SCHOOL SPOTLIGHT: Dr. Cindy Pederson using flipped classroom method to teach Benedictine Military School chemistry students

By Noell Barnidge
Benedictine Military School chemistry teacher Dr. Cindy Pederson is using the flipped classroom method to teach Cadets during the 2023-24 academic year.

A flipped classroom is structured around the idea that lecture or direct instruction is not the best use of class time. Instead, students encounter information before class, freeing class time for activities that require higher-order thinking. The concept grew in popularity because technological changes made it easier to create and access educational materials.

Some of the benefits of using the flipped classroom method are that it is flexible, students can learn at their own pace, and it does not waste time transferring information to students because the information is already available to them in books or online. Students in a flipped classroom view digitized or online lectures as pre-class homework, then spend in-class time engaged in active learning. The active learning experiences can include discussions, peer teaching, presentations, problem-solving, computations, group activities, and projects.

A flipped classroom intentionally shifts instruction to a learner-centered model in which students are often introduced to new topics outside of school. The term “flipping” comes from the idea of swapping homework for class work. Students are assigned a video for homework, freeing up class time for hands-on activities and application of knowledge.

“We talked about it at the end of last (school) year, just as a way to help the students (this year),” Pederson said. “They had done a little bit of the flipped model last year, where they took notes at home, for biology. It wasn’t video, it was just PowerPoint. We wanted to do the videos with guided notes, especially with chemistry, because there are so many processes and so many problems. I like it. I feel like taking notes is more of a passive process. It’s important to jot them down but you can go at your own pace by doing it at home. It takes some of them a lot longer than others to take notes in class. Sometimes you have boys who are just waiting around, waiting on other people to finish. I think it’s more time-efficient to do it at home. They can speed (the video) up or slow it down. They can use closed captioning. It leaves more time for open-ended discussion and review in class. Even though they take the notes at home, we always review in class. You can’t assume that they’ve all actually processed it at home. We would do the same thing, when they took notes in class, but it just took a lot longer. I would have them take the notes and then we would talk about it after. It’s more efficient to do it this way. I do think once you stop the conversation and take notes that it makes the discussion more stilted instead of flowing.”

Benedictine Military School sophomore Sean Larner, a Cadet in Dr. Pederson’s chemistry class, said he enjoys the flipped classroom approach to learning.

“I used to live in Illinois and (the curriculum) was like half-and-half (traditional and flipped classroom methods),” Larner said. “In my English class, we never took notes (during class) and most of us ended up with an A in the class. I like that we are doing this (at BC). We get taught way more, and in class I get to learn hands-on. I don’t really learn well by just taking notes. I need to learn by doing. I think it does help to take notes, but I don’t think I can do that in every class.”

Larner said he has not encountered any drawbacks to the flipped classroom method.

“When you take notes at home, you’ve just got to focus on that,” he said. “We did different labs on elements. We lit magnesium on fire. We dissolved calcium. We put acid on sodium chloride, like baking soda. It’s much more fun than just sitting in class listening to lectures. We never really get lectures.”

Benedictine Military School Director of Curriculum Peter Newman said the flipped classroom method is growing in popularity.

“The flipped classroom concept has been around for a while, but it got new life during COVID, when the students weren’t here much so we were counting on them doing more, particularly in the blended model when they were here part-time,” Newman said. “It really got some traction when we wanted the students to do more at home and rely a little bit less on teacher instruction during the day because they may not have been here. But now they can accomplish more and move more quickly, advance the syllabus more easily, during the day when the students are in the classroom.

“It’s an exciting methodology that teachers have experimented with,” Newman continued. “We’ve got some teachers who are doing it but are not totally committed to it the way Cindy is. Some are flipping their classroom periodically throughout the lesson just to sort of vary the method and see if it’s productive for that particular class. I also think it’s something that is not suited necessarily for every discipline, for every subject. It certainly seems suited for Cindy Pederson’s classes, however. It does take more work ahead of time for her to prepare the lessons and get the material ready for the students to view in the evening, and then come back and implement everything the next day. We’re excited for her, and the best part about it is, she and her students are responding positively to it.”

Pederson said the flipped classroom method has been such a success this year that she plans to do it again during the 2024-25 academic year.

“I’m planning to do it again next year,” she said. “Chemistry is different because we do so many labs. It’s very hands-on. (The flipped classroom) is very suited for that. It gives me more time to review (with the students), which I think is really important. (The flipped classroom) is good, especially since so many of them play sports, that if they’re not here (because they are traveling to a game), they’re not missing notes that they can’t get at home. I feel like the grades are better this year, honestly. It's early in the year, but I feel like the grades are better this year.”

Newman said Pederson does a tremendous job of captivating the Cadets’ attention and inspiring them to learn.

“That’s what is most important, getting student buy-in,” he said. “And she certainly seems to be doing that, which that rubs off on the teaching, too. It gets you excited as a teacher when the students are owning their experience. In order to do that, they’ve got to buy-in to whatever methodology you choose, and that seems to be the case here. Let’s face it, boys do like science, but at the same time chemistry is one of the tougher ones. Student buy-in, student ownership, that’s when you know … anytime a teacher can observe students discussing some of the points that you were hoping to cover yourself, that’s the real measure of success right there.”

Pederson said she was inspired by co-worker Fr. Barnabas O’Reilly, O.S.B., who – at first, unknowingly –used the flipped classroom during the 2022-23 academic year when he taught biology at Benedictine Military School.

“I kind of used it unintentionally,” O’Reilly said. “It was just more after trial and error. Especially in teaching biology, I was trying to get a lot of notes in for my PowerPoint, and I found that the boys were more focused on trying to write things down than on listening to the material and engaging it. So, out of frustration, I thought, ‘Well, what if I assign writing the notes, which they had access to online, as homework?’ That way, they’d have that written down more cleanly and they could take their time. Give them a grade for that, and then when everybody got to class, I could just explain things and say, ‘Everybody get your notes out and let me explain it to you so you can make little highlights.’ I would tell them, ‘Highlight this’ because I knew what was on the test or quiz, so they could just pay attention. I found that to be a little bit more work at home, but it helped them engage with it.”

O’Reilly found himself to be an unintentional trailblazer at Benedictine Military School.

“I thought it was interesting, but I didn’t realize it was happening until, I guess, Dr. (Cindy) Pederson pointed it out,” he said. “It was mostly just out of frustration, trying to teach my boys. I found that because of the amount of work with biology, I was doing (a flipped classroom); but with philosophy (this academic year), I haven’t really done it.”

Last academic year, Pederson told O’Reilly that she liked the idea of the flipped classroom so much that she would try it this academic year.

“She has a lot of my (then-freshmen) biology students in her (now-sophomore) chemistry class so that’s good consistency for them,” O’Reilly said. “It helps to have the opportunity for little homework grades, especially for some of these students who, with science, struggle with quizzes and tests. But if you can build that up with homework grades it’s helpful. It’s a way to engage them so you can actually teach them, rather than just make them do work in class too much. I found, especially with freshmen, I was trying to teach them how to take notes even more than how to understand the biology. It wasn’t until later that I said, ‘Do this for homework and then come in’ and somebody said, ‘Yeah, that’s the flipped classroom.’ I should probably try to do it now with my philosophy classes.”

Said Pederson, “Last year, when we did labs in class, I would always have a significant number of questions (for the students to answer) afterward. Now what we do is we’ll do a lab and then the next day we talk about what we did, and then we will fill out the questions in class. Giving them that time is important because, otherwise, they rush through it a lot more often. They’ve been pretty good about doing the homework, which I was surprised at. I do check. There’s always a couple (of students) who don’t. Some of them, if they finish their work in class, they’ll do their (homework) notes in class (and get ahead). It allows the students to manage things their own way. They can do (homework) on their phone. In a car, on a bus. You can do your work anywhere you want to. I send them to the YouTube channel the day before we cover a topic; and the next day when they come in, we’ll discuss it and review it. Sometimes I’ll do a note check to make sure that they’ve done it. Then, we’ll move on to either some activity or a lab. I love the flexibility that the flipped classroom has given me to spend time ensuring our Cadets have time to process and then actually use the content.”