Emily Atteberry, USA TODAY
The concept of the "flipped classroom" has become the education world's darling within the past few years.
In a flipped classroom, students watch their professors' lectures online before class, while spending class time working on hands-on, "real world" problems.
The potential of the model has many educators thrilled - it could be the end of vast lecture halls, students falling asleep and boring, monotone professors.
But four professors at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif. who are studying the effectiveness of a flipped classroom have bad news for advocates of the trend: it might not make any difference.
On Oct. 1, professors Nancy Lape, Karl Haushalter, Rachel Levy and Darryl Yong received funding for a three-year, $199,544 grant from the National Science Foundation to study the effects of the flipped classroom on students' learning.
Though their official research is just beginning, the professors flipped their STEM classrooms as a pilot during the 2012-2013 academic year and gathered some first impressions on the matter.
While Lape stresses that their preliminary research is just that - preliminary - she says the benefits of flipping a classroom are dubious.
During this pilot, each professor taught two sections of the same course - one "flipped" and one traditional, using the same material as much as possible.
The professors tested numerous aspects of the flipped classrooms' effects, such as a students' ability to transfer their knowledge to a problem, their attitudes toward learning and whether they could demonstrate their learning on exams, Lape says. In the majority of the measured categories, there was no demonstrable difference between the two class types.
"I would say that the fact is that there is no statistical difference," Lape says. "People are really gung ho about the (flipped) classroom, but there's no real results."
Students reported in anonymous surveys that they either loved or hated the new model, and some said they felt the flipped classroom had a heavier workload since it required students to set aside time to watch the lengthy lecture videos.
Professors, too, had to spend considerably more time making and editing the videos and crafting engaging, hands-on sessions for their classes, she says.
Given these drawbacks, the fact that the actual learning outcomes seemed unaffected by the switch suggested that it might not be worth the hassle, Lape says.
"(The professors') lives might be easier and their students might be happier if they just do a traditional class," she says.
The flipped classroom trend first took root in 2007 when high school teachers Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams began offering their lectures in PowerPoint version online to students who missed class.
In 2012, Bergmann and Sams founded the Flipped Learning Network, a non-profit organization that seeks to help educators make the switch. Within a year, it jumped from 2,500 members to more than 11,000.
Their research, conducted in conjunction with ClassroomWindow, suggests that the flipped classrooms make a tremendous amount of difference, executive director Kari Arfstrom told EdCompass in February.
Teachers reported that 80% of their students have improved attitudes toward flipped classrooms and that standardized test scores were up 67%, according to the survey.
"Students can watch the short recorded lectures as many times as they wish to grasp the content, and then come to class ready to jump into the lesson, answer questions, work on collaborative projects, and explore the content further," Arfstrom said.
Andrew Miller, an education consultant who teaches online classes for a variety of universities, agrees that benefits such as students' ability to review material are promising, but says nothing will change if professors don't handle the "flip" correctly.
For example, the newly freed-up class time can be daunting for professors, especially those who are particularly gifted at lecturing, he says.
Sometimes these professors aren't able to come up with good hands-on activities and resort to filling the time with even more lecturing.
"If you're not a good instructor, flipping the classroom won't really ensure better learning," he says. "If you aren't doing something to fill that space, it won't do you any good."
Miller says the flipped classroom makes more sense for some studies more than others. It can be easy to come up with "real world" applications for a business class, but not necessarily something like philosophy.
"There's a lot of 'ifs' and variables in the implementation of the flipped classroom that can make or break it," Miller says.
Lape says she hopes those within academia take a more critical look at flipped classrooms.
"It's a hot topic, and there are reasons why I think people believe it will be a good method," Lape says. "But I would really put the call out to more people to really look at this."