Flipping the Classroom, Constructivism, and Grading Contracts

Flipping the Classroom, Constructivism, and Grading Contracts

Trends in Education Technology, Journal #9

Although I have been a teaching associate with my university’s first year writing program for three years now, we all have an orientation at the beginning of each academic year. During my orientation this fall, one of my colleagues presented an altered curriculum—or rather an altered approach—to teaching English 5A/5B. The most significant alteration was that her course was part of a larger faculty cohort across the disciplines that is piloting the university’s DISCOVERe program—an initiative to run classes 100% through tablets. Throughout her presentation, she kept referring to this idea of the “flipped” classroom, and while I found the term fuzzy at the time, I got the sense that it was something of a colloquial term for a constructivist approach to instruction—an approach that redirects or “flips” the emphasis in the classroom from the teacher/lecturer/professor/master to the student/learner. While my intuition was close, further investigation in the 2014 Horizon Report neatly bridges the gap between the idea of a “flipped” classroom and a constructivist approach to instruction.

The idea of pointing learners to objective knowledges outside of the classroom is not new to me. Jordan Shapiro (2013) talked about this in his article on forbes.com when he shares how instead of delivering the materials for objective knowledge inside of the classroom, he “flips” this paradigm by delivering those materials digitally and outside of the classroom. This enables us to redirect our face-to-face energy from ingesting material to digesting material. In the reading and writing classroom, for example, instead of focusing our time on reading a text together, we do stuff with texts together—together as collaborators, teachers and learners make meaning. As Johnson, Adams, Estrada, & Freeman (2014) explain, this paradigm “[enables] students to spend valuable class-time immersed in hands-on activities that often demonstrate the real world applications of the subject they are learning” (p. 36). So “flipping” the classroom is essentially a move toward a constructivist paradigm, utilizing digital technologies as a mediator to serve instructional materials to learners outside of the classroom.

Flipping the Classroom Word Cloud

Johnson et al. (2014) points to a resource on flipping the classroom which I have found particularly useful. Jennifer Demski (2013) offers a list of 6 tips from experts on how to flip a classroom. One thing she points to which I believe takes considerable skill and energy on the part of the teacher is to anticipate what students need during the first moments of class, letting the students decide what the particular foci will be during class time. She offers some strategies from Robert Talbert—professor of mathematics at Grand Valley State University—including having students use clickers to take a quick quiz at the beginning of class. This is essentially a quick kind of formative assessment, one that requires a certain flexibility and agility in class planning. To be successful with this strategy, instructors must have the ability to respond to their learners needs at a moment’s notice, and if they teach the same course more than once concurrently, different groups of learners may have different needs on any given day with any given topic, adding even more demand from a teacher’s curricular agility. The benefit here, though, is that you always enable students to pursue not what you think they need but what you know they need. Because they tell you exactly what they need. This approach is not without its perils and pitfalls, however.

Unless curriculum and assessment has built in to it a way to value and evaluate the labor that must take place outside of class, this flip is destined to flop. Flipping the classroom depends on student labor outside of the classroom, so if they show up to class not having done the assigned labor, they’re not able to do anything because they do not have the foundation on which to do anything. Suddenly we’re back to the classroom and lecture being the point of delivery of instructional materials. Essentially, if students have not been motivated to do the labor outside of class, they are not likely to do it. This is why I believe implementing a grading contract is crucial. Grading contracts nudge evaluation away from the product and put it on the process; it asks the question, “Did you do the labor (outside of class) to the letter and in the spirit in which it was asked?” and so long as you construct that labor as something that is assessable, i.e. have them turn something in electronically in advance of the class that’s scheduled to do something with that labor and attach that labor to their grade for the course in some way, students will be motivated to do the labor they need so that we can collaborate and construct meaning with those materials in class.


Demski, J. (2013, January 23). 6 Expert Tips for Flipping the Classroom. Campus Technology. Retrieved October 26, 2014.

Johnson, L., Adams Becker, S., Estrada, V., Freeman, A. (2014). NMC Horizon Report: 2014 Higher Education Edition. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.

Shapiro, J. (2013, August 26). We Need More EdTech, But Less Technology In The Classroom. Forbes. Retrieved October 26, 2014.

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