An evidence-based approach to flipped learning

Flipped learning is most effective when it places active learning at its core, research suggests. A new model for flipped learning, developed by Manu Kapur and colleagues, aims to do just that

Manu Kapur's avatar
ETH Zurich
18 Jul 2023
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The past decade in education has seen marked rise of flipped learning.

Typically, flipped learning comprises two phases: a pre-class phase in which students passively engage with pre-recorded content and an in-class phase in which active learning is supposed to take place. The argument for flipped learning is that moving passive content pre-class frees up space for more active learning in class, thereby using classroom time more effectively, which in turn should lead to better learning outcomes. However, the reality has proven more nuanced, particularly in the context of higher education.

My colleagues John Hattie, Irina Grossman and Tanmay Sinha and I conducted a meta-analysis to investigate the effect of flipped learning interventions. It looked at 173 studies and data from approximately 43,000 students. We found an overall positive effect of flipped learning, but with a high level of variation in the effect. To explain this variation, we developed a coding scheme to code various activities carried out in flipped learning implementations.

Here, we uncovered some counter-intuitive findings. We expected to find evidence of active learning in the in-class phase. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Not only did the in-class phase not have as much active learning as expected, we observed the most significant learning gains when the in-class phase included a short lecture. This suggests that the benefits of flipped learning might be more associated with passive and repeated exposure to learning content than with active learning, because active learning was largely absent. Moreover, when active learning was present in traditional classrooms, the benefits of flipped learning over traditional classrooms vanished.

In other words, what is important is active learning, not flipping learning per se.

However, we recognise that flipped learning is here to stay, especially in our post-pandemic world. Therefore, we used our meta-analysis to derive an evidence-based model that would re-centre active learning in the flipped learning model. We call it the 4F model, which incorporates a sequence of four phases: fail, flip, fix and feed.

Implementing the 4F model in a higher education context involves:

1. The fail phase: cultivating a culture of exploration and resilience

The fail phase encourages students to engage in problem-solving even before they receive any formal instruction. This phase is all about creating a safe environment where students can engage with new problems and try to generate solutions. This not only allows students to discover the limits of their current knowledge but also fosters resilience, as they learn to navigate and learn from initial failures. Instructors can facilitate this by providing problem sets or case studies related to the upcoming lesson and asking students to attempt solutions prior to the class. This active engagement and exploration provides opportunities for both the instructor and the student to diagnose, check and understand students’ knowledge prior to instruction.

2. The flip phase: maximising the utility of pre-class activities

The flip phase is about maximising the utility of pre-class activities. By providing students with pre-class reading and videos, with quizzes, instructors can ensure that students arrive in class somewhat familiar with the core concepts and ready to engage at a deeper level. Research suggests that students who go through the fail phase are likely learn more from flip phase than students who go straight to the flip phase. This is because students can compare and contrast their understanding of the problems and the solutions, understand their own errors in the fail phase, then try to correct them using the content in the flip phase. This increases the likelihood of students coming to the in-class session with a good understanding of their prior knowledge in relation to the targeted content.

3. The fix phase: striking a balance between lectures and interactive activities

The fix phase reintegrates lectures into the in-class phase, but these should not be traditional lectures, for those ought to have been given in the flip phase already. Instead, they are designed to build on student solutions and misconceptions from the fail phase, and also to address students’ questions from the flip phase, and consolidate them to reinforce core ideas. Here is where active learning should form the core, not just more passive lecturing. This is a more focused and efficient use of lecture time that is informed by the work done in the fail and flip stages.

4. The feed phase: providing regular and constructive feedback

The feed phase is about providing regular, constructive feedback to students, helping them gauge their progress, identify areas for improvement, and refine their learning strategies. This could be in the form of individual comments, group feedback sessions, or digital feedback tools.

The 4F model offers an evidence-based rethink of how we can implement flipped learning, based on our meta-analysis and innovative pedagogical insights. Although the 4F model is derived from past evidence and meta-analysis, implementing and testing the model presents a promising direction for future research and practice in higher education.

Manu Kapur is professor and chair of learning sciences and higher education and directs the Future Learning Initiative at ETH Zurich.

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