Commonly in a lecture-based course, students have been first exposed to content during class by the instructor, then are held responsible through homework for applying that content on their own after class.
With a “flipped” course design, the same group of student would be first exposed to content prior to class on their own – often through online materials, including videos – and then work in class with peers to gain practice in applying that content by completing activities facilitated by their instructor. In its basic design, a flipped course is one where the locations of a student’s first exposure to materials and a student’s work to apply that material are shifted.
For many, the flipped classroom is appealing because it puts the instructor in the room to guide – coach, and help – students when they are engaging the harder parts of learning, applying the concepts. Instructors who make the switch to flipped learning say that it is a great experience to be able to help and encourage students to work together on the more difficult parts of the course. These instructors also typically find that the student better learn and retain course materials and concepts.
Two recent articles in the CBE-Life Sciences Journal have me questioning whether it’s the “flip” of activity and lecture components that, in itself, makes this model effective. These articles suggest the real benefit comes from two elements that are unrelated to the location of the exposure and content elements: active learning practices used to foster regular interaction with course materials.
What is Important Here?
Active Learning Practices
In a 2015 article entitled “Improvements from a Flipped Classroom May Simply Be the Fruits of Active Learning“, Jensen, Kummer and Godoy compared student performance in two versions of a biology course employing active learning. One version was a non-flipped course using active learning to introduce content, and one version was a flipped course using active learning for concept application.
The authors found no difference in student performance or satisfaction between the two courses. Students in both courses indicated that they found the in-class portion of the course to be most valuable. One interesting note is that some students did leave comments on an open-ended question that the activities in the non-flipped class (where active learning introduced the content) seemed “more like high school” (i.e. more juvenile), but students in the flipped class (where active learning was used for concept application) did not leave these comments.
So What Matters Most?
Regular Interaction with Course Material
I find the results from “Increased Preclass Preparation Underlies Student Outcome Improvement in the Flipped Classroom” by Gross et al. also interesting. These authors compared two versions of an upper-level biochemistry course. One version was a traditional lecture based class, and the other was a flipped course with online lectures, active learning and reduced contact time.
The authors found that students performed better in the flipped course, and they offered an interesting analysis showing that this improved performance is likely due to more frequent and more consistent interaction with the content. They argue that the flipped format with pre-class work and other structured elements encourage students to spread out their studying and interaction with the material in a way that benefits their learning.
Now What to Consider in Designing Class Sessions?
Ways of Interacting with Materials throughout Learning
These studies suggest that perhaps the most important element of an effective course is not what kind of content or knowledge building you’re doing in class. Instead, it’s about actively engaging students during class (across the levels of Bloom’s taxonomy), and designing outside of class activities through which student regularly and thoughtfully engage with course material.
Flipping offers a straightforward framework for doing these two things for some instructors because they can turn their lectures or textbook readings into pre-class work, and convert their homework assignments into in-class activities. However, as instructors we can also reap the benefits of flipping by holding students accountable for engaging with class content on a regular basis and engaging them in activities to learn at any level when they’re in class with us.