Flip or Lecture: where's the evidence?

Nick Monk: Smiling man with brown hair and tailored blue jacket.
Nick Monk, CTT Director

I have seen some extraordinary and riveting lectures in universities. From the holder of the world speed record for reciting the periodic table to a creative writing professor who placed an apple on each seat in the theater and had us write about it, to another who produced a fragment of the original Globe Theater. These and others I have seen were riveting, and the success of TED talks and their ilk is testament to the enduring attraction of the expert talking from a stage in ways that engage an audience. What all these have in common is their theatricality, the excitement of liveness, the element of surprise.

The public lecture has, however, been out of fashion in higher education pedagogy for some time. And there seems to me to be a good reason for this. For every performance that kept me glued to my seat, afraid to move for fear of missing something, or just awed at the knowledge and articulacy of the professor, there have been half a dozen where I have felt trapped, stultified, frustrated, disengaged, or just plain bored. I’m not alone I’m sure. And I have great sympathy with faculty colleagues who are obliged to lecture – most of whom, it must be noted, do a noble job with no training and little support. It’s clear that those instructors who simply recycle the same lecture year-after-year are now in the minority. But the issue remains.

Part of what might be called the ‘student engagement movement’ in university education did in response to the problem of lectures was to suggest that the sage be removed from the stage and that we ‘flip’ the classroom to accommodate a greater role for students in their learning. 2007 is the date that is most frequently attached to this innovation, and the founders are typically recognized as Colorado high school science teachers, Jon Bergmann and Aaron Sams.1

A recent meta-study of the phenomenon reveals some interesting conclusions. The study, from Utrecht University in the Netherlands, looked at 114 articles and decided that "a flipping the classroom (FTC) approach is a promising pedagogical approach when appropriately designed."2 There was a "small positive effect in learning outcomes, no effect was found on student satisfaction regarding the learning environment, and finally that, analyses showed that students in flipped classrooms achieve higher learning outcomes when the face-to-face class time was not reduced compared to non-flipped classrooms, or when quizzes were added in the flipped classrooms."

The fact that "promising" can still be applied to a phenomenon in higher education after it has been in widespread use for 13 years is, perhaps, a measure of the rate of cultural change we face. We can, however, assert with confidence that, whilst lectures have their place, an educator can quickly learn how to flip a classroom in a way they cannot be taught to lecture. Instinctively many of us feel that placing students at the center of their learning is the key to all kinds of improvements at universities, but while we have to wait for nearly a decade-and-a-half for the evidence, it will frequently be a struggle to convince others. The question for the CTT and centers like ours is how we reduce the turnaround from a good idea to evidence? What mechanisms and strategies can we deploy? Who can be recruited to support the cause, and how? 

1 Noonoo, Stephen. “Flipped Learning Founders Set the Record Straight.” The Journal. June 20, 2012. thejournal.com/articles/2012/06/20/flipped-learning-founders-q-and-a.aspx.


2Alten, David C.D. van; Janssen, Jeroen; Kester, Liesabeth; Phielix, Chris. “Effects of flipping the classroom on learning outcomes and satisfaction: A meta-analysis.” Educational Research Review, Volume 28, November 2019. www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1747938X18305694.