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Thursday, March 5, 2015

Quick Dip: Improvements from a Flipped Classroom May Simply Be the Fruits of Active Learning

It's Just Natural photo by KT King (Creative Commons Attribution)
Alfie Kohn tipped me off^ to a new study on the effectiveness of flipped classrooms, Improvements from a Flipped Classroom May Simply Be the Fruits of Active Learning. Since there are so few good experimental or quasi-experimental studies of flipped learning I just had to take a quick look at what it shows.

^ [Okay, okay- I just always wanted to write that. Change that first sentence to "A tweet from Alfie Kohn tipped me off to a new study...]

The finding of this research is that there was no significant difference between students taught using active learning and flipping versus just active learning. The researchers conclude that some of the hints of improved learning from flipped classrooms we have seen in some studies is really more an artifact of the increased emphasis on independent student learning, rather than traditional lectures during classroom time.

The study has some definite strengths. College students were randomly assigned to one of two treatments. Both treatment groups had the same biology instructor using the same assignments, activities, and assessments. The difference was in the flipped nature of the classes. For the flipped classes, active content attainment phases were completed outside the classroom, while the concept application phases were done in the classroom with the instructor. The non-flipped classroom was the opposite. So, this was a nice little study to demonstrate that flipped learning itself does not necessarily make a difference in student outcomes.

For me, the takeaway is that this study is additional evidence that it is the quality of the total instructional process that matters, rather than the structure. If teachers routinely incorporate effective constructivist / active learning approaches in the classroom, the flipped classroom is really a non issue in terms of outcomes. However, I am a bit intrigued by the idea of administrators encouraging teachers that rely almost exclusively on direct instruction to use the flipped classroom model. For many, I can see this forcing them to integrate some active learning strategies into their classroom instruction.

The big caveat, however, is that this study was done on college students. There are real (even if sometimes overblown) equity issues with the flipped classroom, particularly in the elementary school setting. The students in this study all likely had very nearly equal access to the technologies used for the out-of-the-classroom portions. While I have seen schools find some good ways to try to overcome these access concerns in the K-12 domain, this study actually raises some questions about the return on those investments. If student outcomes are the same with good teaching practices, flipped or not, wouldn't our investments be better placed in improving teaching practices than in providing equal access to technology?

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