By Phil Hill
Update 10/26: We now have Rachel Levy and Nancy Lape (who was the researcher interviewed by USA Today) both agreeing with Darryl’s comments. That’s three of the four members of the research team. While I do not claim to understand how the reporter developed her story line (I have asked for comment), it is quite clear that the article does not represent the work of the Harvey Mudd research team and has a misleading headline and lede.
As a follow up to my response to the USA Today article on flipped classroom research, there was a very informative comment one Google+ from Darryl Yong (one of the members of the Harvey Mudd research team). I thought this comment deserved to be seen by a wider audience, so I’m reproducing in full.
Thanks, Phil, for this post. The USA Today article paints an inaccurate picture of our work and I wanted to try to clarify some things and continue this conversation with you and your readers. (I am only writing on my own behalf and not for my collaborators on this study.)
My biggest regret is that the article greatly oversimplifies things by portraying our study as an attempt to answer whether flipped classrooms work or not. That kind of research question is too blunt to be useful. Our goal is to better understand the conditions under which flipped classrooms lead to better student outcomes. As Phil and others here point out, there are many different manifestations of what we mean by the term “flipped classroom” and that we should be wary about talking about it as if there is one canonical implementation. How are the benefits of flipped classrooms affected by school and student contexts, and are there other benefits that we haven’t yet characterized? We don’t have any preconceived answers to these research questions. While folks might disagree with us whether these research questions are interesting or not, they should at least know that we’re aware of the good work that others have already done and we’re trying to build on it rather than debunk it.
Phil rightly points out that Harvey Mudd College’s learning environment differs from other institutions, and that we should be cautious about extrapolating our experience here to other contexts. There are three important things folks should know about Mudd with regards to this study. First, there is a healthy culture of cooperation at Mudd, which is mostly residential and has about 800 undergraduates, and students already spend a lot of time working together in groups in and out of class. Second, our students generally have high self-efficacy and positive attitudes about learning science and mathematics. Third, a lot of us faculty at Mudd currently use formative assessment, active learning and group work in our classes (minute papers, iClickers, think-pair-share, etc.). Some of us participating on this study have been flipping our classrooms for a while and the four of us got together because we are interested in better understanding the conditions under which classroom inversion could lead to improved student outcomes at Mudd.
There are lots of studies that show that active learning, formative assessment, group work, project-based learning, just-in-time learning are all measurably good things for students. If someone, through classroom inversion, adds these demonstrably good things to a learning environment where those things are not the norm, then we would expect positive changes in student attitudes and learning. This leads us to wonder: are flipped classrooms good for students because they create more time for these demonstrably good things, or are there other benefits that we haven’t yet characterized? If it is the case that flipped classrooms have positive effects for students mainly because they free up more time for active learning and those other good things, what happens when you already do those things in your “lecture” class? Is there some sort of saturation effect? And if it turns out that there are positive aspects about the delivery of instruction via videos, we should try to understand them too.
The idea of our study is to try to control for as many variables as we reasonably can so as to understand the effect of classroom inversion on real students’ performance and attitudes. The instruction, whether via video or in person, is given using the same set of instructional materials (handouts, slides, etc.); all students complete exactly the same tasks, assignments, quizzes, exams. We do our best to randomly assign students to treatment or control groups. We are trying to measure both student learning gains (using vetted instruments when possible) and attitudes in three courses from three different disciplines and to track students’ performance in “downstream” courses.
Many studies of flipped classrooms involve comparing students taking different versions of a course (often taught in different semesters/quarters). Students in the flipped version of the course get to practice more and/or learn more material—if students practice more or get exposed to more material, you would hope for improved student outcomes. So if you’re still reading this far in, you might be asking why one would expect improved student outcomes from classroom inversion if students aren’t asked to practice more or learn more material in the flipped classroom. Because we’re trying to avoid giving students in our flipped classrooms tasks different tasks, we are mainly using class time in our flipped sections for students to work together on homework problems. What if those problems are designed so as to elicit potential misconceptions? Could another potential benefit of flipping be to allow instructors to more quickly identify and resolve students’ misconceptions, and might that lead to increased student learning? That’s one potential idea, and we’d love to hear your thoughts about what other things one might be able to do as a result of having more time for instructor-mediated learning.
I was not present when Nancy was being interviewed by the USA Today reporter, but I strongly believe the reporter took Nancy’s words out of context. Nancy was not saying that flipped classrooms are dubious in general. She was saying that given our study design and Mudd context, we have not yet seen any difference in student outcomes. Of course, this was only the first year of the study and we are admittedly working out all of the kinks in our flipped classes.
As Chuck Severance points out, the danger is that flipped classrooms become the next flavor-of-the-month and that people adopt it without really understanding why it might lead to better student learning. This is our small way of contributing to what is known about flipped classrooms, and we’d appreciate your ideas and constructive feedback.
Per Twitter, Rachel Levy stated that Darryl’s comment also reflect her views (she is another member of research team). I appreciate both of their replies and this important clarification to the article.