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Does Flipped Learning Work?


A consideration of ‘flipped learning’ and research into its definition and effectiveness.




When I hear the term ‘flipped learning’ I am already a little defensive. For this term carries assumptions about how you teach. If you recommend that someone tries flipped learning you are effectively saying that their methods are the wrong way up and that, consequently, they should (flipping) change them. Unless you know in detail how a colleague teaches it seems presumptuous to suggest that their approach is compromised. Similarly, suggesting that someone flips their ikea bookcase is tantamount to saying that they have not read the instructions properly. It always interests me when changes to teaching practice invariably present themselves with etymological nonchalance. Flipped is as gently onomatopoeic as it is semantically unforgiving: I already know how you teach and you are doing everything wrong.


In my experience, teachers who are proponents of flipped learning favour online resources, mainly videos, to supplement their students’ learning. So, it confuses me when I am corrected for thinking that flipped learning is basically about putting your schemes of work and lesson content into video format (I’ll return to my ‘mistaken assumption’ presently). Here I offer some analysis of research into its origins and whether flipped learning works.


Flipped learning was at least partly pioneered by Baker who offered some of its history at The First Annual Higher Education Flipped Learning Conference. In a screenshot from a PowerPoint slide comes the following statement: “more lecture material out of the classroom through online delivery” (Baker, 2016, from Overmyer and Nestness, p.19). Flipped learning then is about getting students to engage with more of the course content outside of the scheduled lessons so that they can engage more deeply in lessons with the teacher’s presence. Baker does say, quite clearly, “online delivery”; the true flipped learning practitioner cannot simply give out reading lists to students prior to the lesson, but instead provides material via new technologies.


Baker describes a situation when teaching about “a multimedia program screen” (Baker, 2016, p.15) where students were copying down the slides that Baker had already created. How pointless, thought Baker, whose Eureka moment was to make the slides available to the students using shared, online access and then use the lesson time to create activities, deepening understanding through discussion and activities. In essence, flipped learning ‘flips’ what is usually classroom work into homework and vice versa. Without putting it explicitly flipped learning cautions against the ‘lecture’ lesson, including the ‘PowerPoint lesson’, teacher exposition and student note-taking. In the world of flipped learning, students making notes sounds not only archaic but educationally limiting. It is ironic that Baker delivered this to a conference of educationalists banned (I sincerely hope) from taking notes.


Aspects of this ‘new’ idea are reasonable, partly I suspect because it is what university courses have been doing for years. Before you turn up to a lecture or seminar you are usually given a reading list. There is an expectation that you engage with it (that is read the material). Students who do not read get less out of the seminar discussions. They will also struggle to write a good essay on a topic without sufficient reading. University courses, it seems to me, have already flipped the right way. This makes me wonder whether the flipped learning method is offering anything novel and valuable.


What has changed, noting Baker’s phrase “online delivery”, is that ‘home’ engagement with the course material is delivered through online resources or new technologies. This sounds like two things to me. Firstly, that the role of the teacher is now to teach twice - once online and again in the classroom. Secondly, the subtext says that students are not expected to read original texts anymore. Videos, powerpoints, animations and podcasts will deliver the information. It actually implies, frankly, that the job of teacher in this brave new world is to add an extra level of dissemination to the process of learning, in addition to the trusty textbook. Incidentally, it further suggests that teachers should be called something else.


Textbooks are typically disseminated information. If it’s a science or humanities textbook it is likely to précis the work of researchers and writers into piece meal, accessible material. In memorising and understanding a typical, exam-specific coursebook, whilst you might not achieve high grades necessarily, it is likely to give you some sort of platform to getting a high grade. Now, flipped learning seems to advocate students not even reading the textbook; instead they will read the teacher’s notes or video summary about the textbook. Hence it advocates a new level of dissemination.


The next, obvious question is, does this work? Practically speaking flipped learning is still relatively new. The studies conducted in this area are naturally rare (and so gratitude to those who have attempted research). What constitutes ‘effectiveness’ tends to be defined by student engagement and, unsurprisingly, measures of retention relating to academic performance. Much of the research uses participants from either US senior schools or undergraduates. Van Vliet et al. (2015) found that flipped learning, when combined with a traditional approach, improved critical thinking compared to learning through a traditional approach independently. Without a condition that measures flipped learning exclusively it is difficult to be fully convinced of its superiority. Student appreciation of flipped learning was higher than traditional methods, but after five months there was no evidence that flipped learning improved retention.


Part of the problem is that Van Vliet is not fully clear how traditional methods are different to flipped learning. For instance, in a comparison table, reading is described as ‘compulsory’ when it appears under ‘traditional’ but part of “construct understanding” in the flipped category (Van Vliet et al, 2015, p.2). It is indeed traditional to make reading compulsory: reading is inevitably compulsory should you wish to learn anything in a field which is dominated by published writing.


From Van Vliet I start to think of flipped learning in the following way: if it engages students and it works then adopt the strategy. What their study seems to do is to cherry pick effective learning strategies, which are then labelled flipped learning, before dismissing strategies that have passive effects, which are dubbed traditional learning. Traditional reading, according to Van Vliet, is reading that is unenthusiastic and perfunctory. Naturally, reading is ineffective if the reader is not fully concentrating, but I am not surprised to hear that when the reluctant reader is afforded piece meal bites of the course, through videos and slides, student engagement improves in the short term. But this might be a superficial, transient development. When engagement improves by virtue of bitesize, online material, one must wonder what exactly has been achieved. Any English Literature teacher could prepare a PowerPoint telling the story of King Lear in order to prevent a ‘compulsory’ reading of the play. But what have you actually flipped? Your teaching or your principles?


In a similar study, Johnson and Renner offer no significant difference in information retention between traditional and flipped learning (Johnson and Renner, 2012). In their discussion Johnson and Renner consider implications of the flipped learning method and point out that extra teacher time is required. If the explanation for a philosophical theory (say) is delivered via videos and podcasts before the scheduled lesson, it stands to reason that the teacher will spend more time in lesson preparation. In the lesson, the idea is that the teacher engages in discussion and further activities. The teacher is working twice; I am not surprised that there is not always a difference in student learning outcomes. Flipped learning defers responsibility from the student to the teacher for reading and understanding information. Students who read and make notes before a lesson (without having the material broken down in this way) arrive at the lesson better prepared - they have engaged with material for themselves. Even if flipped learning did afford a preferable grade, why is it desirable?


Many years ago, I was sitting with a colleague, who shared an A Level set with me, at a parents’ meeting. My colleague talked at length to the mother of her son about everything we had done to help him and what resources we had prepared. After listening for several minutes the mother, a fee-payer no less, said: “do you think you are doing too much for him?” What I think the boy’s own mother was suggesting is that the responsibility for learning should have been flipped more in the direction of her son and away from us as teachers.


Final thoughts



Research measuring the retention of information in flipped learning and ‘traditional’ learning offers mixed findings. There is evidence that flipped learning can enhance learning, or at least, recall. Whether the effect is long term is open to question. The definition of flipped learning is a little nebulous. What it claims to flip is the point in which initial learning and deeper learning is undertaken. It does not necessarily follow that a traditional, older method of teaching lacks student engagement.


In practice, flipped learning involves constructing videos and multimedia resources for students which deconstructs the specification material for them, apparently to make it more accessible. This part of flipped learning is not always clear in the initial definitions.


Flipped learning has favourable measures of student appreciation and initial engagement. There are facets of flipped learning which help classroom enjoyment and enthusiasm.


Flipped learning has implications for teacher workload. More time is needed to prepare lessons and prepare the material for consumption prior to lessons. Teachers will not be reading more books; instead they will be disseminating information from books that they have already read, so that their students do not need to read them.


A student accustomed to flipped learning in one context might find future learning difficult when a teacher is not there to make sense of the situation for them.



References


Baker, J. W. (2016) ‘The Origins of the Classroom Flip in Overmyer, J. and Yestness, N. (eds.) Proceedings of the First Annual Higher Education Flipped Learning Conference (Greeley, Colorado)


Johnson, L. W. and Renner, J. D. (2012) ‘Effect of the flipped classroom model on a secondary computer applications course: student and teacher perceptions, questions and student achievement’, University of Louisville


Van Vliet, E. A., Winnips, J. C. and Brouwer, N. (2015) ‘Flipped learning pedagogy enhances student metacognition and collaborative learning strategies in higher education but effect does not persist’, in CBE – Life Sciences Education, Vol. 14, 1-10, Fall 2015