Flipped Learning in the University Classroom

Flipped learning put students at the center of learning and put teachers on the sidelines helping and guiding the students. Flipped classrooms vary in setup but the key component is that instructors are not standing in front of the class lecturing but answering questions and offering support as students work on projects and hands on activities during class time.

Sune Lehmann, an associate professor at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU), took over two courses on social data and he decided to make them his own by flipping the course structure. He started recording his lectures to leave more time in class for students to master different skills on their own schedule and to have direct access to a university researcher. At the core of restructuring his courses was the goal of preparing his students with skills .that are important for engineers in today’s labor market.

Flipped classrooms are a concept used across grade levels and subjects, we talked to Sune about how he flipped his classroom:

What is Social Data Analysis and Visualization” and “Social Graphs and Interactions?

Both of my courses focus on “social data”, by which I mean data generated by humans as they interact with the internet and the internet of things. So things like call data records, social network data, bank transactions, etc. This is in contrast to data source that are more “boring” like massive datasets from windmills or particle collisions at CERN. Social Data Analysis and Visualization teaches the fundamentals of Data Science with a strong emphasis on visualization.

Social Graphs and Interactions focuses on network analysis but also draws on natural language processing. The idea here is that many real-world networks (e.g. Twitter or Wikipedia) have text as a very important type of metadata.

“In my opinion, access to real researchers is a key part of a university education, so that’s the thing we should be optimizing.”

How did you decide to flip your classroom?

After taking some wonderful courses on didactics offered at my university, I realized that – while I love giving traditional lectures – that style of teaching is not a particularly good way to learn. Thus over the past 5 years or so, I have gradually moved to my own version of a flipped classroom teaching style, making little videos to explain the key concepts.

I got a bit annoyed with the learning management system (LMS) at my university, and luckily they are very flexible and accepting of other solutions, so I began using GitHub as my LMS. Here are links to recent editions of my two courses.


How do you set up your flipped class?

My classes basically work like this: Students show up – unprepared – and start reading a dedicated page for each lecture. As they read along, the page will ask them to do one of three things.

  1. Read something
  2. Watch a short video
  3. Solve some exercises

During any lecture, they will work through many little readings, videos, and exercises. Each lecture is designed in such a way that the videos and reading are needed to solve the exercises, and the exercises are constructed so that if the students solve them, they will achieve their learning objectives.

I then work as a TA in my own class, focusing on chatting with the students and helping them solve the exercises and better understand the material.

Where did the motivation to change up the status quo come from?
In a day and age, where we compete with online-courses from the best universities in the world – the true resource that smaller universities like DTU can offer is access to professors. In my opinion, access to real researchers is a key part of a university education, so that’s the thing we should be optimizing.

In addition to being able to learn about subject matter through a real back-and-forth discussion, the students also get a chance to see that their lecturers are “real people”. People that are not perfect and not geniuses. I think it is important for the students to realize that their teachers are fallible. That is one of the important ways in which they start believing that they, themselves will be able to succeed.
In my opinion, access to real researchers is a key part of a university education, so that’s the thing we should be optimizing. Click To Tweet

Why has this setup worked so well for you?
In my own case, I try to make everything a little bit lo-fi to emphasize the real-person aspect of the operation. My videos are informal, not over-produced and I have a strict one-take recording principle. Somehow that makes them feel intimate and “real” – I’ve had many students tell me that they like the videos and that they feel like it’s a kind of one-on-one teaching.

And if the videos don’t get the job done, the students can pause them and ask me the question in person.

If someone else wanted to do this, what advice would you give them?
I always keep gently updating my courses, replacing the weakest, most boring lectures with new exciting stuff.

Also, take a look at my courses – they are open source, and linked above. Feel free to use whatever you like and replace the rest with your own ideas.

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Header image courtesy of DTU & Vibeke Hempler

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