Home Spotlight an FLN Member “Professor, could you explain again why what you said makes sense?”

“Professor, could you explain again why what you said makes sense?”

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This exact phrase, one morning in a Calculus class, set off a seismic shift in my teaching career. The year was 2005, and I was teaching Calculus 1 at a small liberal arts college. It was my tenth year of teaching, going back to my days as a graduate student at Vanderbilt University. I had just finished giving what I felt was an exceptionally clear, well-organized lecture on the second derivative, a calculus concept rich with meaning and subtle complexities. Students were alert, following along, and nodding in agreement as I explained why all of the mathematics I had demonstrated about the second derivative made perfect sense. Concluding this point, I began to move on to another topic. And that’s when it happened.

“Could you explain again why what you said makes sense?”

This is a sign that your teaching has failed. If you have to explain why something makes sense, then the concept didn’t make sense. Even worse, it signifies that students have developed a dependence on you to make sense of things for them. This dependency unmasks a deep dysfunction in our teaching. Our job as teachers is not to make sense of things for students — it’s to empower students to become sense-makers themselves.

So that class meeting was a moment of terrible clarity for me as I realized that ten years of teaching had led me to a place, professionally, where the most I could say about how I prepared students for the rest of their lives was that they had warm feelings about me and my lecturing. But as for whether they formed significant connections with mathematical ideas, or made progress on their long journey toward being independent thinkers — I had no evidence for that. I decided that was unacceptable. I began to think, hard, about what I wanted to accomplish as an educator. And I began to look for ways to change.

A few years later, I discovered the concept of flipped learning while designing a new course on computer science at my college, through a paper by three computer scientists from Miami University in Ohio (Gannod, Burge, and Helmick 2008). What they called the “inverted classroom” was exactly what I had been looking for: a pedagogical method that puts responsibility into the hands of students, creates time and space for active engagement, and empowers students by giving them control over the learning process. Flipped learning was, and is, a way to bring the abstraction of “lifelong learning” to the point on a daily basis. It helps turn students into sense-makers.

For me, education is about relationships: between people, between ideas, and between people and ideas. The more I use flipped learning, the closer my classes get to this ideal. Today, my classes are workshops where students team up with each other and tackle the most difficult and perplexing ideas in a lesson. We share struggles, learn from failures, and celebrate successes every day. Instead of having me explain again (and again…) why an idea makes sense, the students are explaining it to me, and to each other. This, to me, is what education should look like, and flipped learning makes it happen.

Flipped learning is not only worth implementing, it’s also worth studying rigorously. During the next academic year (2017-2018), I’ll be on sabbatical from my faculty position to serve as scholar-in-residence for Steelcase Education (http://steelcase.com/education). Part of that sabbatical will be spent researching two important questions about flipped learning:

  • Does flipped learning lead students to enhanced progress toward becoming self-regulated learners? I’ve written before about how flipped learning supports self-regulated learning. In this study, my colleague Marcia Frobish and I are going to track students through a semester of Calculus 1 to see if being in a flipped learning environment leads to a bigger increase in self-regulated learning than being in a traditional environment.
  • How does a flipped learning environment affect students with learning disabilities? It’s not clear how — or even if — students with documented learning disabilities benefit from flipped learning environments. I’ll be working with my colleague Amy Schelling, an expert in special education, to track and interview students with learning disabilities in flipped sections of College Algebra to see how those environments are affecting their learning.

It’s hard for me to imagine teaching without flipped learning now. My students are engaged, challenged, and therefore uncomfortable sometimes, but ultimately they are happier because their work is now truly meaningful. I’m excited to see where flipped learning is headed next.


Gannod, G. C., Burge, J. E., & Helmick, M. T. (2008). Using the inverted classroom to teach software engineering. Proceedings of the 13th International Conference on Software Engineering ICSE 08, 777–786. http://doi.org/10.1145/1368088.1368198

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Robert Talbert
Robert Talbert is an Associate Professor in the Mathematics Department at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan USA. He teaches and conducts research in the teaching and learning of undergraduate mathematics, as well as pure mathematics. He also serves the university and the broader community on a variety of projects. Robert is an active speaker and consultant in the areas of flipped learning, teaching with technology, and self-regulated learning.

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