New Research: Flipped Classrooms Improve Student Academics and Satisfaction

flipped learning
(Image credit: Image by StockSnap from Pixabay)

When Carrie A. Bredow and her colleagues began reviewing flipped classroom research in higher education they found a wide range of studies but few definitive conclusions. 

One problem was that many previous researchers looking at flipped classrooms or flipped learning were siloed within different specialties and thus unaware of other research. “A lot of the introduction sections are like, ‘Not that much is known about the flipped classroom . . . .’” says Bredow, an associate professor of psychology at Hope College in Michigan. “But if you actually look, there's a ton of stuff on the flipped classroom. So there's obviously some disconnect there.” 

Another issue is that many studies didn’t effectively control for variables. “Some of the existing meta analyses that are out there compare class A and class B in terms of their outcomes. But class A might not have even been taught by the same instructor as class B,” Bredow says. This makes the data generated less reliable. For example, a flipped classroom instructor may have an innovative style of teaching that students respond to regardless of whether the class was flipped or not. Or maybe the instructor giving the lecture is more skilled than the instructor teaching the flipped class. 

Finally, there was little conclusive research on the impact of the flipped classroom on interpersonal outcomes and student satisfaction. “Student satisfaction, particularly within higher education, does matter,” Bredow says. “We want students to be more satisfied with the course because it tends to promote better academic outcomes. And we also need students to be satisfied with the course because we know that it can be important for professors as well as administrators [considering], ‘Do we want to encourage flipped learning courses within this department?’” 

In a meta analysis recently published in the Review of Educational Research, Bredow and her co-authors examined 317 high-quality studies with a combined sample size of  51,437 college students in which flipped classes were compared to traditional lecture classes taught by the same instructors. They found significant advantages for flipped versus traditional lecture in terms of academics, interpersonal outcomes, and student satisfaction. 

But there were also some surprises in where and when flipped classrooms worked.

The Impact of Flipped Classrooms on Academics  

The researchers compared three types of academic outcomes: foundational knowledge, higher order thinking, and professional academic skills (the ability to actually speak a language if it’s a language class, or code if it’s a coding class, etc.). They found marked improvements in each, however, the greatest gains were in the professional academic skills. “This makes sense,” Bredow says. “If you think about what the flipped classroom is doing, it's giving you space within the classroom to practice these skills.” 

Surprisingly, partial flipped classrooms -- in which some but not all material followed the flipped model -- outperformed both traditional lecture classes and fully flipped classrooms. 

Bredow believes this might be explained by two factors. First, partially flipped classrooms allow instructors to pick and choose the units that are best suited to a flipped classroom. “There might be some units within, say a math course, where you really just need to have that direct instruction, because doing that in class is gonna be more effective than putting it on a video,” she says. 

Second, partially flipping a class is easier for instructors, which could increase the course quality. “You're able to do maybe a better job at flipping certain sections than trying to flip everything at once,” Bredow says. 

For interpersonal outcomes, flipped learning outperformed traditional lecture as well. Flipped learners also saw an advantage in terms of satisfaction. “Some of the earlier meta analysis or just other narratives syntheses on flipped learning, a lot of them had suggested that perhaps flipped learning might even have a negative effect on satisfaction,” Bredow says. “What we found was that that wasn't the case. It's a small effect, but nevertheless it was significant.” 

Variations in Flipped Classroom Success  

The success of flipped classrooms varied by discipline. Language classes saw the most gains, followed by technology and then health sciences. This was expected as flipped learning seems particularly well-suited to courses that emphasize applied skills and benefit from the focus flipped classrooms place on active learning.

Engineering courses didn’t share the same success, for reasons that are not clear. “It's not that engineering classrooms by flipping it were getting worse outcomes, but they were getting at best very small increases,” Bredow says. “Is it something about engineering, in particular? Is it that lecture-based engineering classes already have a lot of active learning in them?” More research is needed to answer these questions. 

The effects of flipped learning were also different depending on where the educational strategy was implemented. The benefits were stronger in Middle East and Asian countries than in North America, while countries in Europe generally fell in the middle. Again, the reasons for this are not clear. 

“I suspect that a big part of the reason that we see that it's going to be more effective on average in Asian and Middle Eastern countries is that the flipped classroom is gonna be more of a deviation from the norm in those countries,” Bredow says. “What we see within  North American institutions of higher education, is that even a lot of lecture-based classes are going to implement some components of active learning.” 

Flipped Classroom Research: Educator Takeaways   

Bredow says professors reviewing her recent research should remember that flipped classrooms have a lot of potential, but just flipping a classroom is not going to automatically produce better outcomes. 

She advises looking at your particular class and the students you’ll be working with to assess whether flipping the classroom is the right move. “If I'm in the languages, we've got some pretty compelling evidence that implementing a flip is going to probably show some true academic and interpersonal boost,” she says. “If I'm in engineering, I might want to do more research to figure out why we're not getting the effects within engineering that we'd expect to see given its applied focus.” 

Bredow also says her research should encourage instructors who want to just flip portions of their course, which is how she is approaching flipped learning with the courses she teaches. “Rather than just going in and being like, ‘Alright, we're gonna entirely flip developmental psychology,’ I'm looking at are there certain lectures, certain topics, that would really lend themselves well to that,” she says.

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.