Flipped classroom ‘fails to improve student performance’

Authors of randomised control trial study warn that popular approach could be exacerbating achievement gaps between different groups of learners

August 13, 2019
Source: Alamy

Teaching via the flipped classroom method fails to boost student performance, a major study suggests.

The popular approach – in which students are introduced to learning material before a taught session and then spend class time engaging in problem-solving and discussion – may also exacerbate achievement gaps between different groups of learners, according to a randomised control trial conducted at a US institution.

The results, published in a Massachusetts Institute of Technology discussion paper, pose a challenge to the growth of the flipped classroom model, which is used in more than half of US universities and widely around the world, and is growing in popularity.

For the experiment, involving 29 academics across 80 economics and mathematics classes at the United States Military Academy, half of the 1,328 students were taught via a traditional lecture method, and half were instructed using a flipped classroom model, watching video lectures before teaching sessions and working on problem-solving tasks in class.

Student achievement was compared using an in-class quiz taken after three taught sessions, and then the course’s final exam. In economics, there was no significant difference in performance between the two groups. In maths, students in the flipped classroom group did better in the in-class quiz, but their advantage had faded by the time of the final exam.

Examining the results in more detail, researchers found that the short-term improvement in maths performance was driven by better scores for white, male students – the achievement gap between white and black or Hispanic students was 69 per cent larger than in the lecture group – and those who were already high performers.

And, while any overall improvement had disappeared by the time of the final exam, these achievement gaps persisted: the flipped classroom cohort had a 51 per cent larger achievement gap by race, and a 25 per cent bigger gap based on prior attainment.

Elizabeth Setren, Gunnar Myrdal assistant professor of economics at Tufts University and one of the authors of the study, said “the key takeaway is that if educators are interested in implementing it in the classroom, they should pay careful attention to how it affects students across the skills distribution”.

“We've seen a huge burgeoning interest in lots of different ways to incorporate technology in higher education, and the flipped classroom is one of the more popular models that people are exploring...it’s important to bring some evidence to bear on that,” Dr Setren told Times Higher Education.

Some proponents of the flipped classroom model argue that it helps students from the lower end of the performance distribution. However, that was not the case in this experiment. “If educators are hoping it will be a solution, they need to pay careful attention and think about how they can modify it to support those students,” Dr Setren said.

Dr Setren added that, when looking at what might explain the differences between maths and economics quiz results, “we found that the maths faculty were more motivated and interested in participating in a flipped classroom model, whereas in economics they preferred the standard classroom”.

Rather than taking a top-down approach and imposing a change to the pedagogical model, university leaders should think about allowing instructors to choose for themselves. “Perhaps the most motivated will see the largest results,” Dr Setren said.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Popular flipped classroom model ‘fails to improve performance’

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Reader's comments (15)

The flipped classroom has been so widely embraced because of its seeming simplicity - simply switch instruction from in class to online using technology. But this is also its danger - for many, there is no interrogation of the best uses of technology within the learning experience. All the bad things about the traditional model of university teaching can easily be left in place and exacerbated, rather than transformed. The flipped classroom model is but one form of blended learning. Blended learning design can be very complex to enact but very effective. We need to be prepared to pay attention to careful blended learning design not overly simple approaches.
Flipping worked for me. More time to discuss directly with students, better attendance, more interesting and more fun. Plus the students nominated us for a teaching award, which we won. If the tide turns and students hate it, we'll switch back to lectures.
I ran a couple of flipped courses in the UK and compared the outcomes against the same course delivered via traditional lectures. There were no differences in grades, but I gave students a questionnaire to assess their perception of their learning and their enjoyment of the course. The results suggested that the students did not feel that the flipped sessions improved their understanding of the material, but their enjoyment of the course was enhanced in the flipped sessions. I felt that this was a positive outcome, if enjoyment of a course is improved by flipping, even if grades are not improved, it is worth doing. However, students need instruction in how to use the flipped elements effectively and I can see how a lack of guidance in this area could disadvantage students from varied backgrounds.
That last sentence is critical "“Perhaps the most motivated will see the largest results,” Dr Setren said" - motivated teachers, regardless of the approach they take tend to get better results.
fully support this comment! university administrators need to look into this more seriously!
Alas, it is the obsession with student satisfaction that is truly the ruin of lecturing. To be satisfied as a consumer, and educated as a student are not one and the same thing.
Good point!
The class size is very small att West Point: a cap at 18 students and a mean of 16. With such small classes you can activate the students even with traditional lecturing. Another open issue from the study is the low attention payed to the online material for the flipped version: only half of the students prepared themselves online before the the in-class session.
To ensure students actually bother to do the work, you need to start every lesson with a quiz. It's surprising that at West Point, where you have to be highly motivated to even gain a place, and where students/cadets live on site with equal access to facilities, there is still a performance gap between white and other students - I wonder why? You cannot point at the usual reasons given for varying attainment of lack of opportunity to study at home (for financial or social reasons) as they aren't at home!
I’m currently in a medical school curriculum using flipped classroom. There is simply too much information for this method. “Pre-study” videos are usually as long as a normal class time or even longer. This creates basically 2x the amount of time you spend watching or attending lectures/classes. Instead of 20 hours of classes you end up with 40 hours of class + pre-study videos. Pre-study videos are normally boring recordings of professors reading off a script below each slide - never explaining the material as in a normal lecture. There’s barely time for review after you mix in clinical events and team based learning activities. It’s absurd.
I'd like to add that some students are fast learners during classroom activities. They get to the answers first and the slower students are left behind to receive material in bits and pieces when it's explained for that particular question.
The flipped class room has been around for a long time in some form or another. I remember in secondary school being asked to read ahead in advance of the next day's class. Some students did the homework and those who did not either held up the class or were left behind. I teach online now and use the flipped class methodology as a means of covering material as sadly, my time online with my students is limited. I know the importance of designing digital learning objects which engage the student, help them learn and problem solve and do not add to their workload as # elh85 mentioned. A lot of time has to be put into designing and developing these objects in advance of the online tutorial. The talking head model with a lecturer just rattling off a script is a lazy approach to my mind and disengages students. No matter what the approach is in the design of flipped materials, it is very important to have a feedback system which enables the learner to give their opinion on the suitability and effectiveness of the flipped content/online class etc.
Based on this study, a TES story issued a severe "warning" on Flipped Learning. On the basis of one study? Why the challenge to 10+ years of research and the classroom experience of thousands of teachers and professors in 49 countries? Why now? Below is a link to 110 studies from around the world that raise questions about whether this "one study" failed to get the big picture right. https://flr.flglobal.org/?s=top+10
Don't know if others have found it useful, but I discovered I could learn enough about Servo Control Systems to be able to design one for a complex laser frequency control system from a textbook without listening to any lectures. I discovered that doing all the problems at the chapters end until I got them all correct was vitally important to the success of the project. Most of my two week vacation was spent reading the text and doing the problems, but the material has stayed with me for many years unlike lecture courses taught without a textbook.
We adopted blended learning for our BSc Herbal Medicine in Lincoln, UK some years ago to sustain and broaden recruitment (which it has done very well). We just did the workpack thing and didn't know it had a theoretical "flipped classroom" name! Some really interesting comments here, not least the search for barriers to learning and the benefits of (relatively) small class size. Food for thought - always room for improvement in one's approach and methods.

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