Unique ‘studio’ format offers benefits, challenges to students and faculty alike


As methods of pedagogy – the art, science or profession of teaching – have continued to evolve, one concept that has emerged in the last decade is the idea of the “flipped classroom.”

The term, according to one professor, is new. However, the application, especially in the case of K-State’s Biology 198 course, is not.

“There’s a lot of talk in pedagogy these days of what they call ‘flipped classrooms,’” said David Rintoul, associate director of the division of biology and associate professor of biology. “A flipped classroom is something where basically the students do all the work. The students may not be in charge of where it goes, but they’re certainly much more in charge of their learning than in a lecture situation.”

The Studio
In 1997, Ackert Hall room 219 was renovated to the cost of $1 million dollars. The funds, equivalent to $1,578,380.57 today, after inflation, were used to replace the old audio tutorial booths that existed. Other major renovations to the space included new computers and four person tables that would be the physical foundation of a new, state-of-the-art class format.

Biology 198, Principles of Biology, was first taught in the flipped classroom or studio format in Ackert 219 during the fall semester of 1997. Rintoul said when the process began in 1994, there were no other models for the format, except for one in development at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.

“It was a major project that involved everyone in the division at the time,” Rintoul said. “Basically, we started in 1994 and encouraged, by assigning various committees, everybody in the department to help write objectives.”

The format created, and now used, is essentially a hybrid lab-lecture class. In the studio format, one professor or graduate student leads the first 15-20 minutes of lecture. The students then continue into what is essentially a lab-type environment for all but the final 15 minutes or so of class.

“It’s a fusion of the traditional lecture and lab in the same environment, with the added ingredient of peer-to-peer interactions,” Rintoul said. “It’s a hybrid, that’s exactly what it is.”

Positives, negatives
Like any class format, the studio format has both advantages and disadvantages. Rintoul said one such benefit is the faculty-to-student ratio. In his experience, the typical ratio in biology courses at other institutions is between 500-800 students per instructor. The studio format, however, improves that ratio significantly.

Robbie Bear, instructor of biology, said the maximum class capacity is 78 per section, but that there is usually a five percent drop rate. Normally, each studio section has two faculty members, two graduate students and one or two practicum students, who are undergraduates that have come back to help teach the class. This means the average studio class size is 74 students with a faculty to student ratio of approximately 1-to-15.

After the initial 15 minutes of class, students complete a combination of computer assisted tutorials and experiments with other members of their table, which typically consists of three to four students.

Eva Horne, associate professor of biology, said another major strength of the studio format is that it allows for more collaboration between students.

“The way we do it now, the students are talking to each other and you actually learn stuff a lot better when you explain it to somebody else,” Horne said. “So having students work together and having students explain things to each other helps a lot in the learning process.”

Bear said that while students work, instructors move around the room and check to make sure they are on the right track and understanding concepts. At times, this is achieved by reading over students’ shoulders to ensure their answers make sense or by listening to their interactions as they progress through class work.

Horne said the emphasis of the format is the help facilitate understanding.

“The way I see (it), the job of a teacher is not to force knowledge into your head. It’s to guide you into finding that information yourself,” Horne said. “And so we walk around and listen to what you’re saying to each other and if we hear something kind of funny, we’ll throw in a question to guide you in the right direction.”

However, the format is not without weaknesses. Rintoul said the unique format itself can be a vulnerability. Students aren’t typically used to the format, which can cause problems for some.

“A lot of the problems that people have with this class is that it’s different and change is hard for anybody,” Rintoul said. “So if you think that the only way you learn is by sitting there and having someone lecture to you, you get irritated by this class because you’re not going to get that.”

However, Rintoul said he believes the format is actually beneficial overall because students get more out of it. Horne said she believes that even if students don’t necessarily learn more, they get more from the interactions.

“You may not learn more, but you keep it longer,” Horne said. “And you make connections.”

Rintoul said the studio format does make the class more challenging because students have to be more active in their learning by engaging with the material and their peers.

“Passive learning is [how] everybody thinks they learn, but they don’t honestly,” Rintoul said. “There’s lots of data that say you don’t really learn that way.”

It isn’t only students that face challenges as a result of the format. Besides being what Rintoul called “very resource intensive,” Bear said professors have to be more on their toes, as well.

Bear said he taught biology in the lecture format at McCook Community College, a division of Mid-Plains Community College, in Nebraska before coming to K-State 10 years ago. He said it’s a very mentally-exhausting process because rather than just talking for 50 minutes, teachers have to interact and engage with each student. They have to figure out how to best explain things on a case-by-case basis depending on the student, Bear said.

Every year, the studio format is improved, Rintoul, Horne and Bear said. Each exam has a specific set of questions that professors review to determine how students are learning in each subject. At the end of the year, revisions to methods of subject approach and time spent on each are made based on student answers to these questions.

One such improvement is the transition to an e-textbook in the fall of 2014. Bear said the book will be available for download in a variety of formats, including PDF and HTML. The book is a collaboration between K-State and Rice University in Texas, and allows each university to modify the book to its needs.

Other textbooks currently in existence don’t coincide with the course structure well enough to continue to be used with the studio biology classes, Bear said, and the new e-textbook will alleviate that issue altogether. For students who prefer physical textbooks, the biology division is setting into place measures that will allow students to print the books without penalty of copyright infringement.

Shelton grew up in the desert southwest. A native of Lancaster, California, he mostly grew up in south Phoenix, Arizona; Austin, Texas; and Colorado Springs, Colorado before moving to Kansas and graduating from Junction City High School. He started working as a news writer for the Collegian in 2009 before taking a three-year break from college. He returned to K-State in 2013 and has since worked for the news desk, feature desk, as a copy editor and now as a sports writer. He enjoys tap dancing, writing anything possible, reading court opinions and watching Arizona Coyotes hockey.