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Learning Science is a relatively new field but has great value in allowing us (the educational community) to better understand how learners gain new knowledge. Further, it helps instructors to develop improved methods of delivering knowledge and provides opportunities to strengthen the comprehension power of their students. In short, learning science tells us how we learn, and it can be used to improve instruction.

One perspective that has emerged from a clearer understanding of how students master content is active learning, a concept of learning by doing. It is the opposite of passive learning, i.e., it isn’t sitting in a lecture hall listening to a professor drone on about a particular topic. While the transfer of knowledge is important, there are more efficient and effective uses of our students’ time than the standard lecture.

Lectures are an isolated and isolating experience for students. Each student receives the same material, and despite some limited Q&A time, communication is very much a one-way street. Meanwhile, completing assignments at home, in one’s dorm, at the coffee shop, etc. is also isolated. Students often work independently of one another, attempting to sort through a mathematical problem, debug code, or write an essay. That is why the flipped or blended classroom has become so popular. It takes the one-way street of the lecture and relegates it to video lectures that students watch outside of class. It then takes the isolated homework experience and opens it up to collaborative, two-way communication between students during class time.

This seems simple enough, right? Record your lectures, have students watch them at home, then give them their “homework” problems in class and have them work together to solve them. Furthermore, learning science points to evidence that this is how our brains are supposed to work (Roschelle, 1992; see also Kober, 2015). We are wired to learn by doing, rather than by rote memorization of facts, and, being social animals, most of us are culturally predisposed to want to learn with other people, to collaborate.

The practice of incorporating active learning into a class, and more specifically of flipping one’s class, is much more complex. Authors such as Andrews et al. (2011) and Yong et al. (2015) have recently noted that the simple process of flipping lectures and homework is only as effective as the instructor teaching the course and is highly dependent on the school environment. That is why some instructors have found the flipped classroom to be an unsustainable proposition. Moderating multiple group discussions in a class of 40 or 80 or 150 students can be difficult, even with teaching assistants to help. Identifying common pain points and addressing them on-the-fly throughout a 90-minute class period is challenging. There’s no room for PowerPoint slides here because PowerPoint provides exactly what a flipped class is not — a script.

The question becomes, then, can we teach effective flipped learning principles? Can we show new assistant professors and even the most seasoned fellows how to make active learning a reality in the classroom? I would posit that this comes back to learning science. Especially in STEM fields, when we can explain to instructors how something works, they can usually find a way to apply it.

Here are a few sources for those wanting to capitalize on active learning by understanding how the brain works (thanks to Dr. Lauren Margulieux for a few of these recommendations):

In thinking about flipping the classroom, I think it actually flips you. Flipping the classroom requires the instructor to think in new ways about how students learn and it challenges instructors to create content and exercises that are different than how they themselves may have learned. It raises the question of whether this will this change in 10 to 15 years, as millennials enter teaching and professorial positions. Nevertheless, that is no reason to fear it. That’s how our students — and indeed, we all — learn best. Check the learning science.

Additional References

Andrews, T.M., Leonard, M.J., Cosgrove, C.A., & Kalinowski, S.T. (2011). Active learning not associated with student learning in a random sample of college biology courses. Life Sciences Education, 10(4), 394-405. DOI: 10.1187/cbe.11-07-0061

Kober, L. (2015). Reaching students: What research says about effective instruction in undergraduate science and engineering. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. DOI: 10.17226/18687

Roschelle, J. (1992). Learning by collaborating: Convergent conceptual change. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 2(3), 235-276. DOI: 10.1207/s15327809jls0203_1

Yong, D., Levy, R. & Lape, N. (2015). Why no difference? A controlled flipped classroom study for an introductory differential equations course. PRIMUS: Problems, Resources, and Issues in Mathematics Undergraduate Studies, 25(9-10), 907-921. DOI: 10.1080/10511970.2015.1031307