Where Flipped Learning Research Is Going
While most agree that the flipped classroom model benefits learning, researchers are delving into the details and exploring the many facets of a flip.
In general, research has shown that the flipped classroom model has a positive impact on student outcomes. Last year, a University of Washington "meta-analysis" of 225 studies compared student performance in undergraduate science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses under traditional lecturing vs. active learning: "The results indicate that average examination scores improved by about 6 percent in active learning sections, and that students in classes with traditional lecturing were 1.5 times more likely to fail than were students in classes with active learning," the study noted in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Nevertheless, faculty members, provosts and centers for teaching and learning continue to try to quantify the impact of flipping, using traditional lecture classes as control groups. There is still a lot to learn and a need for more evidence and detail on the many facets of a flip.
This semester, specifically for research purposes, Duke University (NC) chemistry professor Dorian Canelas is teaching two sections of a course, one flipped and one in a more traditional lecture format. The provost's office has created a flipped classroom working group to provide resources for study design and assessment. "We are looking not only at how students are doing on tests, but also at students' self-reported gains, pre-test and post-test, with a standardized national test in both classes," Canelas said. "We are trying to get at what other skills the students are gaining from being in a more active classroom environment," she added. "We would love to do a post-post test the following year to measure how long they are remembering things."
Of course, setting up studies that compare traditional and flipped classroom settings can be challenging, and some research is more informal than statistically significant, controlled studies. Todd Murphey, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Northwestern University (IL), noted that one problem researching the topic is that if students know they are part of an experiment, they tend to view it positively. "With MOOCs and flipped classes, just by virtue of how different the environment is and the fact that the instructors doing it are really engaged and excited about the use of technology in the classroom, you bias the outcomes in a way," he said. "It is challenging to assess what the traditional version of that experience would really look like."
Rather than continuing to focus on using traditional lectures as control groups, the University of Washington study suggested moving on to "second-generation research" into which types of active learning are most appropriate and efficient for certain topics or student populations. In that vein, Thomas Mennella, an associate professor of biology at Bay Path University (MA), is working on a research project in which he is attempting to isolate aspects of his flipped classroom.
"I had a standard flipped class where lectures were recorded and we did review activities and critical thinking/learning activities," he explained. His "unflipped" control group had lectures in class, but the students were given access to the recorded lectures to watch on their own. In addition, Mennella took the activities that were done in the flipped class and assigned them to the unflipped class to work on in groups or individually.
"As much feedback as I gave in the flipped classroom I was giving one-on-one via e-mail to the unflipped classroom students," he said.
Mennella has defined three main components of his class: initial exposure to content; personal reflection; and deeper manipulation of the content. He is studying all three components in both settings (flipped and unflipped) to better understand the pedagogical impact of flipping. Mennella hasn't published his data yet, but he said both sets of students did well in the class, and the students in the flipped class reported slightly higher satisfaction with the class. "But having taught both sections, I can say it was so much more work to get those three components to the unflipped group," he said.
Mennella also said students in traditional lecture classrooms would never be able to handle the complexity of the exams he gives now in his flipped class. "The exams are eight essay questions, and four involve interpretations of scenarios we never talked about in class. I would never have dreamed of giving an exam like that teaching the old way," he said. "They didn't know the material to that depth."
Can Online Tutorials Replace Labs?
At Wellesley College (MA), researchers are studying whether online video presentations can replace computer lab sections of statistics courses, said Cassandra Pattanayak, director of the college's Quantitative Analysis Institute. "The idea is that we have people who know how to create really great videos. Can we take advantage of it to see if students would learn just as well without going to those labs? Maybe students could learn the less conceptual, more computer-oriented skills on their own."
In fall 2014, Wellesley ran an experiment with two sections of Economics 103. Students weren't randomly assigned to classes, but they did not know there was a study going on. Half the students went through the course as it has been taught in previous years. They went to labs that taught Excel skills. The rest went through a series of online tutorials and skipped the labs. Both went through the lectures the same way, with lectures taught by the same person.
The results are still being studied. "Their experiences were identical except for this one thing, so if there is a really big difference in terms of learning we should see it," Pattanayak said. "Even if there is not a big difference, that is huge. That means the online tutorials are as good in terms of teaching the software skills."