Dr Doron Goldbarsht and Nathan Johnston from Macquarie Law School explain how ‘flipping’ textbooks can help students master fundamental concepts in law education.
The traditional approach to textbooks
The traditional face-to-face model of higher education, consisting of one or more in-person lectures and a single tutorial each week, has been a standard approach to course delivery in higher education for decades, and teaching law has been no exception. Under traditional models of legal education, treatise-style textbooks are the primary mechanism for the delivery of course content, followed by lectures designed to reinforce knowledge in rule-based law.
Readings, set by the teacher, also often come from a treatise-style textbook in which complex webs of doctrinal history are explained in unrelenting prose with a density that strains a student’s cognitive load. Rarely are simple statements of principle easy to find amid the doctrinal thickets.
Understandably, this model of tertiary legal education has been critiqued in more recent literature. However, as Keyes and Johnstone have identified,  many of those critiques focus on fostering more practical skills in law students, ensuring that new graduates are job-ready. Less commonly do they focus on how content is delivered, and rarer still are critiques of the texts. In response there has been a move towards student-centred learning in law schools across Australia; and in some classrooms, more radical changes to pedagogy are taking place. In particular, pedagogical methods such as ‘flipped classrooms’ and ‘blended learning’ are emerging. At the heart of these new pedagogical methods, the delivery of most course material is repositioned outside of formal class time, while what used to be homework activities are brought into the classroom. Thus, the class has been flipped or inverted. To achieve this, extensive notes, video-recorded lectures, blogs, forums and videos provide students with course materials before class. This frees up formal face-to-face class time, allowing students to undertake collaborative and interactive activities that were once reserved for homework or assessments, deepening and solidifying student understandings and fostering higher-order critical and evaluative thinking.
Our research suggests taking a student-centred approach to legal education one step further by not just flipping the classroom, but also ‘flipping the readings’.
Flipping the reading
We use the term ‘flipping the readings’ to describe any method by which the traditional endpoint of reading is moved to the forefront. The reading of context, history, doctrine and case law becomes a later-in-time exercise to deepen learning. This centres students’ reading and understanding of current principles and treats the reading of background and case law as an exercise by which students actively contextualise and broaden their understanding. Just as a flipped classroom centres what was once the endpoint of teaching (homework activities), flipped textbooks centre what was once the endpoint of reading (distilled principles).
Fundamentally, in our flipped textbook, each topic (which targets the doctrines, principles and policies determined to be the most important to be covered in the book) should be broken down into a series of questions and answers. The content of the flipped textbook should be presented in a way that requires no prior understanding of the topic studied; it should be structured quite literally as questions from those new to the area. In this way, the flipped textbook gives readers the tools they need to engage in formal learning, but it also mirrors informal learning by attempting to reflect those organic peer-to-peer conversations that have been lost in the shift to online and pre-recorded classroom.
Front-load the fundamental concepts
The flipped textbook helps students to front-load fundamental concepts before they engage in longer texts or tutorials. Students can use the flipped textbook to master fundamental concepts then supplement that reading with treatise-style textbooks to broaden and deepen their understanding. Or, they can then use the tutorial to develop a critical perspective on the content without worrying that they do not adequately understand the core of a discussion. The flipped textbook is designed not to provide a full exposition of the history of a principle, but to break topics down into discrete bite-sized nuggets in order to give students a solid understanding of the fundamentals. The constituent parts of the flipped textbook enable students to skim or skip over content that they already understand, or that they feel they can return to later, rather than demanding that they understand a chapter as a whole. In this way, the flipped textbook allows students to guide their own learning. Ideally, they will read it before a flipped lecture, but also afterwards – or, perhaps, before reading a treatise-style textbook. The approach will depend on the student’s confidence in their comprehension of a topic.
In addition, flipped textbooks can benefit students by preventing them from feeling a sense of embarrassment. They have unrestricted access to the book and can re-read the relevant Q&As to reinforce foundational concepts. Moreover, students can engage with the textbook at their own pace. If a student has forgotten a concept or is less confident in their understanding of it, there is no sense of judgement for having re-engaged with the book.
Helping with revision
A flipped textbook also assists students with revision, as it is a more manageable text for students of all academic capacities. It is also an appropriate resource for open-book examinations, where there is minimal time to review the foundational concepts that students are expected to comprehended. Students can access concise explanations of foundational concepts as a quick refresher to assist them in answering examination questions with the confidence they need. Further, using the Q&A format fosters the reading skills of skimming, scanning, detailed reading and revision reading.
The flipped textbook steers away from the traditional textbook format by eschewing long blocks of exposition in which foundational concepts are often explained in their entirety. Instead, the foundational concepts are broken down into important and interesting constituent parts, a purposeful fragmentation that is reflected in the structure of the content. By breaking foundational concepts down into their discrete parts and separating them quite literally across pages, the ‘Question’ section focuses students’ minds on each part in turn. This encourages greater skimming and scanning. The format encourages students to check their own knowledge through reading the larger text questions. Students identify the questions of interest or areas of concern in their individual parts. Some students will no doubt skip questions where a constituent part of a concept or doctrine is already well known to them, where it is apparent from other knowledge, or where it is not the focus of their study. In this way, the structure of the book is designed to improve student engagement in effective reading practices.
Another benefit of the flipped textbook is that it is a more accessible alternative for students from non-English-language backgrounds, many of whom experience difficulties in engaging with a text and comprehending information. These difficulties can affect a student’s confidence, which is a significant indicator of student performance. The flipped textbook can assist these students, as it offers a simplified version of the required foundational concepts and is less complex and confronting than a traditional textbook.
Reflection and recommendations
The flipped reading approach promises to address the challenges that current textbooks ignore. It will supplement the lack of connection that students experience while working remotely, remedy the difficulties posed by embarrassment and examinations in the traditional teaching model, and foster more effective reading skills in law students. The approach will supplement traditional means of accessing fundamental principles and provide a fresher approach to law texts, whether for legal education or legal practice – particularly in the remote learning and working environments, where in-person discussion-based learning or knowledge-sharing is impeded and the difficulties of the traditional legal teaching method are exacerbated.
To that end, flipped reading does not involve just another treatise-style textbook, of which there are plenty. There may be many methods to implement flipped reading, one of which we have implemented in our text: Goldbarsht, D., and N. Johnston. 2022. Fundamentals of Australian Administrative Law: Questions and Answers. Sydney: LexisNexis.
Further reading on flipped classrooms
For the benefits of the flipped system — which include greater satisfaction, enjoyment and flexibility for both students and teachers; more efficient use of teachers’ time; and requiring students to engage in a higher level of cognitive activity, see: Herreid, C. F., and N. A. Schiller. 2013. ‘Case Studies and the Flipped Classroom.’ Journal of College Science Teaching 42 (5): 62–67; Burke, D. D. 2015. ‘Scale-Up! Classroom Design and Use Can Facilitate Learning.’ The Law Teacher 49 (2): 189–205; Threedy, D. L., and A. Dewald. 2015. ‘Re-Conceptualizing Doctrinal Teaching: Blending Online Videos with In-Class Problem-Solving.’ Journal of Legal Education 64: 605–21.
For the challenges, such as workload, institutional expectations, and student evaluations, see: Shepherd, C., M. Alpert, and M. Koeller. 2007. ‘Increasing the Efficacy of Educators Teaching Online.’ International Journal of Social Science 2 (3): 173–79; Mullins, A. E. 2015. ‘The Flipped Classroom: Fad or Innovation?’ Oregon Law Review Online 92: 27–33.
 Brame, C. J. 2016. ‘Effective Educational Videos: Principles and Guidelines for Maximizing Student Learning from Video Content.’ CBE Life Sciences Education 15 (4); Kerper, J. 2001. ‘Let’s Space Out: Rethinking the Design of Law School Texts.’ Journal of Legal Education 51 (2): 267–78.
 Keyes, M., and R. Johnstone. 2004. ‘Changing Legal Education: Rhetoric, Reality, and Prospects for the Future.’ Sydney Law Review 26 (4): 537–64
 Chen, K. S., L. Monrouxe, Y. H. Lu, C. C. Jenq, Y. J. Chang, Y. C. Chang, and P. Y. Chai. 2018. ‘Academic Outcomes of Flipped Classrooms: A Meta-Analysis.’ Medical Education 52 (9): 910–24.
Doron Goldbarsht, LLB LLM (HUJI) PHD (UNSW), is a Senior Lecturer at Macquarie Law School, Macquarie University. Nathan Johnston, LLB, LLM (UOW), is a Tutor at Macquarie Law School, Macquarie University.
Image credits: Photos by Elisa Calvet B. on Unsplash“>Elisa Calvet B. (Unsplash); and Doron Goldbarsht.