Flipping a Small Classroom: Engaging Students in the Learning Process

This post is part of the Urban Affairs Forum* Engaged Scholarship Series.  If you are interested in writing about local elections in the places you live or study, contact Andrea Benjamin at benjaminan@missouri.edu.

By Staci M. Zavattaro (University of Central Florida)

I knew I was in trouble.

I was teaching my new elective Public Sector Communications for the first time. I meticulously planned assignments – group work, active discussions, a comprehensive project. That first night, there were four people in the room – myself and three (eek!) master of public administration students. I went home and realized almost everything I had planned would not work.

I went back the next week and asked the students for their help. I said I wanted to flip the classroom – something I had never tried before – and would do it only if they agreed and were willing to work with me along the way. We gave it a try.

Now, we did not flip the classroom in the traditional way. The students and I still did the assigned readings before coming to class, and we would discuss them together (as opposed to, say, me making recorded lectures for them to watch ahead of time as some flipped classrooms do). What we did differently was work together on the final project each week in class. The seminar was three hours, so the last half we all had laptops and we worked together.

The final project for the course was to put together a communications portfolio for a fictional city they created. Before we decided the kind of city they wanted to create, I pulled up on my own the rules for what makes a city in Florida. Turns out, the students threw me a curve ball and wanted to make a city in Virginia accessible to Washington, D.C. by train. I did not see that coming, so having our laptops handy was a good way to change in real time.

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Photo from final portfolio provided by Staci Zavattaro

The lesson for me was to be adaptable when classroom situations change. In this case, the group was small and willing to work with me through changes and rough patches – because there were some. They felt ownership over the project given we worked in it together in a more collaborative sense than if there were 30 students enrolled. Indeed, we wrote about our experiences for an article in College Teaching. Our key takeaways for those wanting to flip a small classroom are:

  • Focus on areas of need – Flipping the classroom in this way allowed the students to ask pointed questions of me and each other. As one student wrote in our article, in this format “you get to the meat of what you don’t understand” instead of guessing. Allow students to bring their own questions and ideas into the active learning space and try not to worry if the discussion derails from what you had planned.
  • Assess as you go – The final communication portfolio had several parts – an overall city communication strategy, a social media policy, a branding policy, and examples of external communications tools (press release, website, flier, etc.) We were able to work on them together throughout the semester, and each piece was due before being compiled into a final portfolio. I was able to again provide written feedback on the portions handed in.
  • Send detailed emails before each class – I learned in this new environment I had to give some focus to each session while also allowing students the freedom to get clarity on what they wanted to learn from the readings. I sent emails focusing more on their final projects, directing them to have ideas about certain topics and saying what they should accomplish by the end of each course meeting. These emails set the stage to make the night productive because the students could pull up their own resources beforehand.
  • Choose assignments that reflect practice – The students enjoyed working on a communication portfolio where they felt they could implement skills learned via the readings and our discussion. Indeed, one of the students went on to land a communications job with Orange County after graduation. She attributes part of that success to the course project and real-world ideas she created as part of the group.
  • There will be stumbles – As one student reflected in our article, “I feel like we were changing on the fly, not just the teacher but what works well for us. Looking back, we kind of figured it out and got into a groove about it. The beginning of class was a little shaky.” She was right. I had to find my groove as well, figuring what worked and what did not in this new environment.
  • Take advantage of a small size – If you have a chance to teach a smaller number of students, it allows for some opportunities to take them on field trips of sorts. (Even if your seminars are larger, I know people who still do field trips with students.) We were able to have class at City of Orlando City Hall, City of Winter Park City Hall, and in the office of UCF’s vice president of communication. The students, too, were willing to go to these locations so the guest speakers I lined up could show us where and how they work. This experience helped them further apply theory to practice, and they could ask the experts about their projects as well.
  • Finally, teaching and research can go hand in hand: We published our story together in an article for College Teaching found here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/87567555.2017.1423460

In sum, sometimes we need to adapt to unexpected classroom situations, flipping the classroom can be a way to implement additional pedagogical strategies we might be too nervous to try otherwise. Learn from the stumbles and tailor ideas to your unique class.

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Photo from final portfolio provided by Staci Zavattaro

Author Biography

Staci M. Zavattaro, Ph.D., is associate professor of public administration at the University of Central Florida. She currently serves as editor-in-chief of Administrative Theory & Praxis. Her research focuses on public branding, administrative theory, and social media use in government.

Main Photo by Karl Fredrickson on Unsplash


*The Urban Affairs Forum is presented by Urban Affairs Review, a a peer-reviewed, bi-monthly journal focused on questions of politics, governance, and public policy specifically as they relate to cities and/or their regions.

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