Are You Putting Your Students on the Path to Lifelong Learning?

Higher Ed Septenber / Special / September 17, 2018

-by Thomas Mennella-

Let’s imagine that college professors shifted their focus and their priority. Let’s imagine that instead of aiming to teach a class, professors strived to reach each student. What if instead of trying to increase class averages, professors focused on nearly every student mastering the material? In the higher education setting, “reaching each student” is synonymous with student engagement. If we can engage each student, compel them to interact with the course material, get them to come to class, get them to care, then we will have reached them and, by extension, we can then teach them. The question then becomes: does Flipped Learning increase student engagement? Can we use Flipped Learning (FL) in the college context to reach more students?  

A wonderful paper, published in the July 2017 issue of Student Success by Masha Smallhorn, asks that very question. And the answer is: yes. From the very start, in the introduction, Smallhorn makes the thesis of this paper explicit: “Research suggests that positive engagement with both the academic and social aspects of University life is an important predictor of student success and retention.” Smallhorn notes that previous studies indicate that FL leads to deeper learning among students, high levels of student satisfaction, higher attendance rates, and greater student engagement. The implications are clear. If, indeed, FL boosts student engagement, then it should also result in increased student success and retention. For this study, Smallhorn uses Fredricks, Blumenfeld and Paris’ definition of student engagement: a multi-dimensional construct comprised of behavioral engagement (time on task), emotional engagement (student interest), and cognitive engagement. Smallhorn closes the introduction by offering a novel perspective of FL’s potential:

… the benefits of the flipped model on student outcomes may not be academic gains measured by exam scores or topic grades, but rather gains in engagement with academic content, educators and peers, leading to the strengthening of lifelong learning.

Smallhorn used a second-year college course in Genetics, Evolution and Biodiversity as her test case. After eight years of offering this course traditionally, FL was adopted in 2016. Students were assessed for their opinions on FL, their engagement with the course material, and their performance on exams and quizzes. Where possible, students from the FL cohort were matched and compared to students from previous years when the course was traditionally taught (e.g., attendance data, exam performance).

Interestingly, student opinions of FL were neutral after two weeks of class. They neither cared for it nor disliked it. But, one week later, their views shifted negatively. Students reported that FL made them feel underprepared and that too much time was being spent watching videos. By week nine of the course, attitudes shifted once again, and students reported positive opinions of FL. In fact, 95% of student respondents reported that FL was a positive learning experience. They felt that FL encouraged them to apply what they were learning, challenged their understanding, and provided a forum to voice confusion to their instructor and their peers. This shift in perspective as students become accustomed to FL echoes the wonderful conversation with Dr. Emily Holt from the August 2018 issue of FLR where she discussed the impact of educational familiarity on student learning.  

But where FL truly shines in Smallhorn’s study is in student engagement. Before adopting FL, lecture attendance in this course bottomed out at an abysmal 10-15%. After implementing FL, weekly attendance reached 61% (a four- to five-fold increase). Not surprisingly, when attendance and video-watching were broken down by grade, those students with the best exam performance also had the highest attendance and video accessing levels. Eighty-eight percent of students who achieved the highest grades were highly engaged, as compared to those students who failed where 57% were poorly engaged. As Smallhorn notes, “increased engagement results in an increase in topic grade.” Interestingly, but in agreement with other studies (such as here, here and here), students in flipped classrooms did no better – on average – on the final exam as compared to their traditionally-taught peers. But, in the end, what are we trying to accomplish in the college classroom? Are we aiming to boost class averages? A single metric of arbitrary representation. Or, do we want our students to engage with the material, experience it, return to it, and remember it?

Smallhorn says it best:

… academic gains measured by exam scores of final topic scores may not be an appropriate measure of the flipped classroom model on student learning… the impact of the flipped classroom model on student learning is through engagement with peers and educators which may not translate to measurable academic gains.

Smallhorn does show us that the most engaged students in the flipped environment do exceptionally well academically. And her data also conclusively demonstrates that FL boosts student engagement, overall. So, why no increase in student performance? Isn’t there a contradiction here? Not necessarily; the answer may lie in the averages. Imagine this scenario: four students are taught traditionally, and all receive mediocre grades: a 72, 73, 78 and 77. That’s a class average of 75. Now imagine those same four students switch to a flipped environment. Three of the four love it and thrive, and the fourth refuses to adapt to the unfamiliar and gives up entirely. They achieve grades of 92, 93, 90 and 25. Their average… 75. No change in the average, but the majority of the cohort thrived under FL; it was the one stubborn student who gave up that dragged the average down. Could this be what we see in some FL studies that focus solely on exam averages?

As college professors, we should be focusing on student engagement, not averages. Student engagement does increase academic performance, student opinions and retention/persistence. We engage students by reaching them every day, in every class, and FL is the secret sauce to get us there. Smallhorn closes with a rather elegant final analysis of the data:

… the flipped classroom model is most effective in implementing a cultural shift in students to encourage engagement with academic life, through spending time on campus and fostering positive relationships with both peers and educators. This cultural shift towards a more engaged learner is a key student attribute which has the potential to increase student retention at both the topic and course level.

Let’s imagine that college professors shifted their focus, their priority, and instead of aiming to teach a class (measured by better exam averages), professors strived to reach each student. If, currently, higher education leads to students just going through the motions to get good grades, but FL can lead them to a level of engagement that promises an inclination toward “lifelong learning,” isn’t the latter the highest and most desirable outcome of an advanced education? Isn’t that why higher education exists in the first place? In the higher education setting, “reaching each student” is synonymous with student engagement and Flipped Learning is how we’ll get there. After all, who wants to be average anyway?

Thomas Mennella
Dr. Thomas Mennella
I have been an instructor in higher education for over ten years. Starting as a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, and then moving on to an Assistant Professorship at Delaware State University (DSU), a small public university, I experimented with Problem-Based Learning (PBL) and was an early-adopter of the iClicker student response system. Now an Associate Professor at Bay Path University, a private liberal arts institution in western Massachusetts, I primarily teach Genetics, Cell and Molecular Biology. I am Flipped Learning 3.0 Level -II Certified and a founding member of the FLGI International Faculty.

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