Can Flipped Classrooms Help Students Learn? We’re Trying to Find Out.

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April 25 2014 10:33 AM

Can Flipped Classrooms Help Students Learn?

We’re trying to find out.

Flipped classroom
Flipped classrooms could radically change higher education, but don't flip over them quite yet.

Photo by Wavebreakmedia Ltd/Thinkstock

This article is part of Future Tense, which is a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University. On Wednesday, April 30, Future Tense will host an event in Washington, D.C., on technology and the future of higher education. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America Foundation website

Does a flipped or inverted class sound to you like an ad for yoga? Even if you have not had the opportunity to attend or teach a flipped course, you have likely seen a recent article about this teaching technique in the press. A common question is whether flipped classrooms are the answer to many educational problems or just a fad.

As college professors who have been conducting a study on flipped classrooms for the past two years (supported in part by a National Science Foundation grant), we’d like to suggest a perspective on this type of research. Rather than ask whether flipped classrooms are “good” or “bad,” we should seek to understand the conditions and context under which flipped classrooms actually improve learning.

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First, what is a flipped or inverted classroom? You can find a wide range of definitions, but typically an instructor “flips” by replacing lectures with more active forms of student engagement in the classroom—students watch video lectures outside of class. This mode of instruction is not so different from the kind of instruction people in the humanities have using for years: read/watch materials outside of class and then discuss ideas in class.

While the three of us were satisfied with our interactive, lecture-driven courses, we started studying flipped classrooms to explore ways we could use class time (when students and instructor are in the same space simultaneously) to the best advantage. Flipping allows students to engage in hands-on activities, discussions, writing exercises, or other tasks. Their instructor can assess whether students are learning by watching them engage in tasks that make use of what they have supposedly absorbed.

We set out to measure whether students would learn more in flipped classrooms than in our usual interactive lecture courses. We are in the middle of a multiyear study across three disciplines (chemistry, engineering, and mathematics), and our preliminary study results have not shown any appreciable differences in student learning between traditional and flipped courses. But even if our longer study shows the same result, it doesn’t mean that flipped classrooms would necessarily be good, bad, or neutral in other situations. To understand the results of an educational study, it’s important to pay attention to the learning environment.

Harvey Mudd College, where we all teach, is unlike many other colleges and universities—it’s a residential school of about 800 undergraduates with a healthy culture of cooperation. Students spend a lot of time in groups working together both in and out of classes. They generally have confidence in their skills and ability to learn, and have positive attitudes about learning science and mathematics. HMC faculty already use innovative teaching techniques to engage students in meaningful ways. Any of these factors could mitigate some anticipated positive effects of classroom inversion. (In addition to these contextual factors, there are other aspects of our study that might explain why we haven’t yet seen any student learning differences.)

It could be a different story in another environment. For instance, say you attend a college whose students mostly have full-time jobs, live far from campus, and don’t have time or proximity to engage in group work outside of class. A flipped class might increase your opportunities for group interaction, which could not only improve your learning but also provide experience working in teams. If you have difficulty focusing during long lectures, you might enjoy having the chance to rewind parts of a video and spending class time discussing ideas with your peers. On the other hand, if you are a person who needs plenty of quiet processing time before you begin a task with other learners, you may find the flipped classroom scene challenging. (Of course, students can also benefit from moving out of their comfort zones and developing new skills.)

Should every classroom be flipped? Most teachers would happily (if not easily) stand on their heads if it would help their students learn. But schools should not mandate flipped classrooms, or any other educational trend, just to be on the cutting edge. Rather, they should encourage innovation and give instructors freedom and resources to experiment with different teaching strategies. We need more educational research to examine different modes of instruction, the effects these instructional methods have on students, and the contexts in which the instruction takes place. Research results can inform and improve teaching practices. But we must be careful not to overgeneralize or oversimplify the results of these studies. Just as no flavor of yoga will suit everyone, no universal solution will improve learning for all students in every situation.

Nancy Lape is an associate professor of engineering at Harvey Mudd College. She researches engineering ed, transdermal transport, and gas separation membranes.

Rachel Levy, an associate professor at Harvey Mudd College, is editor-in-chief of SIURO, blogs at Grandma Got STEM, and researches fluid mechanics and math ed.

Darryl Yong is an associate professor of mathematics at Harvey Mudd College. His math education research involves secondary school math teachers in Los Angeles.

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