The fallacy of evaluating “the flipped class”

In nearly 30 years of teaching, I can’t recall another teaching innovation that has aroused such interest and rapid adoption among college faculty as the “flipped” class. Somewhat belatedly, we are now seeing studies to test whether the flipped class is effective at the college level, and how it affects student learning. For advocates and early adopters of the flip, the early report on Slate from ongoing studies at Harvey Mudd are disappointing. The flipped class appears to have no significant effect, for better or worse, on student learning.

As someone who has actually flipped his class and assessed it, I think these studies are, and must be, meaningless and futile. Assessing the “flip” will be even less meaningful than assessing the “lecture” as a mode of instruction. You can well imagine that the efficacy of a lecture will depend on the subject, content, organization, size of the class, time of day, the style of delivery, the quality of the slides (if used), ambient noise, what the instructor is wearing, and so forth. A flipped class has even more significant variables, because class time can be used in so many different ways: case studies, problem-solving, peer discussion, data analysis, writing, peer-review, internet research, and still other activities. Given this variation, how could results from one study, at one or a few colleges, with one or several classes, apply to anyone else’s flipped class?

My advice to all those considering flipping their class:  flip only as needed, because you want students to do a great learning activity that is best done as a class, with students interacting with each other and with the instructor. Such learning activities and exercises may take time to find. Assess each activity – did students learn from it? For a given learning objective, did students learn more from a particular activity or exercise, than from a lecture? Which exercise benefited which group(s) of students? It’s this kind of fine-grained assessment that will be the most useful and transferable across campuses and instructors, rather than any attempt to assess a “flip” vs a “lecture.”

Logically, what students learn will depend on what they actually do. The power of the flip is that the instructor can choose among varied learning activities to engage students with each other and with the material, receive real-time feedback on student learning, and apply timely, corrective intervention when students are most receptive. It may take time and iterations for even experienced instructors to find their groove in the flipped classroom (I speak from personal experience). Make changes in your teaching with a specific objective or purpose in mind, not because someone says that the “flip” or MOOCs or badges or the next hot thing will or will not save/transform/disrupt your classroom.

I flipped my class because my own evidence convinced me that my interactive, active-learning-laced lectures were not as effective as I wanted them to be. I flipped my class because students had difficulty applying concepts to different problems. I flipped my class because students had trouble connecting and integrating concepts from different parts of the course. I flipped my class because I wanted students to see and talk about how biology applies to real-world problems like energy, food, health and the environment. I flipped my class because I had amassed a large amount of cool case study and problem-solving material that I wanted to try in class, and the flip was the best solution I could find.



About jchoigt

I'm an Associate Professor in the School of Biology at Georgia Tech, and Faculty Coordinator of the Professional MS Bioinformatics degree program.
This entry was posted in Academia, Teaching and learning biology. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The fallacy of evaluating “the flipped class”

  1. Pingback: The flipped classroom is decadent and depraved. | More or Less Bunk

  2. RK says:

    Hi Dr. Choi, I was a student in your BIOL 1510 in Fall 2011, and I remember your portions of the lecture were “flipped.” I really liked the aspect of being able to listen to your lecture videos over and over, since I’m not a brilliant learner and tend to study by repetition. However, with all due respect, I don’t think the flipped classroom worked in favor of us. The biggest reason, in my opinion, was that many students including me found it quite tough to stay engaged with the learning activities since it was a 200-person class, very often the only instructor/TA in the lecture hall being just you. This might have changed in subsequent semesters, but perhaps I would have been more engaged if all those learning activities were significant part of my grade. The upside was that I was much less stressed in the lectures because there seemed to be not much to take in for the tests. But it’s just me and I’m just throwing my two cents in. I hope you are doing well, Dr. Choi!

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