Flipping great? The case for and against flipping the classroom

A recent study suggested the approach had no impact on student achievement, but many academics believe the move away from lectures can improve learning – if it is done well

October 9, 2019
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Jump in flipped learning is ‘much more fun. It is difficult for students to enjoy themselves when you are not enjoying it’

The concept of the flipped classroom has been gaining traction as a pedagogical approach for three decades, with its adoption rapidly increasing in recent years: more than half of US universities now employ the model.

However, academics remain at odds over whether the technique – in which students digest new educational content outside the classroom and then use contact time to discuss, apply and deepen their knowledge – is an improvement on the “out-of-date” traditional lecture, or whether the reason the lecture format has stuck around so long is because it is effective.

As the popularity of the flipped classroom has grown, the critics of the lecture have grown more vocal. Carl Wieman, a Nobel prizewinning physicist at Stanford University, has described the chalk-and-talk approach as being akin to “bloodletting in the era of evidence-based medicine”. According to Professor Wieman, the evidence is clear that “active learning instruction consistently achieves better student outcomes than lectures” across a wide range of disciplines.

Nevertheless, the lecture remains difficult to dislodge as academics’ instructional method of choice, and doubts remain about the effectiveness of the flipped classroom: a survey of 290 European universities last year found that it was the least popular of five teaching innovations considered. Only 15 per cent considered the model to be “fully useful”, while 39 per cent said that it was useful to some extent.

Defenders of the lecture, such as James Conroy, the University of Glasgow’s vice-principal for internationalisation, highlight that the “much maligned” lecture actually “requires concentration, analysis and judgement”, which are important skills for students to learn.

A scholarly grenade was tossed into the debate this summer with the publication of a paper that found that switching to the flipped classroom failed to improve student performance. Researchers analysed results of 1,328 students at the United States Military Academy using data from in-class quizzes and end-of-year exams and found that the group taught via the flipped classroom method did no better than those who had lectures. The study also showed that the model might exacerbate achievement gaps between different groups of learners.

The paper, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been criticised on several grounds: for example, the profile of students and the academic regime in a military academy is significantly different from those of a typical university, and the study focused on students from a narrow range of disciplines, specifically economics and mathematics. Furthermore, all the lecturers taking part in the study were new to the flipped classroom method, and the comparatively simplistic preparatory material – video recordings of lectures, as opposed to, for example, independent research – may have been a factor in students’ results.

So where does the scholarly consensus now lie on the value of the flipped classroom approach? And, if it is to be implemented, how can it be done most effectively? The MIT paper is by no means the only research project to have shed light on the strengths and drawbacks of the approach. Some studies have come to similar conclusions: a 2013 study at Brigham Young University found “no significant difference” between the achievement and perceived learning gain of students taught by flipped or traditional teaching methods. A 2012 study of students at Middle Tennessee State University found that those in a flipped classroom “were less satisfied with how the classroom structure oriented them to the learning tasks in the course”.

In contrast, a 2019 literature review, conducted by academics at Utrecht University, studied 114 papers and found that the flipped classroom had “a small positive effect on learning outcomes” overall. A 2018 review of 28 papers published in BMC Medical Education that focused on the experience of students in health professions concluded that there was an overall “significant effect” in favour of flipped classrooms. In addition, the paper found that the majority of respondents said they preferred flipped to traditional classrooms.

Other studies have drawn out nuance in the debate. A 2018 literature review by academics at the University of Florida analysed 55 studies and found a “statistically significant effect” in favour of the flipped classroom, but concluded that disciplinary differences were important to take into consideration – engineering was particularly well suited to flipping, they said. The authors added that “other forms of blended learning appear to have a stronger effect on student learning outcomes”.

A broader problem is that many of the studies focusing on the flipped classroom have been observational, as opposed to experimental, and have often involved relatively small sample sizes.

Paul Wyatt, a professorial teaching fellow in the University of Bristol’s School of Chemistry, said that it “can be tricky” to place a numerical value on the effect of the flipped classroom. However, he has implemented a model for his undergraduate courses in which half the lectures are flipped and half are not, and he reports that students were “very engaged” with the format and that the majority of the feedback had been positive. Many students said it helped them to truly learn the material rather than just passively take in information, he said.

Professor Wyatt said he enjoyed teaching in this way. “I’m interacting with [students] when I teach them; it’s much more fun. It is difficult for students to enjoy themselves when you are not enjoying it. It is a virtuous circle,” he said.

Simone Buitendijk, vice-provost for education at Imperial College London, agreed that this was an overlooked but important element in the debate. “It’s OK to make teaching fun,” she said.

Professor Buitendijk said that although she did not believe that the lecture should be consigned to history, the flipped classroom was a useful tool to make learning more interactive. “At Imperial, we are still part of a relatively small group of pioneers, but I’m convinced it will spread. We won’t do lecturing as our prime way to teach, but it’s a work in a progress.”

She added that it would require a change in the wider ecosystem to accelerate the uptake of the flipped classroom because assessment would need to evolve to reflect the more interactive nature of learning. Most research-intensive universities still have not put enough time, effort or money into overhauling their teaching, she argued, and “if you are a really busy person, you will teach the way you’ve always done it. So it needs to be a strategic effort.”

Effort is a key issue, because academics agree that adopting flipped learning is a fairly significant undertaking that must be underpinned by strong pedagogy.

“If you simply videotape a boring lecture, that’s not going to work; that’s worse than the boring lecture in person,” Professor Buitendijk said. “You really need to think about what you put online, [and] how students relate with the video material.”

Professor Wieman strongly agreed. He told Times Higher Education that the flipped classroom was a format that made it easier to embark on active learning, but there was “nothing in the definition of a flipped classroom that says [teachers] are putting in the right kinds of activity”.

“Sitting there watching a lecture on a monitor is no more effective than [watching a lecture] in person. What really matters is what happens in the classroom,” Professor Wieman said. If the teacher designs their flipped classroom teaching with evidence-based active learning techniques, it will work; if not, it won’t, he said. Approaches that are advocated by researchers include problem-solving, experiential learning and peer assessment – not just group discussions.

The 2018 Florida literature review backed this up: the variation in the results of different research papers on flipped learning was likely attributable to the “considerable variability in the design and implementation of flipped classrooms”, it said.

Professor Wyatt said he believed that the positive feedback that his flipped teaching received had a lot to do with the fact that he made lecture recordings specifically for the lessons, rather than using recordings of old lectures, which he found were not liked by students. He also emphasised the importance of using technology effectively – in his case, polling software.

“I deliberately only flip half the course to anchor it in something familiar,” Professor Wyatt added. The flipped lessons should not make extra work for the students – they are supposed to have personal study time, and it’s just flipping that, he explained. However, students who have succeeded throughout their education by cramming might feel that they have to make a lot more effort, and they will need convincing, Professor Wyatt said.

He also cautioned against a top-down approach to implementing the flipped classroom across a university. “The thing with all innovative teaching is that it doesn’t work if teachers are told, ‘You have to do this,’” Professor Wyatt said. “It has to come from the lecturer thinking, ‘This might work for me, and I’d like to try that.’”



Print headline: Does turning learning on its head deliver?

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Reader's comments (13)

"Flipped" classrooms, according to MIT, don't improve performance. If performance is measured by examination scores then that conclusion isn't surprising. Writing down lecture notes, remembering them and regurgitating them in examinations is a much easier way of achieving a 'good' grade in a typical recall examination than fully engaging with the subject in "flipped" classrooms -- or as we used to call them 'discussion seminars'. But good 'performance' in examinations does not imply good learning. Regurgitation is not the same as understanding. The MIT analysis is grist to the mill of lazy lecturers unable or unwilling to develop "flipped" learning and too unimaginative to be able to devise assessments that capture learning.
@Lee Harvey - couldn't agree more!
Are we missing the point? Flipped delivery does not always equate with active learning just as lectures don't have to be passive lecturer-centric events that are more about 'teaching' than learning. ANY type of learning event can facilitate engaged, active learning, where students' "concentration, analysis and judgement" (and more) are developed - but this requires teachers to plan, prepare and deliver effective content and focus on helping students to learn. It takes thought, creativity, effort and flexibility, and one delivery method is never going to fit all.
It stands to reason that the more human senses engaged in a learning environment, the greater the chances of meaningful learning taking place. Lectures often only appeal to the visual and audio receptors. Since flipped learning is better placed to engage more senses, different (and more) memory functions are triggered. Comparing exam results to measure the value of flipped learning against traditional teaching approaches makes little sense. How about asking flipped learning recipients what they learnt years after their class experience and compare those results with people who sat through lectures? An interesting idea given the importance of developing student enterprise and employability skills so grads actually have a chance of paying off £30k+ of tuition fees.
Some academics' response to this article just highlights that in research -- there are researchers who hold positions that just defy falsification; contrary evidence is never good enough.
Rejecting an idea based on one negative (or neutral) result is just as intellectually sloppy as accepting it. I think it is important to critique the research findings and to look across more than one study. I am agnostic about the "flipped classroom", but from decades of working with schools and universities on teaching innovation, one thing that is critical is committed teachers who really want to apply the techniques in the most appropriate ways and that it takes time to get it right. We have found that it takes anywhere from 2-4 years for an innovation to "settle in" and show any benefit. That is one thing that makes educational research so difficult. If you look back at, say, Problem Based Learning, there were a lot of studies where they tried it in one module or for one semester and, lo and behold, it didn't show any benefit and students didn't like it and didn't engage. But other, most robust studies have found that with skilled facilitators (another important component of "flipped learning"), good induction of students to the process, well designed curriculae and a clear structure (which a lot of PBL implementations miss out), it can produce better and deeper learning, more confident students, a willingness and an ability to identify gaps in knowledge. I think that the "flipped classroom" actually resembles a somewhat watered-down version, but I suspect that, implemented well (which this institution did not seem to do), it could encourage more engagement and possibly better learning.
Oh, and by the way, I think that lectures are a very useful learning tool when done well. (And deadly when done badly!)
More fertilisation of the method. More prostration to distinctions in language hoping to efface reductions in reality. In a classroom, however organised, the first determinant of the quality of learning is the quality of teaching, a practice which includes the careful selection of material and its presentation in meaningful sequence, the sequencing of material so that critical awareness grows, the reflection that deepens understanding and therefor facilitates recall. In other words, it's good teachers that matter, not methods, trendy or antiquated. There is no magic pill.
Thank you autocorrect for "correcting" fetishisation" to "fertilisation". Well done.
@jean_mck The article did not just mentioned one paper that did not find benefits for flipped classrooms, it also (briefly) mentioned others. So your comment about rejecting flipped classrooms based on one study is relevant. In addition, if your comment was true, then it is the expertise of the instructor that is the key ingredient for learning outcomes rather than the modality in which the teaching occurs. That means, if your comment was true, as long as the instructor is well trained as an educator, then it won't matter if it was a lecture or flipped classroom that was being used. Another point to support the case against focusing on the modality of teaching (see @jimbotyson's comment above).
No mention of university resourcing models, I note. If you inherit, for example, an MSc module with 100+ students and get assigned to a standard lecture for a 3 hour block per week, what chance to develop and facilitate meaningful in-class active learning exercises to support a flipped approach?
aking a mistake. In addition, it is important to prepare the student for autonomy, which may assist the method if the student himself seeks other ways to answer his questions before joining the discussion group. Thus, he can contribute with new knowledge on the topic to discuss. It is also necessary that the inverted classroom is not the only methodology to be worked on in a whole course of three or four years. Other methodologies may assist in student development.
As a student I find it helpful to have both. Some new material delivered in lectures, plus a lot of independent reading I have to absorb, write about and then discuss in supervisions. Can't imagine a "flipped" lecture being any use, though. It would just be the same half-dozen people, out of the hundred sitting there, contributing week after week.