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Flipped Learning and Active Learning are Not Synonymous


April 05, 2017

In an article titled The Hidden Costs of Active Learning by Thomas Mennalla, an associate professor of biology at Bay Path University, mentions that “Flipped and active learning truly are a better way for students to learn, but they also may be a fast track to instructor burnout.”  He starts his article – “I am an active learning college instructor and I’m tired. I don’t mean end-of-the-semester and need-some-sleep tired. I mean really, weary, bone-deep tired.”

I applaud the effort by Professor Manella as he is using effective evidence-based pedagogy, and I can relate to the burn-out when I first used the flipped classroom. However, I am personally concerned that flipped learning and active learning are considered to be somewhat synonymous.  We do not have to teach a class flipped to incorporate active learning.  Just small exercises at 15-minute intervals in a 50-minute class, like asking two to four clicker questions, a 25-word muddiest point essay, or something akin,  have been found to be effective.

I implore all my higher-ed colleagues and administrators not to push flipped classes just because that is the only way you know or have heard of incorporating active learning. Before embarking on a flipped class, try a blended class first with all the resources you would have developed for a flipped class; couple it with effective learning strategies like distributed practice (algorithmic problems and question banks presented through learning management systems will save you time to grade and curb cheating), giving practice tests, and assigning interleaved practice.

If someone has convinced you that flipped class (learning) is the only answer, ask them, “Have you compared it with a blended class where the active learning items done in class are of low cost – both for class time and professor prep time?”  Comparing the flipped class with the traditional lecture class should be seriously questioned as a research question.  The same meta-study which is quoted by many advocates of active learning and unrelatedly the “death of the lecture” tend to conveniently ignore the last sentence in its abstract – “The results raise questions about the continued use of traditional lecturing as a control in research studies, …..”

I teach my classes flipped as well as blended.  In the blended class, I have several in-class active learning exercises (clicker questions, short exercises, think-pair-share, etc), and therefore a reasonable amount of content has to be pushed out-of-class and online. Are they hence not getting the benefit of self-regulated and deep learning by doing that? Are they not using the group space during active learning exercises for “dynamic, interactive and engaging activities”?

Full Disclosure: I see the benefits of flipped learning but we do not have to flip every topic. Flipping does not have to create a burn-out either.  Even good medicine has to be taken in prescribed doses.  Currently, I am a lead PI on two NSF grants – one on comparing flipped and blended classes and another on using adaptive learning to improve the pre-class experience of flipped classes.  Let the data do the talking.

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