learning Forum, Volume 17, No. 5. First-Day Questions for a Learner-Centred Classroom.

Flipping a Class”, University of Texas website

Flipped classroom strategies from the “Turn to Your Neighbour - Peer Instruction Blog”  and 7 Myths about the Flipped Classroom Debunked

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