The American Historian

The Flipped U.S. History Classroom: A Roundtable Discussion

Jennifer Brinson, Jimmy Dick, Blake Ellis, Ron Kotlik, Jonathan Rees, and Ben Wiggins

Do you flip? Teachers teaching at the K–12, community college, and college level are using an approach known as the flipped classroom, and supporters of the flipped class model say that students learn more deeply, become active participants in the learning process, and interact more meaningfully with the teacher and fellow students.

What exactly is the flipped classroom?

According to the University of Texas Center for Teaching and Learning, the flipped classroom “inverts the typical cycle of content acquisition and application so that students gain necessary knowledge before class, and instructors guide students to actively and interactively clarify and apply that knowledge during class.” What does that mean in practice? Most often, students watch video lectures at home, and then use class time to do homework, projects, and group work, while the teacher guides students through that work.

Among the practitioners of the flipped class are U.S. history teachers. The American Historian spoke with teachers who have taught flipped American history classes, as well as experts and skeptics.




JENNIFER BRINSON teaches social studies and Advanced Placement U.S. history at Salisbury High School in Allentown, Pennsylvania.


JIMMY DICK is an adjunct instructor of history at Moberly Area Community College in Moberly, Missouri.


BLAKE ELLIS is a professor of history at Lone Star College–CyFair in Cypress, Texas, and he has taught on the college level for five years.


RON KOTLIK has taught history at Clarence High School in Clarence, New York, since 2002, and he has been an adjunct professor of history at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York since 2001.


JONATHAN REES is a professor of history at Colorado State University–Pueblo, and he has taught American history since 1997.


BEN WIGGINS is the Director of Digital Pedagogies for Online Learning at the University of Pennsylvania and is a lecturer in the history department at Penn.


Have you or do you use the flipped classroom to teach U.S. history? If you do not use the flipped class approach, why not? Would you consider using it?


JENNIFER BRINSON I have used the flipped approach in my Advanced Placement U.S. History class for two years. It allows me to help teach and prepare students for the incredibly large breadth of the class in less time and I am able to immerse students in the practice of being a historian, because we have more time in the classroom setting.

The flipped approach takes the lecture out of the classroom and replaces it with more in-depth discovery processes. Flipping allows a teacher to “cover” more material on video than they do face to face because the management procedures are not necessary when you talk to a camera. My students have told me that they like the flipped design because now I have a “pause button” and they can slow the lecture down and stop it if they need to. Generally, my flipped videos are about 10 to 14 minutes in length. If the videos are too long the kids lose interest.


RON KOTLIK I officially “flipped” my classroom three years ago. Like many teachers, I became frustrated by the emphasis on high-stakes testing and the feeling that I was focusing more on test preparation than actually guiding students through the historical craft. I was not happy merely “covering” the material that would be on the Advanced Placement U.S. history exam and wanted to ensure that my students had the essential historical skills to be successful in college and beyond.


JONATHAN REES The primary reason I don’t and won’t use a flipped classroom is that I want all my students have time to read history from both primary and secondary sources at home before class starts. If they had to watch lectures outside the classroom too they would have little time left to read anything.


BLAKE ELLIS I am strongly considering using a flipped approach in my classroom. When I have incorporated elements of this approach into my traditional classes, the results have been positive. First-generation college students often find class discussion intimidating, particularly if they are encountering a topic for the first time. But if they get a chance to read primary documents, consider discussion questions, view photographs, or watch video clips before class starts, the in-class discussions tend to be much more productive.


JIMMY DICK I use the flipped classroom approach in my American history to 1865 survey course. I want to make this course as dynamic as possible, since this may be one of the only history courses students take in the lives. I want to deliver a lasting impression of how historians work and what has occurred in U.S. history so that students will appreciate history and its practitioners.


BENJAMIN WIGGINS The term flipped classrooms can refer to a broad range of activities, but at its core I think it works to heighten interaction in the classroom between the faculty member and students. And that sort of interaction is often only lacking in larger, lecture-based courses. I don’t think flipping has much to offer advanced, topic seminars with good student-to-faculty ratios.

While I haven’t flipped my own courses yet, I would absolutely consider it given the right situation. Flipping’s place is in large lecture courses and when I next teach a survey I could see it working there. Flipping doesn’t work in even every lecture course and it doesn’t work in every institutional setting. I would have to assess if the particular material can be delivered in a flipped way and, if I believe it could, I’d have to make sure I had institutional support for flipping my classroom.

In my administrative role, I work with faculty to help flip their classrooms and I know how much work it is to do it well. At Penn, our support starts at our Center for Teaching and Learning—run, incidentally, by an historian—where the Structured, Active, In-class Learning (SAIL) Program offers both pedagogical support and course-restructuring honoraria. Faculty that flip their courses also draw on the media lab in the library, teach in a pool of classrooms designed specifically for active learning, and work with my group to help produce the online components of a flip. It’s a nice set up, but I understand it’s not that way everywhere.


If you teach a flipped class, please describe your flipped classroom. What’s the average day and average week like?


RON KOTLIK My flipped classroom relies upon the videos that I create that present the essential content of the course. Students watch videos on a weekly basis as part of their “homework” that coincides with course readings in secondary and primary sources. After watching the videos, students often take online quizzes that are embedded within the videos. Also, students post key discussion questions and ideas from the videos online which serve as a basis for in class discussions.

In my classroom, debates have become the most popular activity based around these areas. Debates reinforce writing skills, argumentation, the analysis of primary and secondary sources, and further deepen students’ understanding of a particular historical issue. Students also produce historical documentary videos with the “extra” time available in the flipped classroom. The documentaries must include key secondary and primary sources.


JENNIFER BRINSON I transition my students to the flipped model halfway through the year. This allows my students to get used to my “lecture” style, speed, and how to distinguish important concepts. Once we transition to a flipped model, I am able to engage my students in more project based learning, simulations, and Socratic seminars.


JIMMY DICK My flipped classroom is really more of a merger between a completely flipped class and a traditional course. Almost all of my students have jobs. Many work full time. Several are parents. If I went with the completely flipped class I would lose students along the way. Therefore I have compromised by giving students some reading assignments and videos on their time, a lecture combined with extra video clips in class, and dedicating at least one third of the class period to student group work.

Class begins with a group exercise covering the reading assignments and how it made the students think about what they read in the textbook and primary sources. During the lecture section we flesh out what was read, focus on areas they have questions about, and emphasize themes and key points. We end the class by going back into the groups and answering questions which pose problems. They then present their findings to the other groups and answer questions from the groups or myself.

A flipped classroom is not a simple thing to construct. It takes work and involves a lot of communication between you and your students, but the result is a significant increase in learning and even more importantly, an increase in the amount of content that can be covered.


How long has the flipped classroom concept been around? What does research suggest about the efficacy of the model?


BENJAMIN WIGGINS Educators have been flipping classrooms since at least the 1990s and education researchers have been interested for years now. There are two rather notable studies that, in their own way, suggested flipped classrooms aren’t ideal. Last year, Harvey Mudd College received a good deal of press about its initial findings that suggested flipped classrooms did not improve learning outcomes. However, as Phil Hill and Michael Caulfield have pointed out, the press leaped to that conclusion from findings made just three weeks into a three-year-long study.

Even as research increases, tough, I think we’re still in a very experimental phase of classroom flipping. Flipping doesn’t always have to replace the lecture with lecture videos—that’s just what has been done to this point. Online games, real-world experiences, and the whole array of open educational resources (OERs) have yet to be fully utilized in a flipped course. Hopefully, as we work to expand the idea of what a flip can be, the research will diversify and become more relevant to the humanities and social sciences.


What technology is required for the flipped classroom? Do all students have access to the required technology?


JENNIFER BRINSON The only technology required for a flipped classroom is some sort of video recording device. A flip camera, a still camera with video ability, or a cell phone that can record video is all a teacher needs to begin flipping. However, student access to technology is an issue. We are a 1:1 MacBook district so our students have access to videos at all times. A district that is challenged by student access would have a more difficult time making the material available to the students in a timely manner.


JIMMY DICK A website is essential—it makes communication so much easier and really can help students who have to miss class. I use a computer in the classroom for accessing the site, playing videos, and web content in addition to my PowerPoint lectures.


RON KOTLIK Depending on the level of teacher experience the amount of technology can vary. Some teachers do not use their own videos and rely on vetted sources from the Internet to supplement instruction. However, teachers wishing to create their own videos need to be able to use the software available to create engaging and interactive videos. I started by making simple audio-only podcasts. I then began making simple “screencasts” of my computer screen to accompany my voiceovers. I finally gathered enough knowhow to produce more dramatic videos that included key video and image examples with embedded quizzes. The best advice is to start small and build slowly. Flip one lesson, then a unit, and finally, over time, flip a course.


BENJAMIN WIGGINS Universities and individual professors can certainly flip on the cheap. It’s free to self-produce videos and post them on a hosting site such as YouTube to bring the outside-of-class activities into conventionally built classrooms. OERs also lend themselves to both outside-of-class learning and in-class activities at no cost. However, even a modest investment in technology or classroom furniture by a school or university makes a significant difference for a teacher by reducing their labor. Flipping results in more work for teachers and I think we should strive to limit that additional work to intellectual or pedagogical labor.


What do you think are the advantages of flipped classes in the teaching of U.S. history?


RON KOTLIK The advantages of the flipped classroom include more time for differentiated instruction and for working with students in small groups or one on one. Flipped classroom teachers no longer believe that the teacher must be the “gatekeeper” of all knowledge. Rather, the role of teacher is that of facilitator, helping students create and answer questions.


JONATHAN REES Any of the excellent teaching strategies that history teachers employ in lieu of lecturing (discussions, debates, small group projects, etc.) can still be employed in any class without taking the extremely disruptive step of flipping the entire classroom. The key is to give up the absurd belief that you can cover everything in U.S. history on video or otherwise.

One of my worries about the flipped classroom is that people who use their own lectures for flipping their classrooms will be forced by their employers to flip their classrooms using other people’s lectures someday, specifically lectures originally created for MOOCs. If this happens, teaching will suffer as nobody is as good at teaching other people’s content as they are at teaching the content they know best and enjoy most.


BENJAMIN WIGGINS I think most anyone can flip a course. But I think only those willing to invest significant time in the endeavor will be able to flip successfully and I think only those institutions that support their teaching faculty in this endeavor will see positive results in their inversions.

I am confident that flipping has one significant, general advantage. It, at very least, encourages faculty to look at their familiar content and their usual pedagogy in a new light. When faculty commit lectures to video, they typically become more concerned with precision and strive harder to communicate their ideas more clearly. The idea that there’s a record of the lecture that students can play back and scrutinize encourages more refined lessons. Basically, since flipping demands so much preparation, it can’t help but refresh a course’s content and a professor’s pedagogy.


BLAKE ELLIS Good teachers recognize that there is no way to cover every important subject in class, but we are still frustrated by the topics we’re forced to omit. Why not use the flipped approach to alleviate this problem? The idea is to take the same innovative classroom strategies we’re already using and make them more accessible to students. Putting a top-down lecture online won’t make it any more relevant to student success, nor will all students suddenly find it meaningful for learning.


What do you think are the disadvantages or limitations of flipped classes in the teaching of U.S. history?


JONATHAN REES For me the primary reason not to flip your history classroom is the lack of time for students to do assigned reading, but there is another important consideration. Lecture in person and you can adjust your content for your audience, taking questions for instance, or go back over things that you can see your students don’t seem to understand. If your lecturing is left to video you will have no idea if your students are even paying attention since they can open another browser tab to check Facebook, and you’ll never be the wiser. While a good lecture is an interactive experience, watching one on a computer is entirely passive.


JENNIFER BRINSON The primary disadvantage is the amount of time it takes to create videos. There is a lot of front-end time required to get the videos planned and created, but once they are done most can be used from year to year thus freeing up time on the back end.


RON KOTLIK No teaching model is perfect. A key to the flipped model is motivating students to watch the video content as part of a regular homework routine. Measures such as quizzing and graded discussions following videos can ensure student accountability. However, as with all forms of homework, there will always be students who may refuse to complete the tasks required despite the consequences.


JIMMY DICK I personally do not think a completely flipped class will work for many community college students. These students tend to struggle if they fall behind and many have study problems to begin with. We are competing for their time outside of class so I think we have to make whatever they do outside of the course very relevant to what we are doing [in the classroom]

With that said, I think the flipped class can work for all students. It really depends on the instructor. If they can relinquish their power in a class by cutting back on the traditional lecture and replace that with a guiding approach to the class they can actually cover more content and in the process focus on the key points.


BENJAMIN WIGGINS There’s always the risk that flipping as an attempt to refine pedagogy actually harms learning or that an investment in flipping takes away from research or advising time and resources. But, in the end, flipping is essentially an investment in teaching and in trying to make large, somewhat impersonal courses more meaningful and engaging to students. I have little reason to see that as a bad thing.

If pressed to offer a specific limitation for flipping within the discipline of history, I would have to say that it’s the nature of homework within the field. While it might make sense to bring the problem set traditionally done at home into a math or chemistry classroom, it doesn’t make sense to bring in reading and writing into an “active” learning history classroom. But the field isn’t all reading and writing. Research is obviously another core skill we want to imbue our students with and, in a digital age, the practice of research certainly has a place in a course using active, in-class learning. While flipping in the historical discipline might demand more work from students, it may also offer the opportunity to reinvigorate the place of method in a broader range of history courses and not just those dedicated to research methodologies.