One reason why we read research literature on flipped learning is to understand exactly when and how flipped learning environments might help students learn better when compared to traditional methods. But what exactly do we mean by “learn better”?
Often, when measuring student learning, we focus on content mastery as measured by test scores. These measures are familiar and quantitative, but every teacher also knows that real learning goes deeper than quantifiable test results — to the heart of our motivations as human beings.
Flipped learning in particular seems to affect students on a psychological level, making them more engaged, more motivated, and better able to self-regulate. This is the intuition of many flipped learning instructors, but intuition (as valuable as it is) is just a hypothesis. Does this hypothesis hold up under the scrutiny of a well-designed research study?
Let’s take a look at a recent study where that hypothesis was put to the test:
Sergis, S., Sampson, D. G., & Pelliccione, L. (2018). Investigating the impact of Flipped Classroom on students’ learning experiences: A Self-Determination Theory approach. Computers in Human Behavior, 78, 368-378.
Background: Self-Determination Theory and Flipped Learning
As its title suggests, this study uses Self-Determination Theory [SDT] to examine student behavior in a flipped learning environment. SDT is a theoretical framework for motivation developed by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, which grew out of a larger theory of motivation, also posited by Deci and Ryan. This larger theory inaugurated the concepts of extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation which might be familiar to many readers.
Extrinsic motivation for a task is based on some external reward for completing the task, while intrinsic motivation is due to inherent interest in the task itself. For example, a student who studies for a chemistry exam because they simply enjoy learning about chemistry and find the subject valuable and interesting is intrinsically motivated to study; a student who studies not because they care about chemistry but because they want a certain grade to raise their GPA is extrinsically motivated. It is safe to say that many of our students are extrinsically motivated by grades, and a lot of our work as teachers is focused on shifting that motivation as far to the intrinsic side of the spectrum as possible.
SDT says that learners experience three distinct areas of need while engaged in the learning process, each of which factors into their motivation to learn:
- Competence: Learners need to know that their work is building true mastery over tasks that are important to them.
- Autonomy: Learners need to know that they are in control of their behaviors and their lives, and that mastery of what they are learning is found within themselves
- Relatedness: Learners need a sense of belonging and connectedness with other people when they learn.
When these needs are met, learners will find enhanced levels of intrinsic motivation. To the extent that these needs are not met, learners’ motivations will tend to be extrinsic, or perhaps they won’t have any motivation at all. So if we want to build intrinsic motivation, we must attend to these three areas of need with each student for each day.
In a landmark paper from 2014, Lakmal Abeysekara and Phillip Dawson argue for using SDT as a framework to study flipped learning. It’s not hard to see the connection: In flipped learning, students take control of their learning (and in fact are repeatedly tasked with teaching themselves new material), which promotes autonomy and competence. By repurposing class time to emphasize collaborative active-learning tasks, relatedness gets a boost as well.
At least, that’s the theory. Does this happen in practice? That is where our study begins.
The study investigated whether flipped learning models enhance student performance in three separate areas: content-based learning outcomes, learning satisfaction, and self-determination during learning (measured by competence, autonomy, and relatedness). For now, let’s focus on the third area related to SDT and the students’ experience in a flipped environment.
The study looked at students in three different subjects: an 8th-grade technology course, a 10th-grade algebra course, and an 8th-grade humanities course. Each course had two classes: a control group taught traditionally, and an experimental group taught using flipped learning. This was a quasi-experiment, meaning that although there were control and experimental groups, students were not randomly assigned to either group.
Both the control and experimental groups used active-learning techniques including problem- and project-based learning, think-pair-share discussion protocols, and brainstorming activities. The only difference was the method of instruction. In the control group, instruction was initiated during the group meeting times and the instructor presented new material, with the remaining time spent on active-learning techniques. In the experimental group, the students’ initial contact with new material happened outside the class time via online pre-session modules delivered using the course LMS, followed by online quizzes to be completed before class.
Student levels of competence, autonomy, and relatedness were measured using a combination of student questionnaires and instructor observations. The questionnaires were given to students every week; instructor observations were done at each class using a standardized rubric that assessed time students spent in hands-on active engagement, as well as students’ individual contributions in those activities. Each measure was normalized into a 5-point score, and at the end of the study researchers analyzed the differences in average scores between control and experimental groups.
The results of this study were strongly positive for flipped learning and its influence on competence, autonomy, and relatedness.
In each of the three subject areas, the means for each of the three areas of SDT were significantly higher for the flipped class than for the traditional class, and those differences were all at the p = 0.01 level. Statistically, the p-value means that it is highly unlikely that the differences in scores were due to the sample of students and far more likely that they were actually due to the instructional methods.
The students in each subject area were given a pre-test to categorize them into low, medium, and highly performing groups based on their prior knowledge and skills entering the course. The low-performing cluster of students in each subject reported the greatest gains in all three areas of competence, autonomy, and relatedness, with the differences at the p = 0.01 level. While there were improvements in the medium- and high-performing students, those gains were more modest but still statistically significant.
Any time we read a research study, even (especially!) if the results support our own preferences, we must pause to think critically about potential issues with the study and its applications.
First, this study was done using middle- and high-school kids. Whether the results generalize to adult learners is a legitimate question. Older adult learners have specific angles on competence, autonomy, and relatedness that could be quite different from those of teenagers.
Second, the study uses a lot of self-reported data from questionnaires, which should always be taken with a grain of salt due to potential bias. Students in the experimental group might deliberately report higher levels of engagement to please the instructor, for example. Similarly, instructor observations could be biased toward flipped learning, especially if the instructors were flipped learning practitioners already and might subconsciously be invested in “proving flipped learning right.”
Finally, the results which show lower-performing students having the highest gains could simply be the result of a “ceiling effect.” Higher-performing students typically enter a class with greater levels of competence, autonomy, and relatedness — so their scores can’t climb as much.
Relevance: How do we put this to use?
Despite the potential issues with validity, this study has highly positive results that can be applied to our teaching in at least three practical ways:
- Talk with students about learning as a holistic process. Our conversations about “learning” with students often frame learning in terms of simplistic measures of content mastery. But we know it goes a lot deeper than that! We can instead talk about learning as something lifelong that involves the whole person. It is important for students to know that flipped learning can help them in the deeper areas of motivation and personal growth, and the students with the greatest need for help seem to gain the largest impact.
- Regularly gather data on student motivation — and use the results. The authors’ systematic measurements of student behaviors strike me as something that would be helpful for all of us to enhance our teaching. I can see giving the questionnaires on motivation on a regular basis (as if we were replicating this study), but instead using the data as feedback to improve our own teaching. That might produce incredibly valuable data to help us improve as teachers.
- Use the study to argue for flipped learning as a pathway to lifelong learning. Some of us are in positions where we are using flipped learning, but not all of our colleagues or administrators are convinced it’s a good idea. This study gives a chance to move the argument for flipped learning toward territory where colleagues and administrators all agree: the importance of lifelong learning. Everyone wants to promote lifelong learning, but not many people think carefully about what this term means. You can argue that lifelong learners are characterized by intrinsic motivation; to promote intrinsic motivation, we must provide for students’ needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness one class at a time and one day at a time. This study shows that flipped learning does this.
This study is yet another example of the terrific current research in the world of flipped learning, which provides a positive outlook on this approach to teaching and useful action points for making our teaching better.
- Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008). Self-determination theory: A macrotheory of human motivation, development, and health. Canadian psychology/Psychologie canadienne, 49(3), 182.
- Deci, E., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. Springer Science & Business Media.
- Abeysekera, L., & Dawson, P. (2015). Motivation and cognitive load in the flipped classroom: definition, rationale and a call for research. Higher Education Research & Development, 34(1), 1-14.