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.

4 thoughts on “To Flip or Not To Flip”

I think as with anything, “flipping” should just be considered a tool in the toolbox of teachers. It’s not a silver bullet, and this study seems to imply that this is the case with carefully controlled study design. I have had colleagues flip classes and see similar lack of results (but they did not publish it).

I have tried to incorporate a “partial” flip of one of my non-major science courses this semester and have had mixed results. I essentially provided video and study resources to enhance learning outside of class and still did relatively interactive lectures in class time, with some active learning activities as well. Students generally have reported that they like the videos a lot but often don’t take the time to watch them. Other students really love lecture and tell me that they don’t like flipped classrooms. The take home message on this for me has been that perhaps the best way to help students learn is to expose them to different ways to do it and allow them to choose to use what works well for them individually.

One of the more interesting questions is “Does the time spent ‘watching’ the lecture or preparing for class count against the total instructional hours?”. This is particularly challenging for programs trying to limit the curriculum footprint to allow students more time for self-directed learning.

The “flipped” method is definitely not suitable for every classroom setting. I had students that absolutely loved it while others absolutely hated it and felt they were not being taught. I also agree that the “flipped’ method of classroom instruction need’s to be used with careful and strategic planning.

Dee, iI enjoyed reading your blog and it indeed makes us wonder if it is the teaching method or the students we have to consider. I think the difference between the traditional and flipped approaches to teaching is where it appears that the students are forced to do the learning instead of allowing them to learn at their own pace which is typically right before a major assessment. I may be biassed, but the flipped approach offers a structure which is often needed to today’s students especially when there are so many distractions around and students often have a difficult time to focus.

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