Should You Try a Flipped Classroom Design? What Can It Achieve? A Review (Claudia Thompson, Wooster)

Claudia Thompson, Associate Professor, Psychology, The College of Wooster

Contact at: crt@wooster.edu

All good teachers use a variety of practices and pedagogical approaches to share the content of a course, engage students, and motivate them towards self-regulated learning. In recent years the use of technology has enhanced instruction in many ways. The internet has provided many different ways to present information creatively and vividly, and students today navigate these tools with ease. In the past several years, a number of published papers have reported on one specific kind of e-learning, called the “flipped (or inverted) classroom,” in which course material (ostensibly the “lecture”) is presented online to study outside of class, while active learning exercises of various kinds are incorporated into class-time interactions with students. These outside-of-class learning materials are often narrated PowerPoint presentations, or lectures recorded by the instructor(s), or public access online lectures, demonstrations, or other academic sources. The use of flipped classroom design has now been reported in a growing number of research papers, and in the last few years several review papers have appeared. For those interested in details of these reviews, their scope, methodology, and comprehensive findings, there are good recent papers by Thai, Wever, and Valcke (2017), O’Flaherty and Phillips (2015), Zainuddin and Hajar Halili (2016), and Bishop and Verleger (2013). Reviews specific to particular areas of study include articles devoted to research studies in the application of the Flipped Classroom in Statistics (Gundlach, Richards, Nelson, & Levesque-Bristol, 2017), Computer Science (Giannakos & Krogstie, 2014), Chemistry (Seery, 2015), and Nursing (Betihavas, Bridgman, Kornhaber, & Cross, 2016). One review (Lo & Hew, 2017) deals mainly with use of the Flipped Classroom in K-12 education, but still provides useful guidelines for higher education and comes to many of the same conclusions as the reviews cited above. Another recent review focuses on the applications of Flipped Classroom instruction at Asian Universities (Chua Shu Min & Lateef, 2014), and includes mainly case studies and qualitative data, but again shows some insights consistent with reviews focused on more controlled and quantitative studies. All of these reviews show that the applications of flipped classroom practices differ a great deal, and the degree to which good scientific controls have been incorporated into the study designs also varies considerably. Nevertheless, some generalizations have now emerged to portray both the strengths and weaknesses of the flipped classroom design.

The Buzz and The Evidence

The Flipped Classroom design has gained popular attention lately, with coverage in various newspapers and blog sites. The popular perceptions tend to tout the use of technology to make course content readily available to students, as well as accompanying visual materials, demonstrations, exercises, and problem-solving projects. But the pedagogical foundations of Flipped Classroom development depend just as much on principles of effective teaching, especially the recognition that student engagement, which has been shown to be higher in learning contexts that are inviting, have high expectations, challenge critical thinking, and encourage students to reflect, questions, evaluate, and make connections among ideas (Bryson & Hand, 2007; Hockings, Cooke, Yamashita, McGinty, & Bowl, 2008). To achieve these goals, many current educational practices use some kinds of a “blended” learning environment that involves a combination of traditional “face-to-face” instruction in class and additional learning activities both in and outside of class, often including a range of technological resources. The Flipped Classroom is one particular version of the blended learning approach. According to O’Flaherty and Phillips (2015), most uses of the Flipped Classroom incorporate recorded lectures for students to view out of class at their own pace and with chance for review. This advanced preparation frees class time for problem solving, small group projects, critical thinking exercises, and more one-to-one interaction between students and the instructor, with immediate feedback about progress on the in-class exercises (compared to the evaluation of traditional, out-of-class homework). Pluta, Richards, and Mutnick (2013) suggest that in-class time be spent on application of knowledge acquired in the pre-class lectures, with more chance for the instructor to detect errors or distorted habits of thinking. A very important additional goal of the Flipped Classroom design is that this pedagogical approach fosters student “ownership” of learning because of the self-directed nature of the preparatory work and the more interactive nature of learning in actual class time. Some have held out the promise of the Flipped Classroom, as one form of blended learning, to provide the skills that prepare students fully for the range of workforce demands and discipline-related real-life problems in the 21st Century. Certainly, pedagogical approaches that emphasize active learning, critical thinking, and metacognition all share these goals for learning skills that extend beyond formal education into working environments and “life beyond college.”  

Technology, Yes – But Pedagogy Even More  

Whereas the recent popular “buzz” about the Flipped Classroom approach tends to  focus on the rises in technology, on free online courses (initiated by MIT and followed quickly by other major universities), the diverse offerings of YouTube and other online resources, and other sophisticated e-learning platforms (often specific to disciplines and lab practices), the best applications of Flipped Classroom practices emphasize equally, one could argue essentially, strong foundations in pedagogical theory. A very good historical review of these theoretical foundations is provided in the review by Bishop and Verleger (2013), tracing the early learning philosophy of Dewey through the Constructivist ideas of Piaget and others, and the Social Interdependence ideas of Lewin and Vygotsky, to Experiential Learning concepts of Kolb, the Learning Styles model of Felder & Silverman and Problem-Based Learning arguments of Barrows, to the notions of Active Learning presented by Prince and, at about the same time, by Michael, and the Cooperative Learning and Peer-Assisted Learning models of Johnson, Slavin, and Topping, among others (see Bishop and Verleger for a full review with citations for the psychological and educational origins of student-centered learning theories and methods). There is also a repeated emphasis in the reviews about the educational frameworks underlying the Flipped Classroom approach, such as, notably, cognitive load theory and self-determination theories of motivation (see Seery, 2015). A number of reviews (e.g., Zainuddin & Hajar Halili, 2016) stress Bloom’s Taxonomy as a theoretical framework for developing in-class activities in the Flipped Classroom. These reviews make it clear that the Flipped Classroom design must attend primarily to the design of instruction that fosters active, independent, self-regulated and engaged learning by students, that “merely” switching lectures to out-of-class homework without a strong, pedagogically grounded plan for effective teaching and active learning in the classroom is insufficient and a plan for failure.   

Benefits and Challenges of Flipped Classroom Teaching and Learning  

With these definitions and theoretical considerations in mind, there are some consistent findings and recommendations that have emerged from the increasing number of empirical studies of Flipped Classroom applications and from the reviews of this published research. In general the news is good, although there are some reported problems, and sometimes the Flipped Classroom procedure makes no difference in actual performance of students on quantitative measures of content mastery. It is therefore useful to see where there is concurrence of the advantages and disadvantages of Flipped Classroom applications, keeping in mind from the start that the research has involved a great variety of methodologies, designs, and combinations of traditional instruction and flipped classroom elements.  

For example, the kinds of in-class and out-of-class activities vary a great deal in various explorations of the Flipped Classroom. In all applications, the preparatory out-of-class work involves some kind of screencast material, with lecture, multimedia presentations, and sometimes online demonstrations. There are also usually preparatory assignments, including graded or ungraded quizzes, reading assignments (book or journal article assignments), voiceover PowerPoints and interactive online modules)(see Betihavas et al., 2016). Thai et al. (2017) emphasize the importance of guiding questions in the pre-class preparations, and discuss the pedagogical foundations essential for effective guiding questions.  

In-class activities also vary widely, often including problem-sets or problem-solving, peer presentations, and, occasionally peer assessment. Many classes incorporated “mini-lectures” by the instructor, to clarify points or respond to student questions provided ahead of time. Some instructors used the “Just-in-Time” concept, informed by pre-class difficulties or those identified in class, to review concepts, content, or complex arguments and evidence that were causing difficulty (see Seery, 2015).

Finally, after-class exercises also demonstrate a range of activities, from homework assignments to quizzes, after-class assessments, and follow-up questions for review and incorporation into subsequent instruction and discussion.

While the Flipped Classroom approach is gaining popularity, it has so far been most often used in natural sciences and related field (e.g., nursing, dentistry, pharmacy, engineering, math), but it has also been used in humanities and social sciences (Zainuddin & Hajar Halili, 2016). Several recent reviews have noted some characteristics of the technique and its application (Bishop & Verleger, 2013; O’Flaherty & Phillips, 2016; Thai et al., 2017). As it turns out:

  1. The Flipped Classroom design is rarely used for the whole semester, but often used in combination with other, more standard pedagogical approaches.
  2. The resources in technology vary widely at different universities and technical colleges, and the experience and expertise of the instructors also varies a great deal.
  3. The design of research studies varies extensively. Variables include whether there is a control group that involves traditional instruction; whether the same instructor teaches sections of traditional-instruction classes and flipped classes; whether the courses are taught in the same semester or different semesters; whether the assessment materials are standardized; and whether adequate pre- and post-tests were included. The studies in general cannot control for the fact that difference students take the same course at different times for different sections, that different instructors teach multiple sections of the same content, and that different technological tools are available and developed by the instructors across studies. The number and kinds of both out-of-class in in-class activities also varies greatly – as was discussed above. There is also disparity in the assessment and emphasis on actual student performance on tests of learning as compared with student’s attitudes of engagement, enjoyment, motivation, and self-efficacy. All of these measures are important and useful, but differ from study to study, making comprehensive conclusions hard to come by.

Nevertheless, there are some advantages and disadvantages that emerge from the diversity of studies and seem to confirm that the Flipped Classroom design can be an educational strength in pedagogies that seek to enhance active learning, problem-solving, and student-regulated learning. These advantages include:

  1. In general, students adapt well to the FC approach, and report that they like it once they become accustomed to it.
  2. Students go at their own pace and review as needed.
  3. Students report feelings of independent learning and control over their own learning.
  4. Students prefer in-class lectures to recorded lectures outside of class, but prefer active learning exercises in class to in-person lectures (Bishop & Verleger, 2013), so the Flipped Classroom becomes a satisfactory model for many students.
  5. Students appreciate the one-on-one attention and high degree of interaction with the instructor in class. Students who are “slow learners” or have particular difficulty with the subject matter can be especially helped with the Flipped Classroom design.
  6. In some applications, performance on exams or standardized tests within a discipline (e.g., Statistical Reasoning in a study by Gundlach et al., 2016) is improved with the Flipped Classroom design. In other cases, the performance is not different from a traditional instruction approach. In a one case, performance on exams and quizzes is not different, but performance on homework and other assignments (e.g., small group projects or presentations) has been better in the Flipped Classroom than in the Traditional Instruction group (Day & Foley, 2006, cited in Bishop & Verleger, 2013).
  7. Students have more opportunities to collaborate with each other and develop peer assistance and instruction with the Flipped Classroom design.
  8. Students sometimes report enhanced satisfaction and motivation with the Flipped Classroom design, although this is not always the case, and standard course evaluations for the Flipped versus Traditional classroom approach have not been explicitly demonstrated to differ (Simpson & Richards, 2015, cited in Betihavas et al., 2016) and in some cases students have actually preferred the traditional approach (see Missildine, Fountain, Summers, & Gosselin, 2013, cited in Betihavas et al., 2016).
  9. Students found that it took time to adjust to what they perceived as an additional workload outside of class, but also found that the Flipped Classroom provided additional structure for the outside-of-class work (Seery, 2015).
  10. In open-ended qualitative surveys (see Giannakos & Krogstie, 2014), Flipped Classroom learning received more positive comments than traditional classroom teaching for student engagement, use of higher-order thinking, higher levels of problem-solving, and perceived quality of learning.

Along with these positive trends in use of Flipped Classroom design, there have also been a number of difficulties identified and obstacles to overcome, as well as some limitations or less favorable reactions identified by students in some studies:

  1. Some students don’t like the amount of time they have to spend outside of class to view and study the e-lectures. In addition, some students do not like being more accountable for the “front-loading” required in the Flipped Classroom approach, such as taking notes more actively, posing questions for review, taking quizzes or completing questions assignments without the in-person lecture of the instructor preceding their efforts (Giannakos & Krogstie, 2014). These complaints persist despite evidence (He, Holton, Farkas, & Warschauer (2016) that Flipped Classroom settings did not substantially increase the overall workload of students.
  2. There is a high initial cost in time for the instructor. Some estimates range from about one and one-half extra preparation time to as much as three times normal preparation time.
  3. The sophistication of the technology available and the technical support provided by the institution are important limiting factors in the implementation of Flipped Classroom design. There is also a range of experience and expertise among faculty that can affect the quality of the Flipped Classroom application and students’ reaction to it.
  4. Monitoring students outside of class can be difficult, and some students do not watch the online lectures (or all of them), do not complete guiding questions or other homework assignments, or, in the extreme, because they have not done the preparatory work, fail to attend classes.
  5. Some students have difficulty adjusting to the flipped approach, have difficulty with time management of the outside lecture and assignments, and persist in their preference for receiving information in a face-to-face lecture (Seery, 2016). Some qualitative comments suggest that students perceived instructors as “taking the easy path” by using online materials and not preparing a traditional lecture for class, as “slacking” in their teaching responsibilities (despite the fact that it actually takes more time to prepare the Flipped Classroom application).
  6. Some studies do not see improvement in actual performance, although student perceptions of engagement may improve. Seery (2015) concludes that a review of the literature suggests that flipped learning does not universally improve student grades.
  7. There is no consensus even about improvements in student engagement, attitudes, and motivation using the Flipped Classroom approach. In carefully controlled studies, student variables such as perceived ease of work, perceived self-efficacy in learning complex material, and intrinsic motivation do not differ between traditional instruction and flipped learning instruction (Thai et al., 2017). In their study involving Statistics instruction (Gundlach et al., 2016), the authors reported that perceived cognitive competence in the subject increased across the semester for all students, traditionally instructed or in flipped learning classes, with no significant differences attributed to instruction type. In addition, all students (no significant differences) reported decreased perceived value of the subject and learning the subject, as well as increased perceived easiness of the subject. Both interest and effort also decreased over time, with no difference in class type. Finally, student performance in this relatively well-controlled study also did not differ significantly overall between the two types of instruction, nor did student evaluations at the end of the semester.

Guidelines for Flipped Classroom Instruction Scrutinizing the benefits and challenges of incorporating the Flipped Classroom design into good teaching with active learning has led the reviewers to suggest a number of guidelines and “best practices” meant to optimize the use of Flipped Classroom instruction. Gleaned from the sources cited in this short review, these guidelines include: Some tips to maximize FC teaching:

  1. Prepare short online lectures – recommendations vary between 10 and 20 min. Make the organization, availability, and deadlines clear to facilitate an adjustment period.
  2. Explain the Flipped Classroom design to students ahead of time and make sure they understand the incorporated procedures and expectations. Emphasize to students that the Flipped Classroom approach involves student-centered (self-directed) learning, and provides opportunities for them to develop and apply critical thinking skills important for contemporary academic and professional development (Betihavas et al., 2016).
  3. Enlist institutional support for developing a culture of Flipped Classroom learning, and for mentoring and other forms of assistance to help instructors design and adjust to the flipped classroom paradigm.
  4. Incentivize pre-class work by awarding some grade value in the form of quizzes, study questions, problems, or identification of discussion questions based on students’ own difficulties with some parts of the lecture.
  5. Since even online pre-class lectures are still based on the concept of “information transfer from instructor to student,” the choice and implementation of guiding questions, additional pre-class exercises, and in-class active learning activities is all-important. If a good pedagogical and theoretical framework is lacking, the Flipped Classroom aspect of incorporating 21st century technological advances is insufficient. As O’Flaherty and Phillips (2015) have noted, “… there is a risk that flipped classroom curriculum approaches may ‘wither on the vine’ through a lack of pedagogical integrity” (p.94).
  6. In a similar vein, Giannakos and Krogstie (2014) recommend greater focus on the in-class aspect of the Flipped Classroom approach. More research needs to clarify what strategies and activities instructors can use to motivate students in active participation and critical discussions.
  7. Use some of the time in class for “on-the-spot” mini-lectures, to follow up on difficult concepts and problems, and give students a chance to share questions and problems with the pre-class assignments. Encourage peer interaction and collaborative learning to give students a sense of self-efficacy in resolving challenges in the class following online lectures and other assignments.
  8. It may also be helpful, in the context of comments just above, to provide students with a communication platform outside of class, so that some of their questions about the pre-class activities can be shared before class actually meets. Since students cannot ask the instructor questions during viewing of the online lecture, they could instead create an online discussion forum to pose questions and discuss them with peers (Bhagat, Chang, & Chang, 2016, as cited in Lo & Hew, 2017).
  9. Because preparing flipped learning materials requires a “considerable startup effort”, Lo and Hew (2014) suggest that an instructor may start small and proceed at a reasonable pace to develop Flipped Classroom application progressively. For example, one might accumulate flipped learning materials to address two or three topics in a semester at first, and share their flipped materials and experiences with other instructors in a “team-based” plan.

Conclusions

The accumulating research demonstrates that Flipped Classroom teaching shows promise as a form of blended learning that can encourage student engagement, critical thinking, self-regulated learning, and the development of metacognitive skills by which students monitor and assess their own learning (Seery, 2015). The design of the application is paramount, in terms of in-class active learning activities as well as the technology-based out of class materials. There is some evidence that student performance improves in the Flipped Classroom environment, but that evidence is far from universal, and the results vary widely from study to study, with interpretation complicated by the wide diversity of disciplines, instructors, pre-class activities, in-class activities, after-class assessments, and several other factors reviewed in the research literature. The same “mixed results” are apparent in terms of student satisfaction, motivation, perceptions of self-efficacy, and engagement with the Flipped Classroom learning environment. The research suggests that there are identifiable ways to maximize the success of Flipped Classroom teaching, including developing a wider campus culture that clarifies procedures, expectations, and evaluations of students, recruiting adequate institutional resources to build that culture, including both technological resources and mentoring and preparation of instructors, and encouraging much more discussion of the pedagogical frameworks and cognitive and learning theoretical underpinnings for the development of Flipped Classroom teaching. It appears that, according to the research, high-performing students will do well in the flipped approach (Seery, 2015), and that even low-performing students may be less likely to withdraw from the course and eventually successfully complete the module (Seery). The student-centered approach of flipped learning appears to offer flexibility and opportunities for students to apply critical thinking skills, although the evidence shows that academic performance, while it sometimes is improved, is more often not significantly different from performance in a traditional setting, according to the broader literature (Bentihavas et al., 2016). Similarly, the relationship between actual performance and student satisfaction requires more research, since it is not universally true that flipped learning improves one, the other, or that such changes are correlated (Betihavas et al., 2016). It is also worth pointing out that many so-called “traditional approaches” to teaching already include components of active learning, critical thinking, problem-solving, and metacognitive awareness, often as part of in-class teaching, even when lectures are not presented outside of class time, online. It is possible that blended learning of many kinds includes so many similarities with the flipped learning approach that statistical standards of difference are not achieved with direct comparisons of the Flipped Classroom with a “traditional classroom” that shares many elements with it.

Finally, Seery (2015) has noted that there is not yet solid evidence that Flipped Classroom learning enhances the transfer of metacognitive skills outside the domain of the specific discipline in which such instruction has taken place, and that the evidence is also lacking so far for enhancement of 21st Century job skills or for attitudes and habits of lifelong learning. Likewise, O’Flaherty and Phillips (2015) make two cogent points: 1) Despite optimistic reports about the potential for flipped learning, few studies (so far) have actually used a robust scientific design to measure student learning, especially higher-order kinds of cognition such as critical or creative thinking, problem-solving, and critical inquiry; and 2) There is as yet little evidence, if any, that the flipped approach results in improved educational outcomes compared to more traditional approaches, or long-term learning throughout a whole program of learning beyond just one course in a particular discipline.

Further research can help to identify continuing best practices and guidelines about which aspects of and approaches to Flipped Classroom teaching work better than others, and under what circumstances. It may also identify how to reach different student groups to maximize their learning. Applications of the Flipped Classroom approach may succeed better for some disciplines than others, for some kinds of course content than others, and for some instructors than others. A more unified theoretical framework for active and self-regulated learning would assist instructors who wish to develop this approach, and maximize student outcomes in terms of academic performance, engagement, and satisfaction. The Flipped Classroom approach has not yet achieved all that the popular “buzz” has suggested, but it holds promise to enhance teaching and learning at the college level, and is consistent with the approaches to teaching and learning that a liberal education promises.

References

Betihavas,V., Bridgman, H., Kornhuber, R., & Cross, M. (2016). The evidence for ‘flipping out’: A systematic review of the flipped classroom in nursing education. Nurse Education Today, 38, 15-21.

Bishop, J.L. & Verleger, M.A. (2013). The flipped classroom: A survey of research. 120th ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, American Society for Engineering, June, 2013., Paper #6219.

Bryson,C. & Hand,L. ( 2007). The role of engagement in inspiring teaching and learning. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 44, 349-362.

Chua, S.M.J. & Lateef, F. (2014). The Flipped Classroom: Viewpoints in Asian Universities. Education in Medicine Journal, 6, 20-26.

Giannakos, M.N. & Krogstie, J. (2014). Reviewing the flipped classroom research: Reflections for computer science education. Conference CSERC, November 2014, Berlin, 23-29.

Gundlach, E., Richards, K.A.R., Nelson, D., & Levesque-Bristol, C. (2015). A comparison of student attitudes, statistical reasoning, performance, and perceptions for web-augmented traditional, fully online, and flipped sections of a Statistical Literacy class. Journal of Statistics Education, 23, 1-33.

He, W., Holton, A., Farkas, G., & Warschauer, M. (2016). The effects of flipped instruction on out-of-class study time, exam performance, and student perceptions. Learning and Instruction, 45, 61-71.

Hockings, C., Cooke, S., Yamashita, H., McGinty, S., & Bowl, M. (2008). Switched off? A study of disengagement among computing students at two universities. Research Papers in Education, 23, 191-201.

Lo, C.K. & Hew, K.F. (2017). A critical review of flipped classroom challenges in K-12 education: Possible solutions and recommendations for future research. Research and Practice in Technology Enhanced Learning, 12, no page given. DOI: 10.1186/s41039-016-0044-2.

O’Flaherty, J. & Phillips, C. (2015). The use of flipped classrooms in higher education: A scoping review. Internet and Higher Education, 25, 85-95.

Seery, M.K. (2015). Flipped learning in higher education chemistry: Emerging trends and potential directions. Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 16, 758-768.

Thai, N.T.T., De Wever, B., & Valcke, M. (2017). The impact of a flipped classroom design on learning performance in higher education: Looking for the best “blend” of lectures and guiding questions with feedback. Computers & Education, 107, 113-126.

Zainuddin, Z. & Hajar Halili (2016). Flipped classroom research and trends from difference fields of study. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 17, 313-340.

Written by