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New Insights: How Flipped Learning Impacts Exceptional Students, Prepare to Be Surprised

Special / Uncategorized / August 16, 2018

-by Thomas Mennella-

We often use the term “best practices,” when discussing Flipped Learning, but what do we really mean by that?  Who decides what’s “best?” The best best practices are research-based, informed by well-conducted studies with compelling results. I became aware of just such a study earlier this summer in the middle of northern Colorado.  In mid-June of this year, I had the good fortune of attending the Higher Education Flipped Learning conference in Greeley, CO. This conference provided a wonderful balance of workshops, “tips and tricks” sessions, and presentations of research on the efficacy of Flipped Learning (FL).  Near the end of the final day of the conference, I attended a research session delivered by Dr. Emily Holt. Dr. Holt is an Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Northern Colorado, and as I sat in her session, I quickly realized that I was seeing the best research study on Flipped Learning yet conducted.  The design of the study was tight, almost all variables controlled, the statistics were cutting edge, and the take-home message was surprising.  I knew right away that, as we all prepare for another academic year, hearing more from Dr. Holt and leveraging the work of her and her colleagues to define best practices might be of great benefit.  Dr. Holt and I recently sat down for a conversation and discussed the implications of her work on FL so that the readers of FLR could hear about what her team has learned and how that might impact our teaching this upcoming year.

The research that Dr. Holt presented at the conference was hot off the presses and is still unpublished, but she does have a paper out right now that focuses on best practices in the individual space.¹ This published study has many of the hallmarks of her more recent work: widespread collaboration between Flipped Learning college-level instructors (namely, her closest collaborators: Jamie Jensen and T. Heath Ogden), each bringing a different hypothesis to the study; tight consistency between student groups/cohorts to isolate the variable(s) under study; and, compelling results that are supported by compelling statistical analyses.  In the published study, Dr. Holt and her collaborators sought to determine the best individual space passive learning modality: text readings, videos or interactive tutorials. The videos were the winner, supporting that the majority of the FL community is indeed using best practices when creating videos for their students to watch.

Interestingly, there was further anecdotal evidence that students preferred to see their instructor’s face in a portion of the screen giving the video an added personal touch.  Though other studies also support student preference for seeing the instructor’s face in videos, this may also be a distraction. There is competing evidence for the benefits and disadvantages of including the instructor’s face in FL videos.²

Didn’t See it Coming

But, it was the work that Dr. Holt presented in Greeley that really surprised me.  In that study, Dr. Holt and her collaborators compared the effectiveness of FL on different student populations: public school students and private school students.  The public school cohort overall was less prepared for college-level instruction, scoring lower on a critical thinking skills assessment tool. On the other hand, the private school cohort (which earned their enrollment via a more selective and rigorous admissions process) was largely more prepared academically, scoring higher on that same assessment.  Each student cohort was split into one section taught traditionally, and the other taught via FL. Great care was taken to keep all other content consistent across all groups making the only variables the type of instruction (FL vs. traditional) and the student population (private vs. public). Perhaps not surprisingly, the public school student cohort thrived in a flipped environment.  They outperformed their traditionally taught peers and scored higher on content learning assessments. However, the stronger private school students performed more poorly in a flipped environment and were outperformed by their peers in traditionally taught sections. Sitting there in Greeley, I could not believe what I was hearing. I would understand if FL didn’t improve the performance of top-tier students (they perform so well as it is), but them doing worse in a flipped environment?!  Trust me when I say, I looked for holes in Holt’s data, analysis, and interpretation.  I, very biasedly, wanted her to be wrong. She’s not. The data is tight (and you can see for yourself once the study publishes in the near future; keep your eyes on Google Scholar for Dr. Holt’s most recent work).  So, what’s going on here?

Being successful at traditional schooling does not always lead to success in the real world. 

There are many possible explanations for the apparent negative effect of FL on academically stronger students.  Dr. Holt and I agree that academically successful, high-achieving students are very intelligent, but they’ve also learned – over many, many years – how to be successful in a traditional classroom environment.  They’ve trained themselves to extract content from lectures, to fortify that knowledge at home, by themselves, using systems they’ve devised, and to learn material deeply within this structure. In our conversation, Dr. Holt kept coming back to the word “familiarity” when discussing this finding.  High-achieving students are familiar with traditional instruction, and they’ve learned to be successful in it, regardless of how antiquated it might be. It is possible that when FL is implemented with these students, it rocks their world and all of those expectations, systems, and learning strategies go out the window.  And, perhaps they suffer a bit, academically, as a result. But, it remains unclear if high-achieving students ‘do better’ in traditional formats or ‘do worse’ in FL environments.  The difference is not semantics; it is possible that FL does no harm to this cohort, but instead their familiarity with traditional instruction gives them a boost in that environment, allowing them to perform at even higher levels.  As Terra Graves, FLGI International Faculty Member and FLR editor says, “This also speaks to the need for high-achieving students to be exposed to a variety of instructional experiences. Being successful at traditional schooling does not always lead to success in the real world. They need to be able to adapt and problem-solve.” Again, though, to reiterate: FL greatly benefits lower-achieving students. In Dr. Holt’s study, all student groups performed equally well on the final exam assessment, showing that FL allowed weaker students to ‘catch up’ to their more-prepared counterparts.  (On a side note, anecdotal student data suggests that all students were equally satisfied/dissatisfied with their instruction regardless of their cohort or the modality by which they were being taught.  Most students adopted a “grass is greener” opinion where they claimed to prefer the teaching method other than the one they were receiving, but this was largely true across all student groups and sections.)

So What?

The time came in our conversation to explore how Dr. Holt’s findings could translate to best practices.  For the published study on individual space instruction, it was easy for Dr. Holt to make recommendations, and they all came back to one singular idea: differentiation.  Studies and statistics look at averages and trends, but Dr. Holt was quick to point out that every student is an individual, and every individual is different.  Dr. Holt recommends that FL instructors provide their students with choice for the individual space. Students should have the option to watch instructor-created videos or do readings on the same content.  Indeed, in her study, students who received videos complained that they missed having a textbook to reference. Dr. Holt does caution that textbooks are often too dense and detailed for many students, so instructors should consider abridging those sources, but – again – students should be able to differentiate their passive instruction in the individual space.  Differentiating modalities in the group space, however, is “a tough one,” says Dr. Holt. According to Holt, providing students with the choice to participate in traditional instruction, active learning but not flipped, or Flipped Learning – all in the same course – would be “too big a burden [for the instructor] to manage,” and I agree with her completely. Instead, Dr. Holt recommends involving higher-achieving students by designating them as peer-mentors.  Have those students circulate throughout the room and tutor their struggling peers. This will make those better-prepared students more involved in the learning, fortifying their own understanding as they explain concepts to others, and help the weaker students, too, by having more ‘experts’ in the room to coach and consult with them. You could also provide those students with enhanced challenges during classroom time in the group space. Dr. Holt was careful to point out, though, that she sees this as a short-term ‘problem’.  As active and Flipped Learning become more and more common, and more widely implemented in K12 education, those higher achieving students will arrive at college accustomed to these modalities and have the tools to be successful in them. When that becomes the norm, Dr. Holt believes that the apparent negative impact of FL on top-tier students will dissipate.

I closed my conversation with Dr. Holt by asking her what she wanted FLR readers to leave this article thinking about.  She shared that we should all “recognize that there are many different ways to flip,” and likewise we should all “be open-minded that other flipped strategies might be better than your preferred method.  Learn different methods; try different methods.” I pointed out to Dr. Holt that she was dancing dangerously close to the ‘A’ word: assessment (the bane of many a college professor’s existence).  She chuckled and affirmed that assessment is key to the process, “long term and short term,” to keep tabs on what’s working in the classroom and what’s not.  For short-term formative assessment, Dr. Holt reminds us never to be afraid to “make adaptations as you go,” and for summative assessment, Dr. Holt urges us to “gather data on previous classes and use it to inform changes for next year” (even if you’re not doing your own research study).

So, what are you waiting for?  Classes start in another week or two! Crunch last year’s assessment data and tweak your courses for the fall.  Use FLGI Faculty Member and FLR editor Dan Jones’ technique for visualizing your ideal classroom environment. Change what didn’t work well last year and double down on your courses’ strengths.  In the end, it turns out that Dr. Holt and her colleagues may not have discovered best practices inasmuch as they have drawn the map for how to get there. Your best practices are what works best for your students and so the time is now to innovate, alter, assess and analyze.  Chart your path to exceptional teaching and learning for the new year.  

1 Jensen, J. L., Holt, E. A., Sowards, J. B., Ogden, T. H., & West, R. E. (2018). Investigating Strategies for Pre-Class Content Learning in a Flipped Classroom. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 1-13.

2 Kizilcec, R. F., Bailenson, J. N., & Gomez, C. J. (2015). The instructor’s face in video instruction: Evidence from two large-scale field studies. Journal of Educational Psychology, 107(3), 724.






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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