Home Pillar Corner Avoiding FLOPs with Adult Learners: Building a Flexible Learning Environment

Avoiding FLOPs with Adult Learners: Building a Flexible Learning Environment


In my 20+ years as a corporate trainer I had my share of training flops. 20/20 hindsight has given me a perspective on some of the possible causes:

• Did I unwittingly create a Frigid learning culture instead of a welcoming learning environment?
• Was I too Leaden and rigid in my approach and not flexible enough?
• Did I have Obsolete content that was not seen as relevant by my students?
• Did I appear ill-prepared and Probationary to my students – not yet a professional?

I had my share of FLOPs, but maybe I should be more positive and think about my training successes. Then I recalled the old Samoan saying: “the person with burnt fingers asks for tongs.”

So, when I relocated some years ago from business to the academic world, I went in search of educational tongs to prevent further instructional burnt fingers. Luckily, a colleague introduced me to the FLIP concept. Pretty soon, I recognized that FLIP could reduce my future FLOP scores.

I wanted to explore the application of flipped learning concepts to the graduate students in my Master of Business Administration (MBA) program – average age 28 years, which, at the time at least, was not a common learning context for flipped instruction.

I learned about the Four Pillars of FLIPTM posited by the Flipped Learning Network:

• Create a flexible environment in which students choose when and where they learn
• Develop a student-centered learning culture, not a teacher-centered one
• Use intentional content to maximize classroom time for student-centered activities
• As a professional educator, take on the role of observer and a provider of relevant feedback to learners

Reviewing the 4 FLIP pillars gave me some ideas about how to structure the communications course so that it was truly a student-centered learning experience. Then, as I started to incorporate the FLIP pillars into my course design work, it struck me that perhaps the key pillar for my predicament, and the best place to begin, was the very first pillar – I needed to begin by creating a more flexible learning environment, one that truly responded to my students’ needs.

My first major application of the FLIP principles was for the design of an on-site MBA cohort program for a large hospital in the New York city area. The cohort of 24 students was comprised of medical, nursing, and administrative staff who were motivated to acquire the MBA credential as the trend in healthcare is to apply business principles in hospitals and other healthcare organizations. One of the first courses I needed to design for the cohort was “Managerial Communications.” How could I design a course on communications for doctors and nurses who were probably expert communicators already? I knew that many of the cohort members already had advanced and doctoral degrees, together with years of experience of practicing their profession. I concluded that providing them with a traditional lecture-based program may be risking a flop.

I noted that for each of the four FLIP pillars of flipped learning there are 2 or 3 indicators for effective integration of each one into a course design, and I began to look more closely at the indicators for my chosen Flexible Environment pillar. I found that two of the indicators closely matched my ideal course delivery plans: F2 and F3.

F3: Provide students with different ways to learn content and demonstrate mastery.

When designing the course, I determined that the instructor would not be the “sage on the stage,” lecturing students on writing issues. Instead students would be given a series of self-scoring at-home quizzes and self-evaluations to complete and asked to demonstrate their mastery of the skills by writing short papers.

And this led smoothly into the indicator below:

F2: Continually observe and monitor students to make adjustments as appropriate.

In addition to the homework assignments I determined that a significant portion of in-class time would be spent on group assignments so that the instructor could provide one-on-one guidance and feedback on writing skills as appropriate.

Incorporating the F2 and F3 indicators into the course design encouraged me to identify ways to introduce greater flexibility into the learning process. Consequently, in the first class students were told that the majority of class time would be spent working on projects in small groups. Homework would consist of completing self-assessments, reviewing instruction videos and PowerPoints with narration, reading other relevant materials, and writing short papers.

One of the first self-assessment assignments focused on the mechanics of writing skills – particularly grammar, spelling and punctuation. Students were given an online grammar and punctuation quiz to complete at home. The quiz was auto-scored so they knew their results immediately. Students were asked to write a short paper (with correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation) describing their results and identifying their strength and areas for improvement.

Many of the papers submitted indicated that students were surprised by their quiz scores. Comments such as the following were common: “I thought I was a good writer before I took the quiz, but I was humbled by my results – my grammar and punctuation needs to improve.”

Class 2 opened with a discussion about the quiz results and the class consensus was that they had work to do to improve their skills in punctuation, spelling and grammar. This conclusion naturally led to an in-class exercise in which groups of three worked on a writing project from the textbook. The instructor moved from group to group to provide feedback and support.

This approach was appreciated by the class and was used for subsequent classes in which the theory of topics relating to effective communication were the subject of self-evaluation and home study, while class time was used for hands-on practice.

Student feedback on the course indicated that far from a flop, the course was a HIT (Highly Informative and Top-notch!). I strongly encourage others to take another look at just how flexible their learning environment is and they may find that they can give up some closely held assumptions about what is done in and out of class and why, as well as how one informs the other in a seamless integration and cycling of instruction, assessment, and feedback.

Feel free to contact me for more information or any questions you may have.


Kevin Nash
Dr. Kevin Nash has a Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from Capella University, an MA in Management from The University of Kent, UK, and a Diploma in Marketing from the Dublin Institute of Technology, Ireland. Following a career in corporate work for a wide range of industries, he transitioned to academia. Dr. Nash is Program Director for MBA and MPA programs at Long Island University - Hudson Campus, where he is developing flipped learning approaches to collaborative programs, such as the program in Health Care Management with White Plains Hospital. Dr. Nash is a member of the Society for Human Resources Management and a Board Member of the Institute for Behavioral and Applied Management.


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