I know many people have heard of the "flipped" method of education. Essentially, it is the paradigm of old: students do homework and come to class prepared and then new material is covered. I've heard many faculty in higher education scoff at this method, saying that it's actually "what they have always done."

But how many students of your students actually do the reading? Can you tell?

And if students are going to come to class and hear you speak and lecture on the same material, why should they read it ahead of time? Most college students are busy with jobs, other classes, and yes, a social life. It is part of college. How many of us maybe skipped a reading or two (or more?!) in the course of our college lives if we're honest?

While it is true that faculty have always assigned textbook and other homework, one of the new elements that changes this paradigm is technology. There are now newer - and often free - ways to get across content information ahead of class that can lead to more engagement inside the classroom.

I've talked before about whose responsibility it is to engage students on my own blog. I believe that it is partly my job to find ways to have students want to engage in the material. In my upper level art history classes, I have found all kinds of ways to increase student engagement. But the art history survey was proving a very hard nut to crack. That changed in the Fall of 2014, when, coming off of a sabbatical, I realized I could harness the power of online education for the student work ahead of coming to class and then do something to really engage students with the works of art that so energize me as an art historian, and as a human being, in the classroom. In essence, I realized, I could flip the survey.

I used the Khan Academy Art History videos that were first created by Drs. Beth Harris and Steve Zucker, but have been added to by many other fine scholars and teachers over the years. For the flipped art history survey, students watched these videos and then came to class to engage in the ideas of the period in question. I usually assigned about six to seven videos or texts from Khan Academy ahead of time. I make all links available in our class' Blackboard shell. A quiz was given at the start of class in the form of an annotated image that students sometimes filled out individually or in pairs.  This is one example of the quiz on the Woman of Willendorf. After the quizzes, we engaged in deeper discussion of the period in question. For instance, during the prehistoric unit, I included a case study in which hunter-gatherers faced specific threats and difficulties as they decided whether or not to transition to farming, a scenario based on a Reacting to the Past game by my colleague Paula K. Lazrus.

I attended a great presentation by Lynn and Bob Gillette on the flipped pedagogy at a Lilly Conference in Bethesda, MD in 2014 before I embarked on this experiment. One of their suggestions was more like a warning: “if you lecture on material you assign, you die!” This warning resonated deeply with me. At times I thought, “Well, what will I do if I don’t lecture on this material?”

This is the key to teaching in this manner: use the technology but make sure class time is devoted to deep immersion in the ideas and themes of the works of art and cultures themselves. And, truthfully, at times this was a daunting task.

In fact, the most difficult part of the flipped pedagogy is not lecturing on the material. If you do, you lose the integrity of why you assigned the videos and readings in the first place. To illustrate, one of my favorite experiments in this course focused on the art of the Minoans. Upon coming to class, I split them into teams of “archaeologists.” I created a website entitled “Mystery Culture,” being sure not to refer to them as the Minoans per se.

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I included information on this “mystery culture’s” paintings and other objects, and gave them some geographic information with a map. They were not able to do any research on the computers, but had to use only these objects on this website and visual analysis to construct the basic tenets of the civilization. Then, each group had to present their findings at a press conference. Afterwards, I revealed “The Truth.”

I heard from several students that this was one of their favorite activities from the semester. Rather than my lecturing about the Minoan culture, they had to engage with the material in a deep way, analyzing it visually and thinking about context. One student said the following about this class, and the Minoan experience specifically:

“Letting students take the lectures out of class (and on their own terms) makes time for personal development. In class, we were more often than not paired with new students and given an unpredictable assignment. These assignments helped us think about art in different ways and gain a real understanding of the material. One class in particular stood out to me. After being placed in a randomly assigned group [she] tasked [each group] with the challenge of predicting the history of a "mysterious" civilization whose name was withheld. My group spent the entire class invested in the material and we deeply debated our different thoughts on this civilization. For the first time I discovered I had a deep love of a subject that I had never given any thought about.”

Based on this student feedback, and other similar comments from student evaluations, I will always teach art history with this flipped model. Students were much more engaged with the material even from the very beginning of the semester, asking many more questions than in the past. One assessment of this experiment was week three, when I realized that I knew all twenty of my students not just superficially, but individually. This is because they had all spoken, asked questions, or otherwise made their individuality known. In my experience, this rarely happens in a lecture class, where I consistently engage with maybe five or six of the overall twenty to twenty-five students in the course. In addition to this personal assessment, these students did just as well on exams as students in the more traditional lecture-based classes.

The keys are these: keep them accountable with some kind of quiz on at least one of the several images assigned; keep them engaged in class with an activity, case study, debate or Reacting to the Past game that focuses on the issues related to the art of the period; and never, ever lecture on the assigned material unless your assessments demonstrate that they missed something significant or have misunderstandings.

This post was written for the Art History Teaching Resources site.

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