One of the reasons 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 we try to measure student learning, we focus on content mastery, for example measured by test scores. This is natural because tests and related measures are familiar and quantitative. But anyone who teaches also knows that real learning goes deeper than this, past quantifiable test scores and 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 the title of the paper 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 [1], which grew out of a larger theory of motivation, also posited by Deci and Ryan [2]. It was through this larger theory that we first got the concepts of extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation which might be familiar to many readers.

Extrinsic motivation for a task is motivation 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 in itself, is intrinsically motivated to study; a student who studies not because they care about chemistry but because they want to get a certain grade to keep their GPA up, is extrinsically motivated. It's 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 much 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 in to student motivations 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 their mastery of what they are learning is found within themselves and not dependent on the presence of another.
  • 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 toward being extrinsic, or perhaps an absence of any motivation at all. So if we want to build intrinsic motivation, we have to attend to these three areas of need with each student, every day.

In a landmark paper [3], Abeysekara and Dawson argue for using SDT as a framework for studying 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. And 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's where our study begins.

Methods

The study looked at whether flipped learning models enhanced 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, we're just going to focus on the third area related to SDT and the student experience in a flipped environment.

The study looked at students in a K12 environment in three different subjects: An 8th-grade technology course, a 10th-grade algebra course, and a 8th-grade humanities course. Each course had two classes, one a control group taught traditionally and the other 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, including problem- and project-based learning, think-pair-share, and brainstorming. 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, first contact with new material happened at home, through 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 each week to students; instructor observations were done at each class using a standardized rubric that assessed time spent by students 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 the differences in the means of those scores between control and experimental groups in each subject were analyzed.

Results

The results of this study were overwhelmingly 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, this means that if the "treatment" (a flipped learning design for the courses) actually had no effect despite all appearances, we would encounter this level of difference in just 1% of repeated studies due to sampling error. In other words, it is highly, highly unlikely that the differences in scores here were due to the sample of students we had and far more likely that they were actually due to the instructional methods.

Moreover, the students in each subject area were also given a pre-test to categorize them into low-, medium-, and high-performing groups based on their prior knowledge and skill coming into 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 at the p = 0.05 level.

Caveats

Any time we read a research study, even (especially!) if the results support our own preferences, we need to pause to think critically about potential issues with the study and its applications.

First, this study was done using K12 school kids. Whether the results generalize to adult learners is a legitimate question. Older adult learners have specific angles on competence, autonomy, and relatedness could be quite different from those of 8th graders.

Second, the study uses self-reported data from questionnaires, which should always be taken with a grain of salt due to potential biases. Students in the experimental group might deliberately report higher levels of engagement for example, to please the instructor. 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 showing lower-performing students having the highest gains could simply be the result of a "ceiling effect". Higher-performing students typically enter a class with higher levels of competence, autonomy, and relatedness, and so their scores can't climb as much.

How do we put this to use?

Despite the potential issues with validity, this is a study with highly positive results that can be put to use in our teaching in at least three practical ways:

  1. Talk with students about learning as a holistic process. Our conversations about "learning" with students often frame learning only 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's 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 be helped the most.
  2. 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 in improving our teaching. I can see giving the questionnaires on motivation on a regular basis, as if we were replicating the study but using the data as feedback to improve our own teaching. That might be produce incredibly valuable data to help us improve as teachers.
  3. Use the study to argue for flipped learning as a pathway to lifelong learning. Some of us are in positions where we're using flipped learning, but not all of our colleagues or higher-ups are convinced it's a good idea. In that case, this study gives a chance to move the argument for flipped learning onto ground that colleagues and administrators all agree upon: 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, and to promote intrinsic motivation, we have to provide for students' needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness one class at a time and one day at a time. And this study shows that flipped learning does this.

This study is yet another example of some of the great research that's currently going on in the world of flipped learning that provides a positive outlook on this approach to teaching and useful action points for making our teaching better.


This article first appeared, in a slightly different form, in the March 24, 2019 edition of Flipped Learning Today.

References

  1. 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.
  2. Deci, E., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. Springer Science & Business Media.
  3. 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.