Reimagining the undergraduate science course

The “Biochemistry: Structure and Metabolism” course at Columbia University had a lot going for it: It had high enrollment numbers, with upward of 180 students, and it received high ratings in student evaluations. But like a lot of courses, there was still room for improvement.
First, many students came to class without completing the required reading, which made it difficult to build upon that material during class. Second, a large fraction of students skipped class, likely because the lecture notes were posted online. And third, some students just didn’t master the material, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
So we made a decision that might seem radical to some readers, but it’s one that is being adopted across disciplines: We flipped the classroom.

What does it mean to flip the classroom?

When we say we flipped the classroom, we mean that we had students watch recorded videos before class, freeing classroom time for discussion, group work and solving problems. But this is not something you can do overnight.
We took time to define our goals: Obviously, we wanted the students to be better prepared for each class, allowing them to engage more fully in class discussion. But we also wanted to have students put lecture material into action by tackling practical biochemistry problems.
Last summer, we had a number of meetings to design a new course that not only would get students thinking and problem solving in a new way but would provide instant feedback on how well they understood the material.
Here is a step-by-step description of the course redesign and our experience.

Step 1: Record lecture videos

Two technologies were used to construct low-cost video lectures: the slide-design software PowerPoint and the video-recording application ScreenFlow. Weekly slide presentations were first built with PowerPoint. Then we simulated a presentation while recording a voiceover using ScreenFlow.
The finished video was uploaded to YouTube. Once on YouTube, the video was embedded into the syllabus section of the online learning-management system. Students simply had to go to the course’s syllabus page and watch the weekly video. The students really liked the videos and asked for even more of them (see table and screenshot).

Step 2: Create quizzes

Once we had digitized some of the traditional lecture material, we had to make sure that the students would watch the video lectures prior to class. That led to what we call the lecture quiz (see example question).
We created a series of short quizzes directly related to the video material and made them count as part of the course grade. A link to the quizzes was placed underneath the video player on the syllabus page — adopting an effective tactic from Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning’s MOOCs (massive open online courses). The quizzes ensured that most of the students would be prepared for the next day’s class.

Step 3A: Rethink the face-to-face lecture

With a majority of students now prepped for class, we were able to go deeper and in new directions with the face-to-face content. Most teachers wish that they had more time to explain their content and thoughtfully and critically discuss why it is so important. Strict time constraints, however, often make that difficult. By digitizing much of the fundamental lecture content for viewing outside of the classroom, we were able to delve into topics in more detail than in the traditional, lecture-only format.
We also incorporated a wide array of research articles, again taking advantage of the additional time. This allowed students to understand how science actually is performed in the lab.

Step 3B: Poll the class

During live lectures, we incorporated a polling service called Socrative that uses mobile devices, which most students bring to class anyway. We also had iPads on hand in case students needed devices. We prepared a series of questions that we posed to the class and received anonymous responses in real time, which were displayed in the front of the class as a graph or chart.
This anonymous polling strategy allowed students to answer questions without the fear of being wrong in front of peers. The responses cued the next step in the live lecture. For example, we would revisit a difficult topic or speed up if everyone understood. Polling became an engagement tool: Discussions were livelier, and students asked more questions. Asking questions in class was simple and broke up the lecture, making it more interactive, which also gave the instructor time to organize his thoughts.
Top Videos
Lecture Number of views Estimated minutes watched
Biochemistry class 5 456 5,634
Biochemistry class 7 401 5,745
Daphne Koller Lecture 397 3,330
Biochemistry class 4 240 2,707
Biochemistry class 12 208 2,362
Mediathread lecture 143 196
Example Quiz Question
Please watch this video: Then take the rest of the quiz.
I certify that I completed watching this video.
ο True ο False
Example Quiz Question
What is the product of the deamination of alanine?
A. Glycine B. Pyruvate C. Acetyl CoA D. Glutamate E. Aspartate
Example of a Group Problem
If glucose labeled with 14C at C-1 were the starting material for amino acid biosynthesis, the product(s) that would be readily formed is/are:
A. Serine labeled at alpha carbon B. None of these C. All of these
D. Serine labeled at the carboxyl carbon E. Serine labeled at the R-group carbon

Step 4A: Create student groups

Class discussions were only a part of the plan for establishing community and collaboration. We wanted to use group work, which had a powerful effect on us during our college years.
The class of 180 students was divided into groups of five. Because the redesign was implemented at the start of the semester, it was difficult to group students by their knowledge of the material, so we let students form groups on their own. If a student could not find a group, only then did we intercede and place him or her in an established group.
We were surprised by how much we learned about the students’ thinking by listening to them work on group problems together. The same questions would come up in different groups, and we would realize how we should phrase the question differently in the future or how some students think about a problem in different ways that lead them to different answers. This helped us develop better explanations for these concepts.

Step 4B: Problem-based learning

Once the groups were established, they were given practical biochemistry problems to discuss and solve. The old view of learning was that the teacher filled an empty vessel: The teacher needed only to tell the student the facts and the answers, and he or she would learn them. The newer view of learning is that students need to construct new knowledge on top of their existing knowledge: To teach something new, you need to know their current knowledge.
In addition, you want to provide the intellectual scaffolding for them but also let them come to the answers on their own. Problems allow students to do that, hopefully in real-world situations that motivate them to struggle through to the answer (see example group problem).
For the last part of class, we frequently would have the students divide into their groups and work on a problem or set of problems, such as predicting how specific fatty acids would be labeled if you began with a starting material with a label in a particular place, or predicting the mechanism of action of a drug based on the results of an experiment. These problems required students to synthesize and apply the information from the textbook, videos and class discussion.

Step 5: Student feedback and evaluation

We elicited feedback and evaluation in a number of ways. We analyzed poll data after each session, learning how best to structure upcoming lectures. We closely monitored students as they worked in groups, coming to understand their thought processes and problem-solving strategies. We interviewed students and teaching assistants, inquiring as to how things were working. And finally we sent out a summary evaluation at the end of the semester, looking for ways to improve the course for next fall.
The students seemed to enjoy the new aspects of the course, but some of them seemed nervous about trying a different style of learning, and many seemed concerned about whether they would be prepared for the exams. Many students requested more practice problems so that they would feel better prepared.
One student wrote:
“The group problems were an interactive and creative way to strengthen my understanding of the material with the help of my classmates. I also really enjoyed reading the assigned research articles, not only because they demonstrated interesting research methods but also because they helped me think more critically about the topics we learned in class.”
We also found that the group work created a sense of community and collaboration. Other students said that they originally feared that a biochemistry class would be competitive and scary because of all the premedical students, but with this format, they didn’t find that to be the case. In fact, the group problems made it a more collaborative and friendlier environment than they had expected and compared with other courses.

Next steps

We were pleased with the results of this experiment: Attendance increased considerably, and anecdotally, students had a better grasp of the material. Our biggest problem now is that we don’t have enough complex, high-level problems to provide to students. That is our challenge for next year.
Brent Stockwell
Michael Cennamo
Brent R. Stockwell (bstockwell@ is an Associate Professor at Columbia University in the Departments of Biological Sciences and Chemistry, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Early Career Scientist.
Michael Cennamo (mjc2157@ is an educational technologist at the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning.