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Is Taking a Flipped Class Flipping My GPA?

A student's perspective on the pitfalls of flipped classrooms

This is a guest post by Ryan Kilcullen, Williams College Class of 2015. 

Flipped classrooms are the hot topic in education right now. The idea of having students read a textbook or watch a lecture at night and do “homework” in class is a fresh new take on the educational approach (Deslauriers et al, 2011). The added interactivity seems much more attractive and beneficial than the dull, hands-off lecture-based approach. The flipped class is such a novel concept, though, that the research on its efficacy is limited; so let me take this opportunity to warn you—especially you naïve undergraduate students such as myself—to be wary of the flipped class. Many teachers are very enthusiastic about flipped classrooms. I'm offering a student persepctive. I took one of these hip new classes this year and my experience was far from ideal.

Although my evidence is purely anecdotal, I’m basing my observations on scientific research about learning. Bjork (1994) summarized research on how best to enhance long-term retention of knowledge or skills in human beings. Bjork first suggests that just the right amount of increased difficulty, known as desirable difficulty, in a learner’s training leads to substantially increased results in later performance and in long term retention of knowledge. He encourages learners to struggle their way through practice sessions because such struggle will better prepare learners for post-training evaluations. While flipped class advocates could argue my struggles this year could be indicative of this desirable difficulty, I would counter that the setup of the flipped class increases difficulties in a way that does not satisfy Bjork’s conditions for properly introducing difficulties to the learner.

Bjork stresses the need for varying the conditions of practice and contends that unpredictability in the training environment keeps the learner on his toes by forcing him to transfer knowledge efficiently to novel tasks. He argues that such variation is achieved through random problem assignment rather than assigning consecutive problems of the same kind and defends the idea that contextual interference promotes difficulty for the learner in training that will lead to improved scores on future tests. So far in my experience, problems have been assigned in a very linear (no pun intended) and predictable fashion: we prepare for a given chapter or section before class and in class drill problem after problem on the topic of the previous night’s readings. In fact, the only varying experience for me as a learner has been that this flipped class is simply different from every other college class I’ve taken; and the novelty of the flipped class wore off quickly as a result of this repetitious drilling approach.

Bjork argues that reduced feedback forces a learner to work his way through a problem, which again produces positive struggle during training for improved post-training performance. The flipped class directly conflicts with this idea as it is predicated on feedback. My professor makes up for the fact that he doesn’t have to work as hard in preparing a lecture for class by being as helpful and communicative as possible for us students in class. Further, we are encouraged to look back at the previous night’s lesson to help us through any problems we may be stuck on in class because time is of the essence and we must complete as many problems as possible in our brief meeting period. Such sources of feedback, I believe, have led to a false grasp of the course material. When I’m introduced to novel problems on my upcoming midterm and have neither the professor nor the textbook to rely on for help…well, I’m really not ready to handle that thought yet.

The notion of the professor over-helping in class to make up for the lack of time spent of lecturing and preparing lectures is an important one and ties into Bjork’s misperceptions of the trainer. Trainers are validated by the successes of the trainees. It is very likely that my professor, who is clearly a proponent of the flipped classroom, wants to see it succeed. So, not only does the professor over-help students with problems in class, he is also susceptible to delivering the solution to a question on a silver platter because it’s satisfying to take the superficial and usually halfhearted “Oh, now I get it” from his students as validation that his students are grasping the material and that the flipped classroom is the future of education.

It turns out we did not really get it. The class average on the first midterm was disappointing enough that the professor completely changed his approach to the class and went with a traditional lecture.

Do I sound like a whiny, spoiled undergraduate student overly concerned with how one class will ruin his precious GPA? Almost certainly. However, I would argue that my doubts regarding this flipped class and my performance in it are backed by Bjork who noted, “Individuals who have illusions of comprehension…pose a greater hazard to themselves and others than do individuals who correctly assess that they lack some requisite or skill” (p. 194).

Just because a new approach might be unique and interesting does not mean that it is automatically valid. I think it would be great if the flipped classroom did revolutionize American classrooms and help mend the current education issue in the United States. However, before more school officials and educators jump on the bandwagon of the flipped class, more conclusive experimental research and investigation into the pros and cons of the flipped class are necessary. Without this kind of research, sometimes flipping will work and sometimes it will not.

The real question is not whether flipped classes work. The real question is, what is the best way to flip a classroom and make it work?

Follow Nate Kornell on Twitter.

Nate Kornell, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Williams College.

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