Flipping the curriculum in Linguistics

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The shift: Creating interactive environments in large classrooms

The Department of Linguistics sees linguistics as a hands-on discipline, best learned through activities and practice. They had already implemented in-class activities in their courses, but they wanted to go further by overhauling  several of their courses using a flipped classroom model. In these transformed courses, students are given the opportunity to interact with their instructors and peers through new methods of teaching and learning.

Why flip?

In 2013, the Department of Linguistics decided to comprehensively redesign their curriculum using the flipped classroom model.

“It was a challenge keeping students engaged in large classroom settings,” says Dr. Lisa Matthewson, chair of the Linguistics Curriculum Committee,

Some of their larger courses frequently had more than 200 students in the classroom. The department wanted new teaching strategies that would help students to understand course material and remain engaged in class. Lectures and tutorials already incorporated activities, so “flipping” classrooms was the next logical step. After securing flexible learning funding, the team began the first phase of their project: transforming LING 100, 200, and 311.

The teaching strategies

In a flipped classroom, students are given first exposure to content prior to class time. In class, students engage with the instructor and further explore materials. Instructional strategies include:


Dr. Martina Wiltschko created video lectures with animations and visuals that explain key concepts. Wiltschko found that she was able to better explain complex ideas and move past the traditional textbook.

“I was able to give a mini-lecture exactly the way I wanted, not dependent on a textbook that I was not fully subscribing to,” she says.

After viewing the e-lectures, students would come to class prepared to discuss the topics Wiltschko wanted to focus on. The videos were also accessible anytime and allowed students to learn at their own pace.

Students as producers

Dr. Henry Davis wanted to give his students an opportunity to be creative and produce their own content, so he eliminated the traditional final exam and poster session and replaced it with performance-based evaluations.

Students produced a variety of final projects that explained linguistic concepts, ranging from rap-battle videos to puppet shows. Students who were not as comfortable with public speaking or performance could take behind-the-scene roles, such as set design or videographer.

Davis believes the projects were a successful alternative to more traditional means of evaluation. “I think these students went away with a considerably larger grasp of basic stuff than they would have done had they been sitting in an exam,” he says. “And they had a lot more fun.”

Low stakes writing

Students are often evaluated through “high stakes writing,” which includes final essays or assignments that are heavily weighted. Dr. Evan Ashworth advocated instead for low stakes assignments in which students can reflect on the course and gain a better understanding of the type of writing required. Says Ashworth: “Writing is not just an end—it’s an actual means of learning itself.”

Wikipedia projects

Ashworth also asked students to develop Wikipedia pages on topics related to syntax. Students were responsible for researching and planning the content of the entry, as well as writing, editing, layout and HTML mark-up. Students’ pages could be accessed by anyone, anywhere in the world, which students found particularly motivating.

Clicker questions

Several of the instructors used clicker questions in their teaching. Not only could clicker questions be used to gauge student understanding of course content, but open-ended questions could also be used to promote class discussion.

The challenges

The department has faced a common critique concerning flipped classrooms: by asking students to learn material ahead of class time, is the instructor superfluous to teaching?

But Wiltschko is quick to point out that the flipped classroom is not about eliminating the instructor. She argues that the human interaction between students and instructors is irreplaceable. While information can be accessed elsewhere, Wiltschko says that the value of the instructor is to help students “connect the information in relevant ways.”

With this in mind, the instructors focused on interacting with students during class time. Another obstacle they faced is the distraction that technology can cause. Many of the instructors decided to implement a no technology or limited technology policy in their classrooms. They agreed that too often, technology distracts the students using the devices, as well as those around them. The team notes that they post slides and notes online. In class, they don’t want students to worry about noting everything down—rather, they hope students will use class time to engage with their instructor and peers.

Lessons learned

The team believes that flipping the classroom will help students go beyond simply learning information and change the way they engage with course material. “We want to give them the tools to be critical thinkers,” Wiltschko says.

In their first round of course transformations, the team has already seen how the flipped classroom can enhance teaching. Wiltschko adds, “The best teaching happens when you’re interacting with the students. Interaction is crucial, and that’s what the flipped classroom allows you to do.”

Davis agrees that interaction between students and instructors is key to a successful classroom dynamic. He believes that teaching and learning should be an enjoyable experience. He notes, “[The flipped classroom] is fun for the instructors–and if it’s fun for the instructors, it’ll be fun for the students.”

What’s next

The team has applied for the next round of flexible learning grants to flip LING 101, 201, and 300. The department’s ultimate goal is to flip all undergraduate courses in their curriculum, which they hope will benefit all current and future students.

This Changed My Teaching

This case study was presented at This Changed My Teaching: Transforming Large Classes into Interactive Learning Environments in October 2014. Watch a video here.

The following resources supported the presentation:

Dr. Evan Ashworth is a teaching and learning postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Linguistics. His research focuses on language ideologies, composition and writing center theory, language rights, language revitalization, and applied linguistics.

Dr. Strang Burton is a sessional lecturer in the Department of Linguistics.

Dr. Henry Davis is a professor and undergraduate advisor in the Department of Linguistics. His research focuses on critically endangered indigenous languages of BC.

Dr. Rose-Marie Déchaine is an associate professor in the Department of Linguistics. Her research areas include syntactic theory, categorization, syntactic interface relations, and speech-gesture coordination.

Dr. Bryan Gick is a professor and head of the Department of Linguistics. His research and teaching interests focus on understanding the physical mechanisms of speech production and their interactions with perception, phonology and phonetics in normal, disordered, and children’s speech, and across languages.

Dr. Kathleen Currie Hall is an assistant professor in the Department of Linguistics. Her research focuses on answering questions in theoretical phonology using techniques from a wide variety of areas, including experimental phonetics, psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, semantics, and information theory.

Dr. Gunnar Ólafur Hansson is an associate professor and graduate advisor in the Department of Linguistics. His research focuses on theoretical phonology, and the demarcation of phonology as a component of grammar relative to morphology and phonetics.

Joash Johannes is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Linguistics. His research interests include Bantu phonology, Bantu syntax-semantics/pragmatics, and various Bantu Interface correlates.

Dr. Lisa Matthewson is the chair of the linguistics curriculum committee and the faculty lead for the flexible learning initiative in the department. She is interested in cross-linguistic variation in the semantics and pragmatics, and variation reveals about Universal Grammar.

Dr. Douglas Pulleyblank is a professor in the Department of Linguistics. His research focuses on phonological theory, with interests in overlapping areas of phonetics, morphology, syntax and learnability.

Dr. Michael Rochemont is a faculty member in the Department of Linguistics. His research focuses on syntax and information structure.

Dr. Hotze Rullmann is an associate professor in the Department of Linguistics. His research interests include semantics and pragmatics, as well as Dutch and other West-Germanic languages.

Sonja Thoma is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Linguistics. Her research interests include syntax, syntax-semantics, syntax-pragmatics interface, German, Bavarian German dialects, and discourse particles.

Wendy Trigg is the undergraduate advisor in the Department of Linguistics.

Dr. Martina Wiltschko is a professor in the Department of Linguistics. Her research and teaching focus on Upriver Halkomelem, Blackfoot, Ktunaxa, and Upper Austrian languages.

Presentation Slides

Baker, J.W. (2000). The "classroom flip": Using web course management tools to become the guide by the side. Selected Papers from the 11th International Conference on College Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from http://works.bepress.com/j_wesley_baker/21

Bransford, J.D., & Schwartz, D.L. (1999). Rethinking transfer: A simple proposal with multiple implications. Review of Research in Education, 24, 61-100. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1167267

Detterman, D.L. (1993). The case for the prosecution: Transfer as epiphenomenon. In D.K. Detterman & R.J. Sternberg (Eds.), Transfer on trial: Intelligence, cognition, and instruction. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

King, A. (1993). From sage on the stage to guide on the side. College Teaching, 41(1), 30-35. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/87567555.1993.9926781

Mazur, E. (1997). Peer instruction: A user’s manual series in educational innovation. Upper SaddleRiver, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Schneider, B., Wallace, J., Blikstein, P., & Pea, R. (2013). Preparing for future learning with a tangible user interface: The case of neuroscience. IEEE Transactions on Learning Technologies, 6(2), 117-129. http://dx.doi.org/10.1109/TLT.2013.15

Walvoord, B.E., & Anderson, V.J. (1998). Effective grading: A tool for learning and assessment. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

The Flipped Lab is a faculty-led network of instructors and staff from across UBC, engaged in or curious about the pedagogy and practical aspects of teaching in a ‘flipped classroom’ modality. An extensive list of resources can be found here.

Vanderbilt’s page contains resources on the flipped classroom model, along with an extensive list of references.

Grand Valley State University’s mathematics professor Robert Talbert’s blog, Casting Out Nines is a great resource for keeping up on the debates surrounding issues related to flipped classroom learning.

A blog written by Derek Bruff, one of the experts on the flipped classroom/inverted classroom model.