Creating flexible learning spaces and the flipped lecture

Increasingly we are aware that learning does not happen by passively receiving information.  The traditional lecture where one lecturer talks and students sit quietly in rows listening and taking notes has limited use.  At City University London we are bringing about changes in the smaller learning spaces we have to create a number of flexible spaces.  By using movable furniture and other equipment we can further enable the prevalence of collaboration, interactivity, employment of a variety of activities and circulation of academic staff within the learning space.  These spaces are also rich, vibrant rooms that support the use of electronic devices either provided by the university or students’ own.  We now need to explore how to bring these qualities to the lecture theatre.  That is, using furniture, technology and equipment to support interactivity, collaboration, flexibility and create a sense of intimacy with the lecturer and other students.

One idea may be that of the flipped lecture.  Peer instruction and the flipped lecture are reproducible techniques that do away with the traditional lecture and improve learning.  This work has been pioneered by Eric Mazur.  His view of his many years of physics teaching and good course evaluation scores were turned on their head when he realised that his students hadn’t actually fully grasped the concepts that should underpin their learning.  Good course evaluations and good lectures, Mazur claims do not reveal anything about the quality of learning.  His methods now prioritise active learning such as questioning rather than telling.  Students are asked to complete pre-class activities and come to his session prepared to discuss, explore and teach each other.

Photograph by Stu Rosner appearing in Harvard magazine at

Here Mazur explains how peer instruction works:

“First, when one student has the right answer and the other doesn’t, the first one is more likely to convince the second—it’s hard to talk someone into the wrong answer when they have the right one. More important, a fellow student is more likely to reach them than Professor Mazur—and this is the crux of the method. You’re a student and you’ve only recently learned this, so you still know where you got hung up, because it’s not that long ago that you were hung up on that very same thing. Whereas Professor Mazur got hung up on this point when he was 17, and he no longer remembers how difficult it was back then. He has lost the ability to understand what a beginning learner faces.”

Mazur also deploys technology such as the clickers we have at City to enable students to grapple with problems.  The learning spaces we have also impact on learning as he explains here:

“Most classrooms—more like 99.9 percent—on campus are auditoriums.  They are built with just one purpose: focusing the attention of many on the professor. The professor is active, and the audience is just sitting there, taking in information. Instead, you could get away from the auditorium seating and set up classrooms like you see in elementary schools, where four children sit around a square table facing each other, and you give them some kind of group activity to work on: that’s active learning. It’s no accident that most elementary schools are organized that way. The reason is, that’s how we learn. For some reason we unlearn how to learn as we progress from elementary school through middle school and high school. And in a sense, maybe I’m bringing kindergarten back to college by having people talk to each other!”

Improving learning is at the heart of every course and we are working on creating the spaces needed to achieve that.  We also need to open the conversation to engage academics and students in discussions about how we learn and what learning spaces we need and what models of teaching work.

I will leave you with this final thought from Eric Mazur:   “You can forget facts but you cannot forget understanding”

Thanks to Matt Lingard for the links and information.

Quotes taken from:

Twilight of the Lecture: The trend toward “active learning” may overthrow the style of teaching that has ruled universities for 600 years, Harvard Magazine,

From Questions to Concepts: Interactive Teaching in Physics, two minute video


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3 thoughts on “Creating flexible learning spaces and the flipped lecture

  1. Reciprocal thanks for turning my info into a blog post 🙂 If anyone in SEMS or SOI are reading this & interested in having a go a inverted teaching / flipped classroom in 2013/4 I’m looking for pilotees.

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