Inverting the Classroom in Large-Enrollment Classes: A Beginner’s Guide*
Daniel Lambach, Caroline Kärger
The Inverted Classroom Model (ICM) has started to attract attention as a pedagogical approach in
political science teaching. While there are many publications describing the application of the
model in single courses and analyzing students’ performance in inverted classes, the existing
literature provides little guidance for first-time users of the model. In this Political Science
Instruction article, we offer a beginner’s guide for preparing and applying the ICM to assist other
instructors who wish to invert their classes based on our repeated experiences with the ICM in an
introductory International Relations course. Employing a constructive alignment approach, we
show how a course can be broken into learning units, each with an online preparatory phase
geared towards knowledge acquisition and attendance and follow-up phases focused on
application and the development of higher-order cognitive learning objectives. To deal with
frequent challenges and pitfalls we recommend trying a partial inversion first, inverting a familiar
course, being prepared for initial resistance from students, sticking with the concept, rethinking
the instructor’s role in the classroom, and combining tight planning but flexible execution of the
KEYWORDS: Inverted classroom, active learning, lecture
** The data collection for this paper was financed by a grant from Stifterverband für die deutsche Wissenschaft
(grant no. H120 5228 5008 24723). For replication purposes, the survey data are available from the authors. We are
indebted to Tobias Rammel for research assistance and thank Markus Bayer, Carola Klöck, Felix S. Bethke, Dorte
Hühnert, Aletta Mondré, Andrea Schapper, Kai-Uwe Schnapp, the editors and the anonymous reviewers for their
comments on previous versions of this paper.
The inverted (or flipped) classroom model (ICM) has started to make inroads in political science
teaching. Inverting the classroom means moving the passive absorption of content and the pursuit
of lower-order cognitive learning objectives from the lesson to a preparatory phase and using in-
class time to work on higher-order learning objectives. Recent articles in political science
teaching and learning have discussed the ICM’s effect on student performance (Touchton 2015;
van der Zwan and Afonso 2019), student perceptions of inverted classes (Jenkins 2015; Whitman
Cobb 2016) and inverting academic conferences (Rom 2015 and the other contributions of the
But while there are some general guidelines how to put the ICM into practice (Talbert 2017;
Roehling 2018), there is little specific advice for political science instructors wanting to invert
their class. This paper offers a beginner’s guide to the inverted classroom to help interested first-
time users invert their political science class. Although the ICM can also be used in smaller
classes, we focus on the implementation of the ICM in large-enrollment classes of 50+ students
where lectures are the most frequently used mode of teaching. We also develop recommendations
based on the growing body of literature and our experiences from the repeated use of the ICM in
teaching an undergraduate “Introduction to International Relations” survey course at the
University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany (for a course description, evaluation procedures, data
and results see Lambach, Kärger, and Goerres 2017 and the online appendix). We argue that both
students and instructors benefit from the ICM, e.g. by freeing up class time for more creative
course designs. However, we also highlight possible challenges and pitfalls during the
preparation and application of the ICM.
THE INVERTED CLASSROOM
The inverted classroom is designed to create space for active learning. Its point of departure, first
described by Lage, Platt, and Treglia (2000), is a critique of conventional lectures which present
new material to students and then expect them to apply this knowledge on their own after class.
The ICM turns this logic on its head: Students don’t need their instructor’s support to learn facts
and simple concepts but for more challenging tasks like the application of knowledge to practical
problems. Hence, “inverting the classroom” means that students are first exposed to new material
outside of class (see Fig. 1), usually through texts, videos, podcasts and assignments prepared by
the instructor and offered through a website or learning management system (LMS). Class time is
used for problem-solving, group work, discussions, case studies and other forms of hands-on
Figure 1: Traditional lecture and inverted classroom in comparison
<<<Fig. 1 about here>>>
An inverted class moves the passive reception of content from class time to the preparatory
phase. In terms of Bloom’s revised taxonomy (Anderson and Krathwohl 2001, 67-68; Bloom et
al. 1972, 29-33), students develop lower-order learning objectives (e.g. accumulating and
comprehending knowledge and information) outside of class and pursue higher-order learning
objectives (skills such as applying, analyzing, evaluating and creating knowledge) in class,
assisted by the instructor and their peers.
Properly implemented, the ICM offers several advantages over a lecture-based pedagogy (Jensen,
Kummer, and Godoy 2015; Gilboy, Heinerichs, and Pazzaglia 2015). First, students have more
control over their learning process by setting the pace at which they are exposed to new material.
Second, knowledge acquisition is augmented through practical exercises where students get
feedback on their level of mastery. Third, by observing their students at work, instructors can
provide assistance to those students most in need. Fourth, class time becomes more engaging,
increasing instructor satisfaction.
THE EVIDENCE ABOUT THE INVERTED CLASSROOM
The effects of the ICM in higher education teaching have been extensively studied (e.g.
Abeysekera and Dawson 2015; O'Flaherty and Phillips 2015; Roehling 2018; Talbert 2017).
Roehling (2018) currently offers the most comprehensive review, comparing a total of 50 studies
across a variety of dimensions (for an extensive bibliography see Rammel, Kärger, and Lambach
2015). Much like earlier reviews, she finds that inverted learning is associated with greater
student engagement, measured as student interest, valuing of the course or time investment
(Roehling 2018, 33). Student responses were also generally positive; however, in direct
comparisons with lecture-based course designs, “most students find both teaching methods
satisfactory and effective, with no clear advantage to either teaching method” (Roehling 2018,
Notwithstanding the difficulties of measuring educational outcomes (O'Flaherty and Phillips
2015, 89), the evidence demonstrates the effectiveness of the ICM in terms of student learning
gains, measured as exam scores, pre-/post-test comparisons, or recall of key information. 62% of
studies comparing inverted and non-inverted courses showed higher learning gains in inverted
classes, 32% showed no difference and only 5% found higher learning gains in non-inverted
classes. This effect is stronger for upper-level courses than for introductory ones and for courses
that tested for higher-order analytical skills instead of lower-level skills like recall and
comprehension (Roehling 2018, 28-30). Roehling also argues that the ICM “is a superior method
for teaching other, less tangible, but equally important learning goals” (Roehling 2018, 37) such
as interpersonal competences, self-directed learning and academic skills. These findings are
supported by well-established theories about the psychology of learning (Abeysekera and
Dawson 2015; Talbert 2017, 41-51).
However, some caveats are in order. Studies usually compare inverted classes with lecture-based
classes, but Jensen, Kummer and Godoy (2015) surmise that learning gains accrue from active
learning more generally (see Freeman et al. 2014), not from inverting a classroom specifically.
They find no differences in terms of learning outcomes and student satisfaction between inverted
and non-inverted active learning classes. In addition, van Vliet, Winnips and Brouwer (2015) find
that the positive effects of a single inverted class on student motivation and learning strategies
dissipate after the course is concluded if it is not followed up with further inverted classes.
PREPARING THE COURSE
When preparing the course, whether from scratch or by inverting an existing class, we
recommend following the principle of Constructive Alignment (CA) (Biggs 2014). CA is useful
for non-inverted classes, too, but in an ICM it becomes even more important because it provides
guidance how to best use and connect the three phases of preparation, attendance and follow-up.
CA assumes that aligning a course’s learning objectives, assessment methods, and teaching and
learning activities produces deep, sustainable learning (see also Fink 2003, 60-101).
Course learning objectives are statements of what learners should be able to do upon completion
of the course, although there are different ways of formulating learning objectives (e.g. Anderson
and Krathwohl 2001; Biggs and Collis 1982; Fink 2003). While this paper mostly focuses on
cognitive learning outcomes, students of political science also need affective and psychomotoric
skills. In the affective domain, political science graduates should be able to articulate their own
political values and to empathically take on different perspectives. Being able to design and
manage a research project is an important psychomotoric skill. Beyond this, students should also
develop meta-cognitive competencies such as the vaunted “learning how to learn”. However,
students do not gain any of these skills by listening passively but through active self-learning
(Bligh 2000, 15). Hence, whichever combination of learning outcomes a course aims at, active
learning approaches such as the ICM are preferable over a lecture-based pedagogy (Roehling
As the course is broken down into learning units (in our case, each unit took one week), course
learning objectives are broken down into more detailed unit learning objectives (see Fig. 2). For
instance, if an instructor wishes to enhance students’ academic writing skills, they need multiple
units with more detailed writing-related goals and writing activities. Forms of assessment,
whether at the end (final exams, term papers) or throughout the course (learning journals,
portfolios, participation, midterm tests) must be aligned with learning objectives and activities.
To continue the above example, a writing-intensive course should not be concluded with a high-
stakes, multiple-choice exam. If assessment and activities do not align, students will ‘learn to the
test’ instead of towards the stated learning objectives.1
Fig. 2: Course structure
<<<Fig. 2 about here >>>
1 Fink (2003, 66-154) provides a more detailed model of instructional design that is very similar to our approach.
There should be a logical progression of unit learning goals as the course evolves. In other words,
each unit needs to be viewed in the context of the other units, allowing students to build upon the
skills they learned earlier in the course.
PREPARING LEARNING UNITS
Instructors should also use CA to design individual learning units, linking learning outcomes to
activities and (formative or summative) assessment. In a weekly learning unit each phase
(preparation, attendance, follow-up) has different learning objectives to fit the learning
environment, the growing capabilities of students and whether students have access to instructors
and peers. For our course, we mapped learning objectives to the three phases as depicted in Table
1. Examples are from a unit on Realism. We also give an example of a learning unit on liberal IR
theories and the democratic peace in the online appendix.
Table 1: Assigning cognitive learning objectives to the phases of the learning unit
Preparatory phase Attendance phase Follow-up phase
Students enumerate key
events of the Cold War
leading up to the Cuban
Students summarize core
assumptions of Neo-Realism.
Students connect the
development of Classical
Realism with real-world
political developments from
the 1940s to 1960s.
(a) write a one-page briefing
paper to President Kennedy
outlining and weighing
possible responses to the
discovery of Soviet missiles
(b) write an essay wherein
they critique US behavior
during the Cuban Missile
Students assess inhowfar the
Cuban Missile Crisis
conforms to the theoretical
model of the security
Evaluate Students critically evaluate
the explanatory power of
Neorealism for the
emergence of the Cold War.
Crisis from a Neorealist
Students develop alternative
scenarios how the Cuban
Missile Crisis could have
progressed with different
behavior from key actors.
Note: The taxonomy of learning objectives is based on Anderson and Krathwohl (2001, 67-68).
It is also possible to assign higher-level tasks in the preparatory phase in a more inquiry-based
form of learning, or to ask students for opinions. Results from these assignments can then be used
to stimulate class discussion and other exercises in the attendance phase.
In the preparatory phase students work on their own to acquire basic knowledge about the topic
of the unit. Students can be exposed to the material using a mixture of video lectures, texts,
podcasts and tests. Producing new videos or podcasts can be very time-consuming. To minimize
workload, we recommend cutting videos from lectures recorded in previous semesters, videos
recorded by other academics, or interviews with subject matter experts. Texts can be taken from
academic journals, textbooks and newspapers. The material needs to be made available through a
LMS that every student can easily access.
We recommend that articles should be short and that videos should not exceed 15 minutes if
possible, especially for undergraduate students. For longer materials, the passive reception should
be broken up into chunks to keep students attentive and engaged (Szpunar, Khan, and Schacter
2013). Between each element, students complete repeatable, non-graded quizzes and other
exercises covering the material they have just watched or read.2 In our course, the exercises cover
2 The growing sophistication of learning analytics also makes it possible to design adaptive learning paths where
e.g. students doing poorly on one test are directed towards a remedial exercise while better performing students are
moved directly to the next assignment.
comprehension questions in single/multiple-choice format (e.g. “what are the definitional
characteristics of an international organization?”), matching exercises (e.g. “which explanation
for the end of the Cold War can be associated with which particular IR theory”) as well as
application-oriented tasks (e.g. “why is global democracy desirable? Please draft a brief
marketing strategy for an NGO which promotes global democracy”) and short-answer essay
questions. In contrast to a traditional lecture where students are supposed to read before class,
instructors in an inverted class need to provide more guidance to students how to approach the
material by specifying which tasks are to be done in which order. Students also should receive
feedback on every activity. Some LMS like Moodle have auto-grading capabilities for certain
kinds of tasks that come in handy here. For more complex assignments, instructor or peer
feedback are the only options.
Results from these assignments show whether students are struggling with particular points from
the material. Furthermore, students should have the opportunity to ask questions or indicate their
“muddiest point”, i.e. which aspect of the material they found the most difficult. This aspect of
the course design resonates with results from O'Flaherty and Phillips (2015, 94) who find that
students are less likely to engage in pre-class activities that are not interactive, fail to provide
formative feedback and are not coherently linked to in-class activities. It also gives the instructor
vital information about students’ level of mastery.
The benefits of an inverted class accrue during the attendance (or in-class) phase (Wallace et al.
2014) which is centered around active learning. This phase should be used a) to consolidate and
complement the knowledge acquired during the preparatory phase, and b) to develop higher-order
cognitive skills for working with that knowledge.
Class time should be divided into two sections whose length needs to be adjusted from session to
session. The first, shorter part is used for ‘Just-in-Time Teaching’ (Mazur and Watkins 2010). It
addresses objective a), covering issues which had provoked questions and criticism during the
preparatory phase. This part can also be used to make brief topical additions that were not
covered in the preparatory material and to initiate discussions. If students had few problems with
the preparatory material this section can be shortened or dropped altogether.
The second, more extensive part focuses on objective b). It uses active learning techniques to
work on concrete examples via e.g. problem sets, case studies, simulations and other exercises.
For example, in one session of our course students were tasked with formulating hypotheses to
explain the basic finding of the Democratic Peace (DP), even though they had never been
exposed to the DP literature (see appendix for more details). In another, we used an online tool to
play prisoner’s dilemma games to model arms races and problems of international cooperation.
We also frequently used structured debates, where groups of students had to weigh arguments for
or against particular positions, e.g. about the legitimacy of the International Organization for
Standardization as an example of private governance. Think-Pair-Share (TPS) (Lyman 1981) is
another useful method whose effectiveness has been proven several times (Baleghizadeh 2010;
Kothiyal et al. 2013). In TPS the instructor poses a question which students answer individually
(think). Students then compare their responses with their neighbors, identify differences and
similarities and try to come up with a joint answer (pair). In the third step, pairs present their
results to the class (share).
A crucial challenge in designing learning activities is giving students feedback on their
achievements (for the positive influence of prompt feedback see Chickering and Gamson 1989;
Hattie and Timperley 2007). This is especially troublesome for large classes where class size
makes individual feedback impossible. We recommend using peer feedback, where students
discuss their results with each other, and collective feedback, where the instructor summarizes the
points made during an exercise and contrasts them with the state of research. It is also possible to
mix the two, e.g. by dividing students into teams that work separately on the same problem (for
an application of team-based learning to political science see Lavariega Monforti, McGlynn, and
Michelson 2012; also Wallace et al. 2014). Selected teams then present their results and the
instructor concludes with collective feedback discussing pros and cons of the responses and
outlining a ‘model’ answer.
Table 2 presents a typical session plan for a 90-minute class with examples from a class on global
governance. It should be noted that we only used this as a rough guideline and that plans were
often adjusted on the fly. For instance, when students struggled with an important task, other
activities were shortened or dropped.
Table 2: Sample session plan for a 90-minute class
Length Activities Methods and Media
5 mins Introduction/warm-up, presentation of learning objectives Slides
15 mins Just-in-Time-Teaching
Discussion of questions from the preparatory phase Blackboard, slides
15 mins Brief lecture by instructor to introduce upcoming activity
Introduction to a case study of internet governance (brief overview
of governance architecture, issues and actors)
50 mins Group work, presentation and discussion of results
Classroom was divided into four sections. Groups in these sections
had to come up with arguments whether the current structure of
global internet governance was effective (yes/no) and legitimate
(yes/no). (15 minutes)
Structured debate with the instructor facilitating. Each student
could only participate once and only add one argument to support
their position or rebut a point from another group. (20 minutes)
Instructor summarizes and contrasts the points made to bring out
the core arguments pro/contra the effectiveness and legitimacy of
internet governance. (5 minutes)
Using a Classroom Response System, students were asked
whether private actors should have a bigger say in systems of
global governance. Results were used to stimulate an open debate
about the normative pros and cons of private and public/private
governance. (10 minutes)
5 mins Conclusion, outlook Slides
Coming out of the attendance phase, students should be able to master challenging tasks related
to the subject of the learning unit, either individually or in groups, without further guidance or
assistance from the instructor. In the follow-up phase students practice higher-order skills like
analyzing, evaluating or creating knowledge. By identifying and expanding the boundaries of
their own knowledge students also develop crucial metacognitive competencies. They are set up
to expand their knowledge and their practical skills on this subject on their own (“learning how to
learn”), preparing them for real-life situations beyond the university.
Fink (2003, 86-89) recommends ‘authentic tasks’ to stimulate learning which we find especially
useful for the follow-up phase. Such tasks are based on realistic scenarios, require judgment and
higher-order thinking, provide agency to the student, assess the student’s ability to combine
different repertoires of knowledge and skills, and provide feedback about the level of mastery to
the learner. These tasks mirror real-world activities that political science graduates can
realistically be expected to do, thus imbuing them with an additional relevance for students
beyond simply completing the course. In political science, sample tasks can be to create issue
memos, blog posts, policy briefs, podcasts etc.3 Of course, instructors need a system to provide
feedback to these tasks – asking 50+ students to turn in written assignments every week will
generate lot of work reviewing and commenting. If Teaching Assistants are not available, peer
3 We thank one anonymous reviewer for this suggestion.
feedback is likely the best option (Liu and Carless 2006), but the follow-up phase can also be
shortened or dropped altogether without compromising the ICM’s core principles if the workload
becomes too much for the instructor.
Assessment in an ICM can be adjusted to fit institutional strictures. In our case, exam regulations
limited us to a single end-of-term exam. In other cases, more continuous forms of assessment,
such as portfolios, multiple short exams or essays spread throughout the semester, can also be
used. But even if there are few formal summative assessments, as in our case, instructors in the
ICM must still frequently provide formative feedback. In large classes, teachers need to adopt
time-saving techniques such as grading rubrics, pass/fail grading or using an LMS’ auto-grading
functions. Unfortunately, some of these techniques, especially multiple choice tests, are badly
suited to assessing higher-order learning – avoid them if you have the time resources to do so. If
you cannot avoid them (e.g. due to a combination of a very large class, a high teaching load and
no Teaching Assistant support), we recommend using one of the many available guides how to
phrase test items so that the questions go beyond simple comprehension and recall (e.g. Haladyna
Based on our experiences and on the findings of a multitude of research studies, we can
recommend the ICM as a teaching strategy for instructors teaching large-enrollment classes. This
applies to all sub-fields of political science – political theory courses can be inverted for more
discussion time while inverting methods classes allows for more practical opportunities. First, the
ICM creates space for active learning and completely changes the in-class experience. Second, it
gives the preparatory phase a clearer purpose by linking activities directly to in-class and follow-
up activities and forms of assessment. Third, the format facilitates the development of higher-
order learning objectives. Fourth, the ICM is more accommodating towards students with
different requirements and preferences. Fifth, the ICM makes for a much more engaging teaching
experience than a lecture.
Having said that, teaching an ICM has its challenges. Based on our experiences, we offer the
following recommendations for a successful inverted class (see also O'Flaherty and Phillips 2015;
Roehling 2018; Talbert 2017):
1) Try a partial inversion first. Inverting an entire course is a lot of work. Instructors need to
produce new learning materials, activities and tests, grade out-of-class activities etc. If this is
untenable, you don’t have to invert your entire course all at once – just invert one or two units to
test whether this method works for you and your students. To reduce workload, try to use existing
videos and texts and use auto-graded tests in the preparatory phase, and reach out to teaching and
learning specialists at your institution for technical and educational support.
2) Invert a course you have already taught. The experience will help you formulate realistic
learning objectives and you will have a better estimate how much time particular activities need.
An inverted class will cover less material than a straight lecture. Active learning takes longer than
passive learning but uses the time for more effect. Therefore, you need to make choices about
how to adjust the scope of the class.
3) Be prepared for some resistance from students. While many studies report positive results on
end-of-term student evaluations, anecdotal evidence suggests that many instructors encounter
resistance when they first introduce this approach. Think about the incentives for students to buy
into this unfamiliar approach and point out its benefits frequently, especially during the first few
4) Stick to the purposes of the preparatory and attendance phases. When students show up to
class unprepared, the temptation to reiterate the contents of the preparatory phase is strong. Do
not give in. The Just-in-Time Teaching phase at the beginning of the attendance phase is only for
clarifying questions not for repeating the preparatory material. Repetition will minimize precious
time for active learning and undercut the ICM’s purpose. It will also discourage those students
who did prepare and signal to unprepared students that the preparatory phase is not necessary to
adequately participate in the in-class activities.
5) Rethink your role in the classroom. The ICM is a learner-centered approach. Instead of
constantly being at the center of attention, the instructor becomes a facilitator who sets the stage,
decides on the program, provides (brief) input and feedback to stimulate learning among students,
and designs appropriate learning experiences that place students in situations where they practice
thinking using their knowledge and skills. Refrain from spoon-feeding the answer if students are
struggling with a problem. These struggles are evidence of a learning process – a student may
need some help but many are able to solve even demanding problems by mobilizing prior
6) The attendance phase needs tight planning but flexible execution. Learning activities need to
be prepared before class. But once class starts, instructors have to respond to evidence of student
learning (or lack thereof) by allotting more time to crucial but difficult topics, by cutting
activities short where students are doing better than expected or by coming up with activities on
We believe that the ICM is a promising alternative to the classic lecture format, allowing for the
pursuit of more demanding learning outcomes that are more appropriate and meaningful to
students of political science. With the ICM we can transform passive large-enrollment classes
into spaces of active learning, opening up new possibilities for more engaging work and the
pursuit of higher-order competences. The core challenge is to provide feedback in larger classes
which require different forms of feedback and careful planning.
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