Monthly Archives: June 2015

To Flip or Not To Flip

shutterstock_179279621b“Flipping the classroom” is one of the newest “hot topics” in education, as discussed in the April 13th PECOP blog by Stuart Inglis. But is it as good at improving student learning as it’s cracked up to be? A recent study published in CBE—Life Sciences Education suggests that it may not be how we teach, but how much formative assessment the students have to do that makes a difference in how well they perform on summative assessments.

The Experiment

The paper, “Improvements from a Flipped Classroom May Simply Be the Fruits of Active Learning,” compared the performance and attitudes of students in concurrent sections of a general biology class. In the flipped model section, students were exposed to new content and quizzed on it at home before class, then came to class and worked problem sets with the instructor and assistants available to help. In the non-flipped section, students saw and were quizzed on the new content for the first time in the classroom, then went home to work on the problem sets.

The study was as tightly controlled as it could be in an authentic academic setting. The authors used instruments to ensure that the two sections were equivalent in their prior knowledge, and they controlled all possible variables. The same instructor taught both sections under the same conditions. Students did the same activities, although in different settings, and both groups of students received the same amount of individual help and feedback, whether in person or online. Summative assessments, the outcome measure of student learning, were identical.

The Results

The result? There was NO SIGNIFICANT DIFFERENCE in test performance between the flipped and non-flipped students. But how could this be? Everyone “knows” that flipping improves learning.

To tease out an answer the authors looked back at a previous semester where the same content was covered but in a traditional lecture format. The classes were compared using 39 common exam questions. In this analysis, students in the experimental semester scored significantly higher on lower-level questions than the students in the “original” class. (There was no difference in performance on higher-level questions.) And what was the difference? Students in the original class did only about a third as many assignments outside of class. Could this be one of those obvious findings?


The authors attributed the improvement to more active learning in the experimental semester because even the non-flipped classroom used an interactive teaching technique rather than didactic lecture. But as one cynic said at a seminar on active learning: “All learning is active.”

So maybe the answer is that we simply need to coerce students into doing more learning by giving them more assignments, making sure that we also provide them with opportunities to fail without penalty as well as lots of feedback. If the old saying is correct,


Everything Old is New Again

As I was writing this blog, I gave my husband, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, a draft to read. When I’d explained the flipped classroom to him, his comment was, “That’s just the Thayer Method.” As it turns out, the methodology of the flipped classroom dates back to the early 1800s, when Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, superintendent of USMA from 1817-1833, established what is called the Thayer Method of instruction, still used at West Point today (1,2,3). Cadets are given study material and problems to work on before class. In class they work on more problems with the assistance of the instructor, and they present their work to each other. The Thayer Method puts the responsibility for learning in the students’ hands.

This brings up a question about one feature of many flipped classrooms: the recorded lecture that students watch before coming to class. Is giving students a lecture, whether in or out of the classroom, helping them learn how to learn? Or would we be better served by giving them a list of detailed learning objectives and allowing them to find the answer for themselves?


  1. Shell, AE. The Thayer Method of Instruction at the United States Military Academy: A Modest History and a Modern Personal Account. Primus 12(1):27-38, Mar 2002.
  2. Hallberg S. An Alternate Approach in the Application of the Thayer Concept of Teaching. [pdf] [accessed 6/3/2015]
  3. Stiefel JL and Blackman M. The Thayer Method: A Novel Approach to Teaching Biochemistry. Biochem Educ 22 (1):15, 30 Jun 2010.

Dee_gardenDee U. Silverthorn teaches physiology at the University of Texas at Austin and has been using an interactive “flipped” method of instruction since the late 1990s. At UT she teaches both large lecture courses and project-based inquiry laboratories. She also instructs graduate students on developing teaching skills in the life sciences. Dee started her career as a comparative physiologist, first by studying on cockroach protein synthesis as an undergraduate at Newcomb College, then switching to fiddler crabs in graduate school. She received a Ph.D. in marine science from the Belle W. Baruch Institute for Marine and Coastal Sciences at the University of South Carolina but broadened her interests to human physiology when she became a faculty member in the Physiology Department at the Medical University of South Carolina. Dee is active in the American Physiological Society and the Human Anatomy and Physiology Society. In her spare time she writes a human physiology textbook and tries to garden, cook, and do multimedia fiber art.

Description of an Innovative Undergraduate Human Biology Program


The series of PECOP blogs has provided many examples of the positive changes that biology educators are making in what we teach and how we facilitate student learning. I would like to share a new program that was developed by a faculty team at Bastyr University.

We responded to the call for changes in biology education by developing an undergraduate program in integrated human biology that was launched in 2012. We used backwards design and competencies recommended in Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians: Report of the AAMC-HHMI Committee as a foundation to develop a progressive, premedical curriculum. The program competencies also align well with the AAAS/NSF Vision and Change core concepts and competencies. The IHB program competencies are listed in Table 1. We are continuing to use the program competencies and PULSE Vision and Change rubrics in our work to improve assessment at both the course and program level.

Table 1. Integrated Human Biology Program Competencies
Use mathematics and quantitative reasoning appropriately to describe or analyze natural phenomena.
Demonstrate understanding of the scientific process and describe how scientific knowledge is developed and validated.
Demonstrate understanding of basic physical principles and apply these principles to living systems.
Demonstrate understanding of basic principles of chemistry and apply these principles to living systems.
Demonstrate knowledge of how the 4 categories of biological molecules contribute to the structure and function of cells.
Demonstrate an understanding of the link between structure and function at all levels within a living organism: molecular, microscopic, and macroscopic.
Explain how internal environments are maintained in the face of changing external environments.
Demonstrate an understanding of the theory of evolution by natural selection.
Demonstrate an understanding of the biological basis for human behavior.
Demonstrate an understanding of the connection between the human organism and the biosphere as a whole.
Communicate effectively within and between scientific disciplines and with nonscientists.

Integrated Human Biology Program Highlights

  • The program includes a series of integrated human biology courses that require that students apply core concepts at multiple levels of complexity from cell and molecular to organismal in the context of organ systems.
  • Students are also required to apply physical principles from physics courses to biological systems in the integrated human biology series and through a parallel biophysics series.
  • The curriculum includes a required bioethics course and elective courses that require students to examine the applications of science to world problems.
  • Courses are team-taught by a group of faculty from different sub-disciplines who collaborate to create course materials and exams.
  • Classes are organized so that students are active participants.
  • Competencies are assessed in courses in a variety of ways including projects, presentations, papers, and exams.
  • All laboratories require students to participate in inquiry-based activities.
  • A majority of IHB students have completed a research project and presented their work at a University Research Symposium.
  • Student surveys have demonstrated that students appreciate the integrated approach to learning.
  • The first class graduated from the program in 2014, and a majority of those students have entered medical school or are working in research.

Have you developed or revised a program or curriculum in response to initiatives aimed at improving life sciences education?  Please share your experiences and recommendations.

Lynelle Golden is Goldena broadly trained physiologist who currently serves as Professor and Dean of the School of Natural Health Arts and Sciences at Bastyr University near Seattle Washington. She has more than 20 years of experience teaching junior/senior level physiology for biology majors and anatomy and physiology for allied health, nutrition and exercise science students. Her experience at Bastyr also includes teaching integrated case studies and physiology courses for medical students. While at Bastyr, Lynelle has been actively involved in curriculum development and revision. She has been a member of the teaching section of the American Physiological Society since 1986, and she currently serves as Chair of the Programming Committee for the APS Teaching Section. Lynelle earned an M.S. and a PhD in Life Sciences/Physiology from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and she completed postdoctoral research in Cardiovascular Diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.