In a trend called flipping the classroom, new technology tools and different approaches to learning are changing the way some college faculty teach their courses. That may mean turning a lecture into homework so more class time can be spent on practice and problem-solving.

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For years, Scott Freeman taught Biology 180 — a gateway class — by standing in front of his students at the University of Washington and lecturing about biological systems, evolution and the chromosome theory of inheritance.

And Freeman always received great reviews from students, even though 17 percent routinely flunked his class — a failure rate he considered “gruesome.”

Freeman knew what was wrong: His students weren’t adept at applying information in a new context to solve problems, and he told them so. But one day, a student threw the ball back in his court. He just wasn’t doing enough to prepare her for the tests — she needed his help to practice.

“I thought, I am so busted,” Freeman said. “She is right. That still rings in my ears.”

Freeman is now part of a new wave of Washington college instructors who are rethinking the college lecture hall. They’re finding better ways to spot students’ weaknesses, helping them practice new ways of thinking and shoring up basic materials — often with the aid of new, easy-to-use tech tools.

Some are seizing on a relatively recent idea: “flipping” the class, by turning a lecture or other basic materials into homework, and spending more class time in practice and problem-solving. Other colleges are using the new tech toolbox to save money while reaching more students — a necessity in these days of steep budget cuts to higher education.

Students say classes that make the most of tech tools and give them opportunities to practice skills are still the exception, not the rule. But when done right, they make a course both more challenging and more enjoyable.

The new tools allow faculty members to home in on the areas where students need the most practice, assistance and instruction, said Beth Kalikoff, who directs the Center for Teaching and Learning at the UW.

“There’s every reason to be excited about it,” she said. “It’s student-centered. The reason faculty members are seeking it out is that it supports student learning and engagement.”

Recording lectures

A Thanksgiving snowstorm that paralyzed traffic two years ago prompted Guy Hamilton, who heads the biotechnology program at Shoreline Community College, to try new software that allowed him to record lectures and post them online. He set up his MacBook in the basement and began lecturing to his computer.

“The students just loved it,” he said, especially because they could watch lectures on difficult topics over and over. When Hamilton graded the final exams, he found his students had done 15 to 20 percent better than expected.

That was the end of live lectures for Hamilton, who now records all of his lectures and spends class time on group discussions and problem-solving. “I won’t do it any other way now,” he said.

Most of Hamilton’s students are working adults who already hold four-year degrees. They can play a recorded lecture anytime, even while commuting on the bus. And Hamilton can monitor which students watched the assigned lecture, and which did not.

Among the state’s technical and community colleges in the Puget Sound area, Shoreline is the heaviest user of the software that allows faculty to record lectures.

Many weren’t even aware that “flipping the classroom” is an educational trend; they’re just doing it because it makes sense, said Ann Garnsey-Harter, director of Shoreline’s virtual college and e-learning support services. Students like recorded lectures because “you can go back and listen again to what was said — you can go back as many times as you want,” she said.

Online innovations

Steven Emory couldn’t imagine teaching chemistry without a chemistry lab, but a few years ago budget constraints at Western Washington University made that likely.

So Emory, an associate professor of chemistry and director of the Advanced Materials Science & Engineering Center, began looking for ways to do some of the labs virtually.

He and his colleagues identified four labs that could be done on a computer because “they’re really just mixing stuff in a beaker; there’s not much to that in terms of chemistry.” And little extras could be embedded into the labs — for example, animations that showed how molecules were interacting during an electrical conductivity experiment. Students could linger over a lab as long as they wanted — or complete it in two hours.

Emory and his colleagues were able to convert half the labs into virtual labs, saving the school money. He’s cautiously optimistic about the educational benefits: “At least, at this point, we didn’t do any harm, and there appears to be areas where we might have had gains,” he said.

Computer-delivered class time has also helped solve budget constraints at Washington State University, which has doubled the size of a speech class many students take to satisfy a core requirement, said lecturer Mark Wadleigh, who works in the Murrow College of Communication.

More than 1,500 WSU freshmen signed up for the class, but the school’s largest lecture hall seated only 500. Along with revamping the course to make it more relevant to today’s communication demands, WSU made attending lectures in-person optional, Wadleigh said — students could go to the lecture hall or watch online. Other innovations included online quizzes and a requirement that students deliver their speeches over a computer.

“I think the students are getting a higher-quality education that’s more interesting, more relevant,” Wadleigh said.

Student engagement

A cognitive scientist will tell you that not even the biggest brains on the planet can juggle seven to 10 things in their heads at once, UW lecturer Freeman says.

His 50-minute-long lectures in biology, four days a week to 500 students in Kane Hall, demanded that kind of juggling act. So he began revising his class to make it more digestible and give students more opportunities to practice.

He developed an online multiple-choice quiz to go along with each reading assignment and “we get 90 to 95 percent participation every night,” he said. “They stay on task. They get a ton more out of class.”

Freeman was one of the first at the UW to adopt the use of clickers — handheld wireless devices that allow students to answer a multiple-choice question posted on the screen during class, giving Freeman instant feedback on how many grasp the concept.

During class, Freeman also asks students to turn to their neighbors and discuss the rationale for their answers. He goes down the class roll, calling on individual students and asking them questions.

“Honestly, Biology 180 was a refreshing change from all the classes I have been taking at UW,” said freshman Mustufa Jafry, majoring in biochemistry and chemistry. “I not only learn a lot more in this class, but I actually am able to retain a lot of it even after the exam.”

As for that dismal failure rate of 17 percent, Freeman says fewer than 4 percent of his students flunk the class today. About 24 percent earn an A, compared with 14 percent before he switched his methods. And he believes the material he’s presenting is now harder, not easier.

Rachel Perelman, a sophomore psychology major, called it the best class she’s taken at the UW because of all the different things Freeman does to help students practice.

“It’s easy to get lost in big lectures,” she said, via email. “But when you know the professor has a list of the students’ names and you could get called on at any time to answer any question, you stay on your toes.”

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or On Twitter @katherinelong.