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Flipped classroom 'liberating' for professor

In Brenda Ravenscroft’s “flipped classroom,” students worked communally in small clusters to analyze a difficult musical score. They discussed, made calculations, and worked together in order to understand the underlying organization of the piece.

“The flipped model challenges the traditional uses of classroom time,” says Dr. Ravenscroft, Professor in the School of Music as well as Associate Dean (Teaching and Learning) in the Faculty of Arts and Science. “The idea is to take the content transmission outside of class and use classroom time more effectively, as a space where students analyze and synthesize information, problem-solve, and make discoveries.”

In MUSC 446, students used interactive touchscreens in an Ellis Hall classroom to dissect complex musical scores.

That element of discovery is key, says Dr. Ravenscroft, who redesigned and taught her class, MUSC 446, this past year. In the flipped classroom, instructors move aside – using their role to facilitate learning through listening, prompting and asking guiding questions – so students can experience those “aha!” moments while sifting and comparing, and collaborating with others.

Instead of listening to lectures, class time is meant for going deeper into the work and dealing with any problems that may have arisen for students in their preparatory work of readings and online research.

To make this process of discovery work well in MUSC 446: Advanced Analysis, Dr. Ravenscroft purposefully chose complex music by a contemporary composer – the late Elliott Carter, an American. Dr. Ravenscroft is an expert in Mr. Carter’s music, but she chose pieces that she hadn’t explored – in fact, no one had looked at this music, she says, because it was so new.

“I wanted to be learning alongside the students. I didn’t want to have all the answers,” she says. “There is more risk involved with this approach for instructors, since we generally want to know the answers and have them ready, but I found it exciting, and liberating.”

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Dr. Ravenscroft had been thinking of redesigning this class – a very technical course in which students examine the organizational structure of Carter’s work, focusing on pitch, rhythm and text setting – for many years. As associate dean of teaching and learning in Arts and Science, she’s had the opportunity to investigate many different teaching and learning practices, as well as to learn effective, evidence-based practices from other faculty members who are innovating in their classes. And after years of not teaching (because of her senior administrative duties), she was keen to apply the ideas she’d been exploring.

Student feedback on Dr. Ravenscroft’s MUSC 446

“Dr. Ravenscroft did a brilliant job of opening my mind to a new way of thinking. I am happy to say that no matter what industry/field I eventually choose my career in, what I've learned in this class will always be relevant to me.”

"I like the blended learning style in that it allowed more class time to work with our groups and ask questions instead of just being lectured at."

"The group work aspect was very interesting and well implemented — it really allowed for the learning to be student-oriented as we learned through actually doing the work."

“The teaching and learning research shows that students learn well in groups. That was certainly the case in my class,” Dr. Ravenscroft explains. “Students thrived. They were excited to come to class, and sometimes brought visitors to show them what we were doing. And the quality of the work they produced proved to me that this is an effective method. There was a greater depth of analytical insight than I’d seen in previous courses, and all of their final essays were very well written and researched.”

The course itself required a great deal of preparation, and Dr. Ravenscroft took care in creating a very thorough course website through Moodle that outlines week-to-week what is expected of students and what they’ll be learning. Also on that page are details on the numerous assessments (quizzes, assignments, in-class tests, and final essay), along with the course syllabus and ongoing messages from Dr. Ravenscroft. Students also completed peer evaluations at the mid- and end-points of the course – and many commented that this process gave them time to reflect on how they worked in their groups, and what they could improve.

The class was held in one of the Ellis Hall active learning classrooms, which gave students an interactive space for exploring in groups. They used the large touchscreens to engage with the musical scores – annotating with different-coloured pens and making notes in margins.

Dr. Ravenscroft also designed a “health break” into each three-hour class. Every week, one group would bring in a snack and orchestrate a movement session (YouTube videos on the touchscreens were very popular), with Dr. Ravenscroft starting things off the first week.

“I am not opposed to having fun in class,” says Dr. Ravenscroft. “The experience is definitely less formal, but it was enjoyable. And it’s well known that an inclusive and interactive class climate has a positive effect on learning.

“It enabled me to interact with students on a more human scale. Many things came up in conversation that wouldn’t have otherwise, such as using music theory after graduation. And it was clear that many of the skills the students were building in class – the group interactions, in particular – would transfer out of class, into playing with an orchestra but also beyond musical contexts, to any workplace environment where teamwork is important.”

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Many Queen’s instructors are experimenting with the flipped classroom and other blended learning models. In the Faculty of Arts and Science, the Blended Learning Project includes 15 high-enrolment first- and second-year courses in a wide range of subjects. These courses all flip the structure to deliver content through online materials and focus class time on engaging students through active learning and group work.

“The results of the research we are doing for the project show this model is very effective,” says Dr. Ravenscroft. “Student engagement scores have increased significantly.”

Supports for teaching and learning

Dr. Ravenscroft gave a presentation about her experience with the flipped classroom at the recent Showcase of Teaching and Learning, an annual event that gives Queen’s educators the chance to share their innovative and new teaching practices.

“The flipped classroom is one of the active learning models that the Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL) helps promote and develop alongside Queen’s professors and instructors,” says Peter Wolf, Associate Vice-Provost (Teaching and Learning) and Director of the CTL. “At the CTL, we have educational developers and numerous resources available to guide professors through the process of redesigning a course and we encourage them to come to us with any ideas or questions.”