Flipped learning: Yes, it works — if you can shift your mindset
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Flipped learning: Yes, it works — if you can shift your mindset

It’s a concept that’s been circulating in learning circles since the 1990s and was popularized by Salman Khan in the last decade: “Flip” the traditional instructional design model so that learners acquire knowledge outside of the classroom/learning event and use the event itself as an opportunity to apply and practice that knowledge. In other words, learn on your own and do your “homework” in class.

Makes sense, especially in an era of on-demand e-learning. There’s no reason a professor, teacher or trainer needs to use valuable classroom time to stand in front of a room and deliver a lecture. They can put the lecture on video or a slide show and use face time with learners to help them with the more difficult task of putting that knowledge into practice.

But is this approach really more effective?

Early research offered mixed findings – perhaps because people were still working out best practices. But there’s mounting evidence that flipped learning does offer significant benefits, both from the learner’s perspective and in terms of learning outcomes.

The latest research on flipped learning 

At a recent conference for the Institute on Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin, flipped learning appeared to be moving into the mainstream. Attended by some of the most celebrated educational psychologists in the country, the conference held workshops where researchers could present their latest findings, including these two:

  • Texas Tech University’s medical school piloted a study using flipped classrooms for medical students. The students received course content through e-learning instead of in-class lectures and then engaged in learning activities in the classroom with their classmates and instructor. The study found that students performed better on several metrics, including course satisfaction. They were especially enthusiastic about the flexibility that flipped learning offered, allowing them to engage with the course content at times that were right for them. (One of the key benefits of this approach is that students can adjust the pace of their learning based on their needs — spending more time on topics that they’re struggling with, and less time on stuff they already know.)
  • Another study from the conference, this one conducted at the University of Iowa, found similar results. The researchers again also used a “flipped” classroom approach to much success. Researchers divided students into three course formats – a “flipped” course; a traditional, lecture-based course; and an online-only course. At the end of the semester, 95 percent of the learners in the flipped course earned a passing grade, compared with 82 percent in the lecture-based course and 81 percent in the online-only course. “The [flipped] course structure we utilized facilitated bidirectional information flow, fostering conversations not only between the instructor and students but among the students themselves,” said the head researcher. The research suggests that there is something significant about providing learners with e-learning content and then having them engage with the content together in an in-person setting. The mix of independent learning with peer interaction appears to engage learners and subsequently boost their performance.

Slow to adopt

These findings are line with other recent studies demonstrating that flipped learning works when done correctly. But it requires a shift in thinking.

A recent survey of science departments across 25 top universities found that 55 percent of all college science courses still use a traditional lecture model. And recent statistics from the workplace learning industry suggest a very similar dynamic, with e-learning courses only accounting for 45 percent of all learning hours in 2017.

So why aren’t organizations using it more?

The survey suggested a primary culprit: People feel as though they lack the ability to implement such a program. For a traditional institution of higher learning, this explanation is understandable. They’ve likely used a lecture-based model for decades, if not centuries, and academic tradition is hard to break. But for companies and organizations, this shift should be much less painful.

Maybe e-learning’s earlier incarnations have given it a bad rap in some organizations’ eyes. Maybe companies are nervous about chasing a workplace-learning “fad.” Or maybe change just takes time.

Implementing flipped learning in your organization

Here are some research-based recommendations on how to structure a “flipped” learning program in your organization.

  • Use e-learning for content delivery. The research illustrates that e-learning provides real value to both learners and training outcomes. Learners feel more freedom and ownership over the learning process, and that translates into a more successful program. It also requires fewer resources than a classroom-based instruction model.
  • Use in-person activities to reinforce learning. The in-person activities used by both studies show the importance of “active learning,” which creates opportunities for learners to engage with the subject matter. Whether this takes the shape of group discussions, team activities or role plays, learning happens when learners grapple with new information in an active and engaging way.
  • Harness the power of peer interactions. In addition to “active learning,” the in-person piece of the flipped classroom allows learners to consult with their peers about the subject matter. This can lead to peer-learning opportunities where, for example, one learner might help another better understand a certain topic. Peer learning is a powerful training tool that any workplace-learning program should actively promote.


American Physiological Society. (2018, June 20). A mix of in-person and online learning may boost student performance, reduce anxiety. Retrieved from: https://www.the-aps.org/mm/hp/Audiences/Public-Press/2018/36.html

American Physiological Society. (2018, June 19). Flexibility in content delivery and student-faculty interaction frees up time without hurting performance. Retrieved from: https://www.the-aps.org/mm/hp/Audiences/Public-Press/2018/34.html

Stains, M., et al. (2018). Anatomy of STEM teaching in North American universities. Science, 359(6383): 1468. doi: 10.1126/science.aap8892

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