Flipping Very Large Classrooms: Embracing the Controlled Chaos

Amanda Brindley Holton
Department of Chemistry
University of California, Irvine

When first implementing flipped instruction, I ravenously read every resource I could find. I excitedly wandered into the each conference talk with “large” and “flipped” in the title, only to be disappointed to see that they were discussing classrooms of 50 – my classrooms are generally 350-400 students! Not to be discouraged, with quickly advancing technology, and pioneers in the field working with publishers to improve it further, I thought, “it can’t be all that different.” Regardless of scale, similar challenges exist and technology can be used to minimize repetitive tasks to keep the workload to a manageable level. Here I suggest a few simple, easily implemented strategies for coping with common challenges that are faced when flipping a very large lecture class.

Student Accountability

Regardless of size, for effective flipped instruction, students must consistently complete the pre-work. There is an incredible amount of resources available for externally motivating students with low stakes points, while simultaneously administering formative assessments. Consistency is the key. Having a short, predictable assignment each day ensures that pre-class work becomes a habit. I personally choose to use a commercial homework system with assignments on each topic that can be answered using either the book or videos.  Other resources exist for ensuring students watch videos (or at the very least that the videos have played on their computer for a specified amount of time). If you chose not to grade these assignments, Zaption is a great tool for keeping students engaged with the videos.

Accommodating Student Differences

Audience at the conference hall. No recognisable faces

Differences in student aptitude, preparation levels, and motivations do not disappear in a flipped classroom. However, flipped instruction does provide new ways to address underprepared students. They can spend extra time before class reviewing material, rewinding until basic concepts are learned before coming to class. For less prepared students, a brief review of the pre-work material at the start of class can help them learn to identify key points.

During in-class work, programs such as Learning Catalytics, which gives a “seat map” of answers for you to monitor student responses to their assignments, ensures that you can direct attention to struggling students during the work time. You can even point out that the people behind, in front, or a few seats down from them can help out! Much like looking at faces of confusion and frustration, in a small class, these “seat maps” of answers can help you spot students in trouble in larger classes.

We must also consider the high achievers. Many students won’t be challenged by the typical requirements of the class and need motivation to stay engaged. For them I simply include an additional challenge problem on each worksheet. These have interesting life, research, or medical applications to engage them with the material further than is possible with simpler tasks. Generally by the last free work time of the day, I get as many questions on the challenge problem as on the core problems we are working on.

I’d like to finish up with two seemingly minor, yet very important challenges that tend to get asked over coffee or in one-on-one conversations.

FAQ #1: How much time does it take to prepare a flipped class?

Initial prep time is a challenge – regardless of the class size. The initial investment is well worth it as the workload decreases as time goes on and is replaced by far more rewarding and engaging work. For the initial workload, there are resources to help. If you teach a commonly taught course, UC Irvine, MIT, Stanford and many other universities capture their lectures and post them for free online. Use these and then intentionally explain to your students that you are doing this in order to fully facilitate learning in other ways. Be sure to explain where your time is being placed so the students understand that you are not being lazy, but rather are using your time wisely to give them the best education possible. Additionally you can flip your course in pieces. For instance, flip only one day a week. Or the first time through flip only every other chapter. You don’t have to do it all at once. I now replace/update only a couple videos each quarter, identified via an extra credit assignment asking the students to discuss their favorite and least favorite videos.

FAQ #2: How do you “control” the class?

When encouraging 400 students to talk to each other, the amount of chaos is certainly higher than a traditional lecture. Admittedly, as a very young, mildly quiet female, I was initially very concerned about this. Yet, it has not once been an issue. It looks chaotic to a random observer. But the moment I turn on the microphone and say “quick interruption” or “let’s start” or “I think it may be time for hint,” the room is instantly quiet (a few whispers here and there). During these times, I have more attention, and more focus than in a typical lecture course. The most active students in class are typically the ones who want to learn the most, and they will absolutely quiet down and listen to you when you start to tell them something that they know will be helpful.

Summary Thoughts

A flipped classroom has similar challenges to any large classroom. However, flipped instruction provides innovative solutions. Students are able to work to their current level, while technology allows you to monitor their improvement on both an individual and classroom level. Initial time investment is manageable through a variety of currently available resources, and alternate methods of initial implementation. The easily surmountable challenges are well worth the investment given the atmosphere of collaboration, enthusiasm, teamwork, and ownership that flipped classroom instruction provides.


Crouch, C.H., & Mazur, E. (2001). Peer Instruction: Ten years of experience and results. American Journal of Physics, 69, 970-977. http://scitation.aip.org/content/aapt/journal/ajp/69/9/10.1119/1.1374249

Mazur, E. (2009). Farewell, lecture? Science 2, 323(5910), 50-51. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/323/5910/50

Caldwell, J.E. (2007). Clickers in the large classroom: Current research and best-practice tips. CBE Life Science Education, 6(1), 9-20. http://www.lifescied.org/content/6/1/9.full

Deslauriers, L. Schelew, E., & Wieman, C. (2011).Improved learning in a large-enrollment physics class. Science, 332(6031), 862-864. DOI: 10.1126/science.1201783

Technology Resources: Homework and In-class Responses

Commercial Resources with content: Sapling*,1, Pearson Mastering Chemistry*,2, WileyPlus, Webassign1, ALEKS*,1,2, McGraw-Hill’s Connect2

Free: WeBWorK (math and science), Most LMS’s (Moodle, Edmodo, Blackboard and Schoology) have homework capabilities, yet require your own content creation.

Free and anonymous: Poll Everywhere, Today’s Meet*, Pinnion, Mentimeter, Kahoot3

Free+account: Socrative3

Cost for Students: Iclicker*,4, 5, Learning Catalytics5, TurningTechnologies4, LectureTools (useful for traditional lectures as well), TopHat5

*Tools I have used

1Adjusts for any book, publisher independent.

2Adaptive Learning Components

3Gamified options

4Stand-alone device available

5Most LMS integration

Technology Resources: Creating Videos

Free, web-based: Screencast-o-matic.com, Educreations (recordable whiteboard),

Free, downloadable: Jing (TechSmith, simple quick), Tiny Take,

With Cost: Camtasia Studio*(Complex, many options), ScreenFlow, Snagit (TechSmith), Wideo (animation), GoAnimate (animation), Doceri (ipad),

Technology Resources: Video Hosting

Free with only basic analytics:  Youtube*, Vimeo, Schooltube, TeacherTube (Linked with wordpress like blog sites to create “classrooms” for your videos), Screencast.com6, Vzaar6

Free with student monitoring: Crazyforeducation.com (individual student reporting, plus student digital notecard), Check with your university (UCI has sign on services with monitoring), LMS Sites: Canvas, Moodle, Edmodo and Schoology

6With control over who sees your material

Note: This blog is based in part on a presentation made at the 2015 Lilly Conference – Newport Beach.

Leave a reply