Why Flipping Classrooms Might Not Make Much Difference

November 13, 2013 at 1:28 am 13 comments

This paper is getting a lot of discussion here at Georgia Tech:

In preliminary research, professors at Harvey Mudd College haven’t found that students learn more or more easily in so-called flipped courses than in traditional classes, USA Today reports. In flipped courses, students watch professors’ lectures online before coming to class, then spend the class period in discussions or activities that reinforce and advance the lecture material.

Earlier this year, the National Science Foundation gave four professors at the college in Claremont, Calif., a three-year grant for $199,544 to study flipped classrooms. That research isn’t complete yet, but the professors already tried flipping their own classes last year and found “no statistical difference” in student outcomes.

via QuickWire: ‘Flipping’ Classrooms May Not Make Much Difference – Wired Campus – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The reason why it’s generating a lot of discussion is because we know that it can make a difference to flip a classroom.  Jason Day and Jim Foley here at Georgia Tech did a careful and rigorous evaluation of a flipped classroom seven years ago (see IEEE paper on their study).  We all know this study and take pride in it — it was really well done.  It can work.  The Harvey Mudd study also shows that it can be done in a way that it doesn’t work. 

That’s really the story for all educational technology.  It can work, but it’s not guaranteed to work.  It’s always possible to implement any educational technology (or any educational intervention at all) in such a way that it doesn’t work.

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13 Comments Add your own

  • 1. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  November 13, 2013 at 1:53 am

    Studies that reach the conclusions that the authors wanted before they started the study seem to be very common in educational research. I suspect that the confounding variables are much larger than most people realize—almost any intervention that is pushed enthusiastically can be shown to work, as the enthusiasm of the teacher for the method probably is more important than what the method is.

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  November 13, 2013 at 9:23 am

      Studies that reach the conclusions that the authors wanted before they started the study happen in every field. Part of that is a bias due to what gets published. Sometimes it’s hard to get negative results published. I have successfully published results that were negative and contrary to what I expected in CSCL (on information ecologies) and in my recent ten year retrospective of MediaComp research.

      • 3. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  November 13, 2013 at 11:19 am

        You’re right—negative results and results that challenge the accepted wisdom in a field are always hard to get published. I think that education research suffers a bit more from confirmation bias and publication bias than many physical science fields (though probably no worse than any of the other social sciences).

  • 4. Mark Urban-Lurain  |  November 13, 2013 at 8:40 am

    Perhaps someday people will stop asking “what is the effect of technology X on education?” and start asking the more relevant questions such as “under what instructional design conditions does technology X help improve learning?”

    As Richard Clark noted in 1983, media and technology are “mere vehicles that deliver instruction but do not influence student achievement any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in our nutrition” (p. 445).

    Several meta-analyses (and second order meta-analyses, see below) say the same thing. When the question is only about the technology, the result is “no significant difference.” It’s all about the instructional design and implementation and never about the technology alone. However, technology is easy where good instructional design is hard and overcoming institutional barriers to improving instruction is a “wicked” problem so most people would rather chase silver bullets than address the hard and wicked problems.


    Bernard, Robert M., Abrami, Philip C., Borokhovski, Eugene, Wade, C. Anne, Tamim, Rana M., Surkes, Michael A., & Bethel, Edward Clement. (2009). A meta-analysis of three types of interaction treatments in distance education. Review of Educational Research, 79(3), 1243-1289. doi: 10.3102/0034654309333844

    Clark, Richard E. (1983). Reconsidering research on learning from media. Review of Educational Research, 53(4), 445-459.

    Tamim, Rana M., Bernard, Robert M., Borokhovski, Eugene, Abrami, Philip C., & Schmid, Richard F. (2011). What forty years of research says about the impact of technology on learning: A second-order meta-analysis and validation study. Review of Educational Research, 81(1), 4-28.

    U.S. Department of Education; Office of Planning Evaluation and Policy Development. (2009). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies (pp. 93). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

  • 5. Mike Lutz  |  November 13, 2013 at 9:17 am

    I’m going to get all persnickety here and note that there doesn’t seem to be all that much difference between a “flipped” classroom and what in the late Cretaceous era (1960s) was called “read the text before class.” Admittedly, reading Shakespeare, Dickens, Thomas (Calculus), and Halliday & Resnick (Physics) didn’t have the panache of gee-whiz videos, but we slogged through them anyhow because *it was expected we’d be able to participate in class exercises and discussions based on the readings.* Other than pandering to a generation lacking the ability to concentrate on anything for more than a few nanoseconds, what exactly is so innovative about flipping?

    Yeah, I’m a crotchety old professor – what’s it to you? 🙂

    • 6. Mark Urban-Lurain  |  November 13, 2013 at 9:45 am

      It’s only innovative for faculty for whom class time is spent lecturing to students, rather than having students “participating in class exercises and discussions”. This lets the faculty who really believe that their lectures are the only way for students to obtain information is to provide lectures (perhaps because of the identified short attention span) and still let the students be active in class.

    • 7. Ken Bauer  |  November 13, 2013 at 10:01 am

      Many folks (Jonathan Bergmann included) face the reply “This is just good teaching” and our answer is that is true. My flipping includes “read the text (or some alternative)” before class often as well, flipping does not obligate using videos.

      Much of this is not new but a reaction to what was not working in the classrooms of some teachers and how they came up with a way to better engage their students.

    • 8. Bonnie  |  November 14, 2013 at 1:59 pm

      I agree. This was hot in the 90’s too – we called it the “closed lab” model – the idea was that you took some of the time that would have been devoted to lecture and turned it into a closed lab similar to what happens in chemistry. Since there was less time spent in lecture, the students were expected to spend more time reading the book in preparation. I think that model has become common now – lots of programs have a lab session for their CS course – but in the 80’s and 90’s, the prevailing model was that class time was spent lecturing, and the students went off and did their programming assignments on their own. So the closed lab model was supposed to mitigate some of that, by having the students work with code under the supervision of the instructor. It really was a form of flipped classroom. We had a grant to do that in a bunch of our courses back in the mid 90’s.

  • 9. Ken Bauer  |  November 13, 2013 at 10:09 am

    Reblogged this on Ken Bauer on Teaching and Technology and commented:
    The discussion on Flipped Learning is getting more press lately and this is definitely a good thing. I hope it leads to us to all really step back and think about what our objectives are with our students.

  • […] See the post at Why Flipping Classrooms Might Not Make Much Difference | Computing Education Blog. […]

  • 11. Mark Guzdial  |  November 13, 2013 at 11:16 am

    Interesting response from one of the research team at Harvey Mudd: http://mfeldstein.com/comment-from-member-of-research-team-flipped/

  • […] Why Flipping Classrooms Might Not Make Much Difference (computinged.wordpress.com) […]

  • […] See the post at Why Flipping Classrooms Might Not Make Much Difference | Computing Education Blog. […]


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