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Myths and Facts About Flipped Learning

min read

Key Takeaways

  • The combination of rapidly-accumulating research on the effectiveness of active learning combined with improvements in technology have created an ideal environment for almost any instructor to move their courses from a traditional to a flipped model.
  • Many articles on flipped learning contain misconceptions that can lead potential practitioners into error or away from using flipped learning entirely, to the detriment of their students and themselves.
  • This article looks at some of the myths about flipped learning and provides contradictory facts about this pedagogical approach.

Flipped learning, sometimes called the "flipped classroom," is a pedagogical approach which uses time and space in a different way from the way courses are typically taught. In traditional instruction, students' first contact with new ideas happens in class, usually through direct instruction from the professor; after exposure to the basics, students are turned out of the classroom to tackle the most difficult tasks in learning — those that involve application, analysis, synthesis, and creativity — in their individual spaces. Flipped learning reverses this, by moving first contact with new concepts to the individual space and using the newly-expanded time in class for students to pursue difficult, higher-level tasks together, with the instructor as a guide.

Flipped learning is a pedagogical approach whose time has come. The combination of rapidly-accumulating research on the effectiveness of active learning combined with improvements in technology have created an ideal environment for almost any instructor to move their courses from a traditional to a flipped model. At the same time, despite its popularity and the efforts of groups like the Flipped Learning Network to explain and operationalize flipped learning, it remains a somewhat poorly-understood concept among many. Many published articles on flipped learning contain misconceptions that can lead potential practitioners into error or away from using flipped learning entirely, to the detriment of their students and themselves.

Let's take a look at some of the myths about flipped learning and try to find the facts.

Myth: Flipped learning is predicated on recording videos for students to watch before class.

Fact: Flipped learning does not require video. Although many real-life implementations of flipped learning use video, there's nothing that says video must be used. In fact, one of the earliest instances of flipped learning — Eric Mazur's peer instruction concept, used in Harvard physics classes — uses no video but rather an online text outfitted with social annotation software. And one of the most successful public instances of flipped learning, an edX course on numerical methods designed by Lorena Barba of George Washington University, uses precisely one video. Video is simply not necessary for flipped learning, and many alternatives to video can lead to effective flipped learning environments [http://rtalbert.org/flipped-learning-without-video/].

Myth: Flipped learning replaces face-to-face teaching.

Fact: Flipped learning optimizes face-to-face teaching. Flipped learning may (but does not always) replace lectures in class, but this is not to say that it replaces teaching. Teaching and "telling" are not the same thing. As any instructor knows, lecture is only one element of an entire shed of tools for teaching students; it is not always the best tool, and it is not always appropriate to privilege class time for it. With flipped learning, class time is instead used for active work that focuses on helping students process and assimilate concepts rather than simply listening. This focus allows the instructor to know her students and work with them in a truly face-to-face way, every class meeting.

Myth: Flipped learning has no evidence to back up its effectiveness.

Fact: Flipped learning research is growing at an exponential pace and has been since at least 2014. That research — 131 peer-reviewed articles in the first half of 2017 alone — includes results from primary, secondary, and postsecondary education in nearly every discipline, most showing significant improvements in student learning, motivation, and critical thinking skills. For example, I have a Google Scholar alert set up to deliver summaries of this research to my inbox every day. Here is a sample of the articles from just one morning:

There is much more out there. Although we must approach this research with appropriate scientific skepticism, and not all of these studies are at the same level of quality, the evidence of flipped learning's effectiveness is nonetheless plentiful in the research we have.

Myth: Flipped learning is a fad.

Fact: Flipped learning has been with us in the form defined here for nearly 20 years. A fad is an innovation that never takes hold. Flipped learning is anything but this. As I describe in my book, flipped learning originated at roughly the same time, about 20 years ago, in three different universities that were trying to solve the same pedagogical problem: How to provide a diverse audience of students with sufficient time and space to engage with the most difficult ideas in their subjects. All three groups arrived at the same solution: Have students learn the basics before class using structured activities, then focus class time on active tasks that promote deeper learning. That definition of flipped learning has become standard through the work of the Flipped Learning Network, and its implementation has found its way into huge numbers of K–12 and higher education institutions worldwide.

Myth: People have been doing flipped learning for centuries.

Fact: Flipped learning is not just a rebranding of old techniques. The basic concept of students doing individually active work to encounter new ideas that are then built upon in class is almost as old as the university itself. So flipped learning is, in a real sense, a modern means of returning higher education to its roots. Even so, flipped learning is different from these time-honored techniques. Flipped learning has, at its core, the intellectual development of all students — not just the most wealthy, privileged, or "prepared," as one would find at many  institutions in the past that served mostly the wealthy and upperclass. Flipped learning is a framework that teaches all students metacognitive and lifelong learning skills through its emphasis on learning new concepts in the individual space, and it provides support for all students as they apply those concepts creatively in challenging group work. Flipped learning provides all students with the full range of intellectual skills — active collaboration, critical reading and thinking, metacognition, and self-regulation — associated with a rigorous university education.

Myth: Students and professors prefer lecture over flipped learning.

Fact: Students and professors embrace flipped learning once they understand the benefits. It's true that professors often enjoy their lectures, and students often enjoy being lectured to. But the question is not who "enjoys" what, but rather what helps students learn the best. Most professors I have met care much more about student success than their own personal satisfaction. They know what the research says about the effectiveness of active learning and want to incorporate it into their classes, but struggle to find the time. Students, too, may enjoy a good lecture, but when asked about what helps them learn the best, they will usually point to hands-on experiences; once they realize flipped learning places those experiences at the highest level of priority, they hop on board.

Assertion: Flipped learning provides a platform for implementing active learning in a way that works powerfully for students. It deserves to be seen in the clearest possible light and without the mythology. A growing body of research supports the value to student success of using flipped learning, and you can consult it to further understand and debunk myths about flipped learning as a pedagogy.


Robert Talbert, PhD, is a professor at Grand Valley State University currently on sabbatical as a scholar-in-residence at Steelcase and author of the book Flipped Learning: A Guide for Higher Education Faculty (Stylus Publications, 2017).

© 2017 Robert Talbert. The text of this article is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0.