How I “Trad” Flipped Learning

I introduced “flipped learning”, or at least what I’ve been calling “flipped learning”, into my 6th form classes 4 years ago and feel I’ve had some success with it. I’ve tweaked it and refined it a little over the years and am fairly happy with how things are going.

I was a little disappointed therefore to read that a Randomised Control Trial of flipped learning has shown little except short term gains for some advantaged students and exacerbated the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Whilst there are clearly flaws in the experimental design* such as the nature of the selected institute, the limited subjects and the fact that just a three lesson series in the middle of a much longer course was chosen for the trial. It seems remiss to not even ensure videos were watched…

“almost 80 percent of Math and 73 percent of Economics students in the flipped classrooms watched at least some of a video.”

… “some” of the video! What the authors clearly mean is “clicked the link”. They go on to say…

“on average, students watched roughly two out of three of the videos.”

At this point, I’m astonished there were even short term gains for anyone.

Students only accessing two thirds of the taught material is a big, perhaps fatal flaw in the study, but that’s not even the biggest flaw.  That is reserved for the total lack of input from the instructors in the trial group.  Those in the flipped learning group were given minimal guidance. During the lesson following watching the video…

“the instructors were provided clear guidance to avoid lengthy lectures during this period, but to use the opportunity to clarify specific questions.”

…so unless students asked specific questions, the instructors were not to go over any of the taught content.  Then when students were answering questions…

“Instructors were given strict guidelines to not teach the material, but instead guide the students through the worksheet and answer any questions they might have” 

…again, so unless students specifically ask a question instructors were not to explicitly teach any material.  What if a student had not understood (or not watched!) the flipped content in the video. How can a student ask pertinent questions to build their schema if they don’t fully understand where this content fits into the wider schema?

I am not surprised this minimally guided “Flipped Learning” had little impact beyond short term gains for advantaged students. Like so many progressive teaching techniques and triangles of nonsense where students guide themselves or teach each other, this model of flipped learning lets down the disadvantaged students who most need the input of teachers the most.

Now it may be that this methodology is the definition of “Flipped Learning” and if it is, then what have been doing with my classes for the last four years is not “flipped learning”. It’s actually something else. Whilst I’m not much of a fan of semantic arguments I’m going to start one here.  I’m going to describe the methodology trialled in Setren et al. as “minimally guided flipped learning”. In the hands of a “trad” teacher, I believe “flipped learning” is something else, perhaps “directly instructed flipped learning”. Let me describe what that looks like and why I think it has benefits in my 6th form classroom.


I trialled flipped learning with my sixth form classes after becoming extremely frustrated with several aspects of my sixth form lessons. Firstly the pace of lessons was excruiatingly slow. Students would listen to my teaching and make notes. I would spend ages waiting for students to finish their notes, which weren’t really notes, more hand-written facscimilies of my lecture slides. I trialled emailling students my lecture slides which after a few lessons just made students more chatty and less engaged in the lesson.  With the notes in their email inboxes they simply postponed their learning to a later, unspecified time. The majority of teenagers, given the option will procrastinate if given the option – who knew? Not Setren et al., evidently.

The second frustation of my sixth form teaching regarded student’s independent practice. Students would take worksheets away with them to complete independently at home and bring them back for subsequent marking. Often students would stop at the first difficult question handing work in with an apologetic “I did as much as I could”. Sometimes I suspected they were telling the truth, other times I suspect they used the first sign of resistance to switch from Chemistry to X-Box. With some coaching and cajouling I got them to mostly complete the worksheets, though many of those tricky questions would be incorrect, but it was still clear they were often struggling at home on their own.

I thought flipped learing might be able to kill two birds with one stone, if I could get students to watch videos and make notes at home, then perhaps the contact time with me, their teacher could be better spent answering practice questions and being able to ask an expert questions. However, I was instinctively aware of some of the pitfalls of “minimally guided flipped learning” outlined above, so I tried to head them off.

I was very lucky that I didn’t need to make any videos at all for my flipped learning; James Donkin, aka MaChemGuy had already made an exhaustive set of didactic videos explaining every specification point for A-Level Chemistry. They’re not flashy, largely consisting of James explaining and drawing things on a whiteboard, but that’s what good teachers do in a classroom, so what more do we need? But I needed to make sure students were actually watching them. Did I trust students to watch them? Frankly, no.

So, for each flipped homework (generally a chapter or part chapter of the textbook), I write a google form for students to answer as they’re watching the video (example here). These consist of the embedded videos and some simple, straight forward questions which pretty much come up in the order in which James explains them in his videos. Some are multiple choice, some are longer responses. I’ve learned that the longer questions make a better discussion resource in class, and I’ve also learned that the questions need to be made compulsory in google forms so that students can’t opt out of answering some of them. The main purpose of these forms is to evidence that students are actually watching the material.

Things I love about the google form responses that are generated by my students:

  • I can see who is doing the work straight away when set, and who left it to 1AM the day before the deadline to watch the videos, as their submissions are date-time stamped. I can also see who hasn’t done the work at all, and once students realise I can see that, they all do the work, all of the time. No two-thirds for me.
  • I can quickly read through students responses before the lesson and see where the misconceptions lay within individual students or the class as a whole. This means that I can respond to this in my class teaching. 
  • I use students responses to extended questions as a teaching tool. I put up a selection of anonymous student responses on the board and ask students to read them all. “Can you find two mistakes?” “Can you find an answer which is right, but could be improved with more specific terminology?” “Which answer do you think is the one cut and paste from google?**” Great for generating discussion in class.

Importantly, I don’t see the flipped learning as the end of the teaching. I still use explicit direct instruction to teach much of the content again. I can focus my instruction on the important, tricky or misconcieved sections of the content. However, because students have already been through the content once their attention is entirely on me. They make few notes, and certainly don’t feel complelled to copy everything down from the board***. Students are much better at asking insightful questions which link together the content in their embryonic schema because this is the second time they have seen the content and don’t feel the urge to write down every word I say.

The time gained means we have much more time in class for application questions, recap quizzes and retrieval practice. When I started I aimed that students would no longer take worksheet of questions home but I’ve abandoned this ideal. Quite often I’ll ask students to do the first “easy” questions at home, we can return go through the answers then work together on the more tricky questions and go through the solutions at the end of the lesson****. When I say “work together” this is not group work, but students can bounce ideas of how to answer questions off each other and have me there for guidance, but they’re working through all the questions on their own.

My directly instructed flipped learning has meant that student classroom time in contact with the expert is further into schema building process. The time-rich but learning-light task of making notes is moved to homework.

The publication of the Setren et al. trial on has quite rightly seen this form of minimally guided flipped learning heavily criticised by Greg Ashman amongst others. Greg’s post has made me go back again and reflect on my own practice and I will take a close look at the disadvantaged students in my cohort over the next year. I sincerely hope that my classroom is not a centrifuge, spinning the able and advangtaged out into higher achievements whilst continuing to hold back the disadvantaged.  I’m not naive enough to suggest that even my directly instructed flipped learning would work in all contexts. I’m fully aware of the middle-class nature of my school and cohort. I’m aware that by using this methodology with 6th formers I have already selected for able and successful students. I’ve tentatively trialled flipped learning with younger learners at my school but abandoned it quickly for lack of compliance in certain groups of students which was clearly a disadvantage to them so I returned quickly to classroom Direct Instruction and have little ambition to try again.

I’m a dyed-in-the-wool traditional teacher, a proponent of direct instruction, and of just telling kids stuff, rather than finding out for themselves. I’m not going to defend the minimally guided flipped learning on trial in Setren et al. even for a second. But before we throw the baby out with the bath water can we consider that there might be benefits to the technique in certain contexts, especially if we sort out student compliance and are not stupid enough to believe that one video watched means we can abandon any classroom direct instruction.  However if someone shows that even directly instructed flipped learning widens the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged, then I’ll be the first to abandon the practice.




* there’s no such thing as a study without flaws.

** once they know you’re wise to this trick, they stop doing that.

*** I tell students that if they want exhaustive notes of the content of the course they should make them while watching the flipped videos, though point out that if they have the course textbook then they have a printed version of everything they need to know already.

**** which also means less marking for the teacher.


7 thoughts on “How I “Trad” Flipped Learning

  1. Tom Sherrington

    Thanks for this. Proper, sensible take on the whole thing. That West Point trial sounds like crap – lazy even. Already reached a government minister – really unhelpful. None of these methods exists in isolation and here they can’t even be bothered to use them properly.

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  5. Kay Harding

    I’ve just read this article and agree with your observations: flipped learning is not about leaving the learners to their own devices. I have also become frustrated by 6th form students wishing to copy word for word from the board, or trying to write down my explanations verbatim. Last year I insisted learners read the text book before coming to the lesson and that they made their own notes either from the text book of the slides which were provided ahead of the lesson. I still went through the slides to ensure that students had read the materials and to check their learning. It made a huge impact on the amount of time freed up for working on activities in class. I do not think this disadvantages students because they can read the textbook even if they don’t have access to technology. Also, they can use the resources at college (although clearly that becomes an issue during remote learning due to Covid 19). I love the idea of using the google form and will try that out with my class in September. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experience of flipped learning.

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