Currently viewing the tag: "active learning"

In this video Mark Allenby, Senior Lecturer in Social Work, discusses how peer assessments have provided an opportunity for active learning with his first year BA in Social Work students and reflects on why he will be increasingly using peer assessments in his teaching at Waterside.

Mark introduced peer assessments as formative activities within his 17/18 module SWK1049 – Skills for Practice – using the NILE tool Self and Peer Assessments, in order to help scaffold his students’ learning for their forthcoming assessments.

VIDEO – Mark Allenby reflects on NILE Self and Peer Assessments

Working with Learning Technologist Richard Byles, he has been documenting his students’ feedback using the digital post-it tool, Padlet, and by recording video feedback with student Angell O’Callaghan.

The majority of feedback for the activity was very positive, with many wishing to practice further. Students also identified areas where the activity could be improved. Comments included:

“I would like to use this more often throughout my degree.”

“It was very useful and I liked the autonomy. It was helpful to read others’ work.”

“It was good to take other’s interview skills on board and use them myself, helping me better and develop my own interview skills.”

“Scoring as a Yes/No or a 1/2 doesn’t give a lot of scope.”

“The process (of submitting) was somewhat convoluted but this may be due to it being a new activity.”

Mark says that “peer-feedback is a tool that fits perfectly with the move to ABL, as students are collaboratively engaged in evaluating their own progress towards goals that they have chosen for themselves”. In conclusion, he advocates that staff try the tool for themselves in ‘low risk’ formative activities with students and explain to them the benefits of peer assessments.

For more information on using Self and Peer Assessments please read the FAQ – How do I set up a Self and Peer Assessment in NILE? or contact the Learn Technology team:

Active learning approaches are great for getting new perspectives, sharing ideas, co-creating knowledge and trying out new skills. Many of the recommended techniques for active learning in the classroom focus on encouraging participation and discussion; after all, the seminar model is a familiar one, and verbal contribution is a good way to gauge understanding and to generate a ‘buzz’ in the classroom. Right?

Right, but… (there’s always a ‘but’). As we at UoN continue to explore active pedagogies, and with an eye on inclusion and our upcoming Learning and Teaching Conference, I want to share some conversations I’ve had in the past few weeks that turn a critical eye on classroom discussion models and unpack them from an inclusion perspective.

What is ‘participation’ for, and what does it look like?

The first of these was a conversation with Lee-Ann Sequeira, Academic Developer in the Teaching and Learning Centre at LSE. It was inspired by her session at the recent Radical Pedagogies conference, and also by her thought-provoking blog post examining common perceptions of silent students in the classroom. I won’t repeat the content of that post here (though I definitely recommend reading it), but I wanted to pull out some points from the discussion that followed, which might be of interest if you’re experimenting with active learning approaches.

In some subjects, oral debate is a disciplinary norm, if not an employability requirement: those studying Law, Politics, Philosophy and so on can expect to spend considerable time developing these skills. In these and many other subjects though, debate or discussion is also used to support the learning process, and sometimes as a way to check whether students have prepared for the class. So when asking your students to contribute, it can be helpful to think about what you want to achieve, and how your learning goals should inform the format of that contribution. For example, when one of your goals is to help students develop the skills to effectively present their ideas to an audience, you might need to ensure that every student has an opportunity to do this, but when your goal is to explore and develop an idea from a range of perspectives, is it still necessary that every single student speaks? Aligning the structure of the activity to your goals or learning outcomes can help students understand what’s expected and focus their effort accordingly.

Quality not quantity
As Sequeira’s blog post observes, the literature on active learning focuses a lot on “how to draw [students] out of their shells” (Sequeira 2017). In addition to this, a quick Google search on “active learning” will reveal a myriad of magazine-style opinion pieces on the subject, many of which seem to be in danger of advocating verbal contribution almost for its own sake, and effectively conflating speaking with learning. How then to ensure that when using these approaches, our active classroom doesn’t become hostage to those who talk most, or echo chambers of students that feel they need to be seen to be ‘participating’?
One way to prevent this is by clearly establishing, and then building towards, high standards for individual contributions. When planning your session, think about what you’d like the end result to look like, and what contributions might be needed to get there – always bearing in mind of course that you are just one perspective, so you may not be able to define the ‘finished product’ of co-creation in advance! What you can do though, is think about what a good contribution might look like. Can you provide examples, or talk through this with your students? Then as the discussion unfolds, you can encourage students to think about their own and each others’ comments – do they build on previous comments, do they bring in new evidence, do they advance the understanding in the room?

Thinking fast and slow
Of course, participation is not just verbal – and not just immediate! Active learning should not mean ‘no time to think’. When considering your learning goals, think about fast and slow modes of interaction – is promptness important or does the topic need deliberation and reflection? Silence can be a powerful tool in the classroom if we can resist the urge to fill the space, and giving students time to think before answering can often lead to more developed responses, as well as being more inclusive for those who are less confident, more reflective and/or working in their second or third languages.
Also, as Sequeira points out, participation can be multi-modal – could your students contribute in other formats? And not just to classroom discussions, but also to decision-making processes (choice of topic etc), and to feedback and evaluation opportunities? Thinking about ‘contribution’ more broadly might help to make these processes more inclusive too.

Supporting contribution: ‘productive discomfort’ and ‘brave spaces’
One of the goals of dialogic pedagogies is ‘productive discomfort’ – taking students out of their comfort zone and asking them to examine or defend their views – and being transparent about your pedagogy can also help students to understand this and recognize it in practice. This can be particularly important when working with students who are used to a more transmissive model of education, and are expecting you as the expert to tell them the answers. If your early discussions focus on sharing expectations and you know where your students are coming from, you’ll be able to plan, scaffold and facilitate more effectively.

It can also help to acknowledge that collective exploration of ideas requires both intellectual and emotional labour, particularly as it can be intimidating to voice aloud ideas that are not fully formed. Much of the literature talks about creating ‘safe spaces’, but again this is an idea that merits a more critical inspection, particularly in the context of recent debates about free speech (‘safe’ for whom?). Another approach to this is the idea of ‘brave spaces’, replacing the comfort and lack of risk implicit in ‘safe’ spaces with an explicit acknowledgment of discomfort and challenge (Arao and Clemens 2013). Whichever approach you choose, creating trust will help to ensure students feel able to contribute, and there are a range of ways to do this, including discussion, modelling and constructive feedback. How you answer a ‘stupid’ question, whether or not you ‘cold call’ students, and how you respond to their input will all inform the norms of the learning space.

“The Socratic professor aims for “productive discomfort,” not panic and intimidation. The aim is not to strike fear in the hearts of students so that they come prepared to class; but to strike fear in the hearts of students that they either cannot articulate clearly the values that guide their lives, or that their values and beliefs do not withstand scrutiny.” (Speaking of Teaching, 2003)

Communication is a two way street

These ideas, and Sequeira’s observation about valuing active listening skills, led me on to the second conversation I want to share. Last week I attended a dissemination event for the ‘Learning Through Listening‘ project, led by Zoe Robinson and Christa Appleton at Keele. The project is looking at using global sustainability issues as an accessible context for developing conversations between individuals from different disciplines. This by itself is a laudable goal, as many of the ‘wicked problems’ of sustainable development will certainly need a interdisciplinary approach if we are ever to solve them. More broadly than that though, the project is also looking at developing active listening skills to support these conversations, and at listening as an area that is undervalued in education and in modern life. The event raised a few key questions for me, which I’ve noted below.

Active listening: the missing piece?
When we talk about communication skills with students, what do we prioritise? I work with many staff writing learning outcomes for our taught modules at Northampton, and much of the language we use for communication skills is proactive and performative: describe, explain, present, propose, justify, argue. Perhaps this is inevitable, as we need to make the learning visible in order to assess it, but there’s no doubt that these terms only give half of the picture of what communication actually is. By focusing so much on the telling, on the transmission of information and convincing of other people, are we giving students the impression that listening is less important? Are we encouraging the development of what Robinson described as the “combative mindset” so prevalent in 2018, and thereby inadvertently discouraging the development of curiosity, openness and willingness to learn from others – peers as well as tutors?

To rebalance the discourse around communication, the project at Keele used a number of activities to support the development of listening skills. One idea that really appealed to me was topping and tailing a series of guest speaker sessions – referred to as ‘Grand Challenges‘ – with a workshop before the lecture and a discussion session immediately afterwards. This allowed the students to think about what they already knew about the topic, and prepare to get the most of out of the session, and crucially also to follow up afterwards by sharing and developing some of the ideas it generated. Other interventions were slightly smaller scale, although perhaps easier to implement at a session or module level. Participants at the event last week got to try out some of these, and although I won’t cover them in detail here, the tasters below might give you some ideas for your classroom.

Learning to listen
One activity asked us to think about major influences that had shaped the way we as individuals see the world. We reflected individually on this, then shared what we felt comfortable with. I’ve never been asked to list these explicitly before, and it was interesting to actually see how everyone’s perspective is unique and created from a distinct combination of personal influences. We also talked about the factors that make it difficult for us to listen, covering everything from environment to agency to cognitive load. It was refreshing to realise that sometimes, everyone is bad at listening – and this was demonstrated when one of the session leads read aloud, probably only about a paragraph, and then pointed out that most of us would miss around half of any message we hear! I won’t spoil the final activity, in case you’re planning to go to one of the events, but also because the team at Keele will be releasing guidance on these as outputs from the project this summer. But needless to say it was fascinating – keep an eye on the website and the project blog for more.

Two more things struck me about the day overall. One was the emphasis on setup of the physical space. We spent part of the day seated in a circle, and part in rows facing a screen. This was a deliberate strategy by the project team and the contrast in terms of conversational dynamic was marked. This reinforced my view that we have the right approach with the classrooms at Waterside – it’s really remarkable what a difference movable furniture can make. The other thing I found interesting is that talking about listening made me (and the other participants too) suddenly very conscious of it. Even after the first activity, I found myself monitoring my communication with the other participants. Maybe it only needs one activity or discussion to highlight the issue, to begin to change how participants communicate?

Scaffolding discussion

The final point I want to make is something that was touched on in both of these conversations, and it’s about effective scaffolding. Both classroom and online discussion is usually more productive once the students have ‘warmed up’, got to know each other or developed a bit of confidence. There are lots of ways to approach this. In the event at Keele, for example, we started with a relatively uncontroversial topic – not many people in a university context will disagree that the UN sustainable development goals are a good thing, although they might disagree about how to address them. This can be a good way to introduce dialogic pedagogies, before working towards more heated or controversial topics (see this guidance from the University of Queensland on using controversy in the classroom). At Keele we also started with group discussion before we moved on to the one-to-one. This might be counter to the usual think-pair-share approach to scaffolding, but it did mean we had all spoken, and had some idea of where others in the room were coming from, before moving into more in-depth discussion. There’s also something to be said for reflecting on your question technique – are the questions you ask opening up or shutting down discussion?

These two conversations have given me lots to think about in terms of how we ‘do’ active learning. If you have any thoughts on this from your own experience, as always I’d love to hear them, so please add them as a comment. One last question to end with, thinking back to your last teaching session. Who in the room didn’t contribute, and why might that be?


Arao, B and Clemens, K. (2013) “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces: A New Way to Frame Dialogue Around Diversity and Social Justice”. In Landreman, L.M. (ed.) The Art of Effective Facilitation: Reflections from Social Justice Educators. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing LLC, pp135-150.

Robinson, Z. and Appleton, C. (2018) Unmaking Single Perspectives (USP): A Listening Project [online]. Available from: [Accessed 27 March 2018]

Sequeira, L. (2018) Heresy of the week 2: silence in the classroom is not necessarily a problem. The Education Blog [online]. Available from: [Accessed 27 March 2018]

Over the past couple of years, lots of different people have asked me about our curriculum change project here at UoN. From teaching staff and students here at the University, to Northampton locals and parents, and even learning and teaching experts at other universities, there is increasing curiosity around the idea of a university without lectures. The lecture theatre has long been an iconic symbol of higher education, heavily featured in popular culture as well as many university recruitment campaigns. So how to explain why we think that we can do better?

Here are some of the reasons why I think that active blended learning (or “you know, just teaching” as I often hear it described), is the way of the future* for student success. What are yours?

Isn't it time to challenge the traditional image of teaching in higher education?

  • It’s effective for learning. Pedagogic research tells us that it is important for students to be actively involved in their learning – that is, to have opportunities to find, contextualise and test information, and link it to (or explore how it differs from) their prior understanding. Students who construct their own knowledge develop a deeper understanding than students who are just given lots of information, memorise it for the assessment and then promptly forget it. Who was it that said “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn”? There is debate about the source of the quote, but there’s a reason it has endured…
  • It can be more inclusive.  Writers and educators like Annie Murphy Paul and Cathy Davidson are among many who question whether lecturing as a teaching approach benefits some students more than others – or indeed whether the students who succeed most in lecture-intensive programmes are doing so in spite of (rather than because of) the teaching approach. Now, active blended learning is not an easy fix for this challenge, and if not carefully designed it can also create environments that can disadvantage some learners (noisy classrooms can be difficult for students with language or specific learning difficulties, for example, and online environments can be challenging in terms of digital literacy). But with forethought and planning, ABL can help to ensure that all students have a voice and a role in the learning environment.
  • Student brainwaves doing different activities

    It’s more engaging / interesting / fun! When Eric Mazur used Picard et al.‘s electrodermal study to point out that student brainwaves (which were active during labs and homework) ‘flatlined’ in lectures, he may have been at the extreme end of the argument. But from the student perspective, anyone who has been a student in a long lecture (or who has observed rows of students absorbed in their laptops or phones) knows how easy it is to switch off in a large lecture environment. And from the tutor perspective, anyone who has been tasked with giving the same lecture multiple times knows that interaction and contribution from the students is vital to breaking it up. Smaller, more discursive classrooms allow for variety; for more and different voices and ideas to be shared.

  • It scaffolds independence. Our students are only with us for a short time. If we teach them to depend on an expert to tell them the answers, what will they do when they don’t have access to those experts any more? The Framework for Higher Education Qualifications says that graduates should, among other things, be able to “solve problems”, to “manage their own learning”, and to make decisions “in complex and unpredictable contexts”. Our graduate attributes say that our students should be able to communicate, collaborate, network and lead. We don’t learn to do these things just by listening to someone else tell us how.
  • It recognises how learning works in the real world. Think about the last time you really tried to learn something new. How did you go about it? You may have been lucky enough to have access to experts in that area, but chances are – even if that’s true – you also looked it up, asked some people, maybe tried a few things out. Probably you synthesised or ‘blended’ information from more than one source before you felt like you’d really ‘got it’. To be a lifelong learner, we need to be able to find and assess information in lots of different ways. This is exactly what our ABL approach is trying to teach.

Our classrooms at Waterside may look different to the iconic imagery commonly used to depict the university experience. But maybe it’s about time…


*Looking back on the development of university teaching, there is some debate around how we got to where we are: around what is ‘traditional‘ and what is ‘innovative’ in teaching; and also on whether the ubiquity of the lecture is a result of the economics of massification rather than the translation of pedagogic research into practice. Although it is always good to keep an eye on how practice has developed, I see no need to replicate these debates here – instead, this post is deliberately intended to be future focused, on how best to move forward from this point.

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This video from Dr Rachel Maunder, Associate Professor in Psychology, provides some examples of active, blended learning approaches that Rachel has tried in her modules so far. Rachel shares two different models, one which focuses on linking classroom activity to independent study tasks online, and one which includes some teaching in the online environment in addition to face to face sessions. Rachel also shares useful lessons she has learned from her experiences so far.

If you have questions about either of these approaches, Rachel is happy to take these via email.


This post is one in a series of ABL Practitioner Stories, published in the countdown to Waterside. If you’d like us to feature your work, get in touch:

The practice of teaching a class using PowerPoint is common at the University, with seating, video projectors and PCs in every teaching room all arranged to contribute to its adoption as the standard teaching method.

As a way of displaying information to a group, PowerPoint is effective, and whilst there are lots of other pieces of software (such as Prezi) that could lay claim to creating more vibrant and exciting presentations, few match PowerPoint’s effectiveness for its flexibility, ease of use, and the widespread digital literacy that comes with using such a popular Microsoft product.

It may sound like I’m rather fond of it, and yes I think it’s a good piece of software, especially as it’s fit for purpose, and almost certainly that there’s no better software for giving widespread presentations by a large group of staff.

So what’s the point of this blog post you may wonder?

Well, aside from the obvious technological differences, a lecturer standing at the front of a classroom talking over a set of PowerPoint slides is very much a reproduction of traditional teaching (otherwise known as didactic, direct instruction, or teacher centred learning).

That is, it’s a reproduction of how (most) lecturers taught 100-500 years ago when it was (and possibly still is) believed that students learned best by memorising the content that the lecturer taught and then reproduced that knowledge in an essay. Whilst it’s obvious that the educational landscape has changed radically, traditional teaching as a method has seen very little revision.

So before I jump into how active learning is different, let’s take a few moments to consider the benefits of traditional teaching with PowerPoint and the reasons it’s been so widely adopted.

  • It is (comparatively) easy to create teaching materials
  • It is easy to replicate lessons between groups
  • Materials can be easily shared online and between tutors
  • Many lecturers will have grown up with traditional teaching methods (and have been successful academically)
  • Lecturers are often specialists in their fields rather than trained as teachers and therefore unaware of other teaching methods.
  • There is often little communication between staff on teaching methods
  • Staff have tended to stay in post for long periods (because we love the job)
  • Classrooms with video projectors, smartboards and seating arrangements perpetuate the practice of teacher-centred learning
  • Lecturers are busy and do not always have as much time as they would like to think about how they might develop their teaching
  • PowerPoints are useful in consolidating your understanding of a subject

Clearly, it’s not all a bed of roses. We all know that creating quality PowerPoint presentations can take time, skill and a great deal of thought to get right.

In order to keep PowerPoint presentations up to date we have to:

  • Learn new software / keeping up to date
  • Research the subject, write and design slides
  • Learn how to upload for students via Blackboard
  • Load to PCs in class
  • Constantly revise content

With such an investment in time and effort and understanding the problems of teaching at this level, perhaps it’s little surprise that many lecturers are wedded to their traditional teaching materials (who wants to lose their babies?)

But what if I could offer you a better deal … less work with better student results? More motivated and engaged students, a more vibrant and exciting learning environment?

Yes that’s exactly what’s on the table,

An alternative to traditional teaching is active learning (also known as student centred learning) This is learning centred around activities rather than a lecturer presenting content and students listening.

An activity could be any number of things: a presentation; a debate; a picture; video; poster; notes on a discussion board. And students could work in groups or individually.

The main emphasis here is that the student learns by participating in an activity: they may research, discuss, and consolidate their understanding into an output. One key difference in this teaching method is that lecturers act more like a facilitator than a ‘sage on a stage’.

I think it’s important to note at this point that PowerPoint itself is neither a traditional or active teaching tool, it is the means of how we (mostly) deliver traditional teaching, however it is also often adopted by students for active learning.

What does that mean and how will it look?

Well let’s replace that hour long PowerPoint presentation (that takes three hours to produce) with something like the following:

1. a few introduction slides that introduce the topic
2. an activity for the students to engage in, (perhaps some online research, and a discussion)
3. verbal feedback
4. a few slides at the end to wrap-up the activity
5. an ongoing task, for students to consolidate their learning on their personal blogs

It needs fleshing out a bit but I hope you’re getting the idea.  It’s placing the focus on the participant rather than on you and allowing the students to do all the hard work.

The funny thing is that active learning is precisely the process that you go through when preparing a new PowerPoint (the process of research, writing, and reflection are all in there). We know it works as we do it all the time ourselves. The irony is that as lecturers we are getting a better learning experience than the students are.

You may be wondering what to do with all the PowerPoint files you’ve already made, and the answer is to keep them as your reference material. Not only can you dip in and out of them from time to time, stripping out slides as needs be, and share parts of them with students both in class and online, but they’re also a consolidation and document of your own ‘active learning’ journey, you can be confident that your time hasn’t been wasted.

Before I sign off, here are a few FAQs

How do you know my teaching methods aren’t effective?

I don’t, only you, the students, maybe an observer in your room, and feedback can tell you (honestly) if your teaching is effective. But generally speaking lecturers using ‘traditional teaching’ methods complain of ‘looking out on blank faces’, ‘students that are unengaged’, and a lack of understanding within assessments. This is an widespread observation and certainly not a criticism of your ability to teach.

Some of my students do very well at ‘traditional teaching’ why should we cater for unmotivated students?

It would be wrong to say that traditional teaching is not effective, for motivated students (especially those with a good memory) it can be very effective. But research shows that active learning provides better results for all students, especially those who are not traditionally academic. Rather than cater for the minority of motivated students, active learning offers a solution that’s more inclusive.

Is this new method of teaching tried and tested?

Yes, many teachers already adopt this style of teaching, especially those who have taught in language schools and HE, it just happens that it is yet to be widely adopted as the preferred method of teaching at this level.

Why should I learn a new way to teach? 

It’s almost certain that your teaching is constantly evolving, every new piece of content, module you teach and method of delivery involves new skills learned, whilst changing to active learning may seem a giant leap in teaching style, the reality is that the process will involve lots of small steps, much in the same way as any other changes you have made. As educators we don’t stop learning, it’s just that by ‘doing it’ we don’t often notice.

What happens if I don’t have the time to do this?

We all know that time is precious, especially mid term when you are in the thick of teaching. However Rome wasn’t built in a day, and if you’ve read it this far then I’d strongly advise you to reach out for a helping hand from the Institute of Teaching and Learning (ILT) and from our friendly team of Learning Designers. ILT are very keen to promote improved learning techniques through their PGCAP programme and their C@N-DO workshops and they have the pedagogic knowledge to set you off on the right course.  Another good source of help is to arrange a face to face, 1:1 session with one of the Learning Designers and see what happens – you will almost certainly find they’re full of good ideas and are there to help (email:

If I already to this do I need to do anything?

There’s a good chance I’m preaching to the converted, but it’s still worth discussing this with a Learning Designer to promote good practice. If you’re doing this already then great, they’ll help you identify best practice and may want to use your teaching methods as a case study so you can help others discover the benefits of active learning.

Hopefully I’ve whet your appetite and you want to know more.

I hope you’ve found this blog post interesting, if so you may like to read the following posts:

Designing e-tivities – some lessons learnt by trial and error.

CAIeRO & Waterside.

What is the flipped classroom?

Will flipping my class improve student learning?

In the next post I’ll be reviewing a number of digital learning tools you can use in the classroom for active learning, the pros and cons of each and looking at a few examples of how lecturers are currently using these in the classroom.

Richard Byles
Learning Technologist.

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Most university lecturers will have their favourite anti-lecturing quote. Mine has always been Camus’ oft-quoted “Some people talk in their sleep. Lecturers talk while other people sleep”. Another favourite is the variously attributed definition “Lecture: a process by which the notes of the professor become the notes of the student, without passing through the minds of either.”

In fairness to university lecturers, none of the lecturers I know deliver these kind of dreary monologues. Also, if a lecturer is timetabled into a room with a lectern, projector and screen, and tiered seating containing 250 students then surely we cannot chastise them for using that room for the purpose it was designed and intended for. Obviously such space can be subverted and used differently (as professors such as Eric Mazur and Simon Lancaster have done), but surely the best solution is simply not to build these kinds of spaces in the first place. If active, participatory learning in small groups is what is best (and the evidence suggests that it is) then why not build spaces that accommodate this kind of learning and teaching.

At the University of Northampton that’s exactly what is happening. As was recently reported in the Sunday Times, the University of Northampton’s Waterside campus “is to be built with no traditional lecture theatres, providing further evidence that the days of professors imparting knowledge to hundreds of students at once may be numbered.” The new campus ”is the first in the UK to be designed without large auditoriums.”

While it is true that the majority of teaching that takes place at the Waterside campus is planned to be active, interactive and participatory, and to take place in small classes, there will obviously need to be some element of professors imparting knowledge to their students. This is, after all, for most people a key part of the process of teaching and learning. However, the plan for Waterside is for such ‘professorial knowledge imparting’ to take place online, prior to attending class; a process often known as flipped or blended learning. This means that time is not taken up in the small class sessions with getting knowledge across to the students, or with ‘covering content’, but on helping students to understand, assimilate and make sense of the knowledge they have grappled with prior to attending class.

Professor Nick Petford, Vice Chancellor of the University of Northampton, is not only building a campus in which active, participatory, small class teaching will be the norm, but as a member of the teaching staff he is already teaching in this way himself. Professor Petford adopted this blended learning approach in his physical volcanology classes during the 2015/16 academic year, and you can see him talking about how it went in this video.

Blended Learning and Physical Volcanology

This is a fairly long blog post, so in case you don’t have time to read it all, the key message is this:

Flipping the classroom is likely to lead to improvements in student performance and reduced failure rates when it is used as part of an overall strategy to create a more active learning environment. These gains are likely to have the greatest impact in classes with less than fifty students.

John Dewey

"Education is not an affair of 'telling' and being told, but an active and constructive process." John Dewey, Democracy and Education, 1916

One important question arising from our earlier blog posts, ‘What is the flipped classroom?’ and, ‘Designing a flipped module in NILE’, is whether or not flipping your class will improve student learning. Clearly there must be some evidence to support a flipped approach to teaching and learning, otherwise we wouldn’t be suggesting it, but what is that evidence, and where is it?

At the risk of appearing to concede defeat before we’ve even begun, I would like to start by looking at a recent paper which argues that flipping the classroom does not guarantee any gains in student achievement.


Flipping the classroom is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition to generate improvements in learning

‘Improvements from a Flipped Classroom May Simply Be the Fruits of Active Learning’ is a very interesting paper by Jensen, et al (2015), and it is clear from the title what their findings are. They begin the paper by stating one of the main problems behind many of the claims that the flipped classroom improves student learning, which is that there are normally too many variables that have changed between the flipped and the non-flipped classroom to isolate flipping as the key variable. They note that flipping the classroom usually leads to more active learning taking place (indeed, this is often the reason that teachers want to flip the classroom in the first place), and they investigated the extent to which the increase in the amount of active learning, not flipping, is the key variable.

Jensen, et al. (2015)

Study design by Jensen, et al (2015)

Jensen, et al (2015) took a class of 108 students and divided them into two groups, one of 53 and one of 55. One group had a flipped experience, the other a non-flipped experience – however, both sessions were very active. The diagram on the left indicates how the sessions worked. The flipped and non-flipped classes were compared with each other, and also with the previous year’s class of 94 students, referred to as the original class. While the content and the underlying structure of the teaching remained consistent, a great deal of time and effort was put into creating additional materials for the flipped and non-flipped classes, which is evident from reading the paper.

As will be clear from the title of the paper, the flipped classroom did not produce statistically significant learning gains or improvements in attitudes to learning over the non-flipped classroom, and neither the flipped nor the non-flipped classroom significantly outperformed the original class. The one area in which the flipped classroom did produce a statistically significant improvement was in final examination scores of low level items (e.g., remember and understand type questions) over the original class.

Regarding these results I think that it is important to make at least two observations. Firstly, it should be borne in mind that the students in the study were high ability, highly motivated students attending a private university at which the average ACT score of students is 28 and average GPA is 3.82. For context, an ACT score of 28 would put a student in the top 10% and a GPA of 3.82 would be between an A- and an A. Whilst not necessarily Oxbridge students, they are solid Russell Group students, the kind of students who “virtually teach themselves; they do not need much help from us” (Biggs and Tang, 2011, p.5). Secondly, the original class appears to have been be a fairly active class already, certainly if judged by the standards set in the definition by Freeman, et al (2014) which we will look at later.

The study by Jensen, et al., did come up with other interesting findings though. One finding (2015, p.8 and p.10) which reinforces the importance of time spent with lecturers was that,

Students “perceived their time with the instructor as more influential for learning, regardless of whether they were participating in” the flipped class or in the non-flipped class … “the presence of the instructor and/or peer interaction had a greater influence on students’ perceptions of learning than the activities themselves.”

Additionally, Jensen, et al., were not dismissive of the potentials and advantages of the flipped classroom, noting (2015, p.10) that,

“If active learning is not currently being used or is being used very rarely, the flipped classroom may be a viable way to facilitate the use of such approaches, if the costs of implementation are not too great. As the research indicates, using active learning in the flipped approach can increase student learning as well as student satisfaction over traditional, non-active learning approaches.”

The claim made by Jensen, et al., that active learning is the key variable is certainly very credible, and, as we shall see, it is increasingly apparent in recent publications that flipping the classroom is a very popular way of creating a more active learning environment.


Flipping the classroom is a good way of making classrooms more active

‘The Flipped Classroom of Operations Management: A Not-For-Cost-Reduction Platform’ is a 2015 paper by Asef-Vaziri, and it provides an excellent introduction to the flipped classroom. Additionally, the literature review in the paper gives a good overview of some recent publications on the subject. A wide variety of active learning ideas are discussed in the paper (pp.74-80) and they give a good insight into the practical workings of Asef-Vaziri’s flipped classroom. Right from the outset Asef-Vaziri (2015, p.72) makes it clear that the benefits of using the flipped classroom are because it allows more class time to be spent engaged in active learning:

“Class time is no longer spent teaching basic concepts, but rather on more value-added activities, such as problem solving, answering questions, systems thinking, and potentially on collaborative exercises such as case studies, Web based simulation games, and real-world applications”

Asef-Vaziri’s classes were fully flipped in the autumn of 2012 (141 students) and 2013 (157 students), and the average grades were compared to those of the classes in the spring and autumn of 2011 (both with 160 students) which not flipped. The results were as follows:

Autumn 2012
flipped classroom
Autumn 2013
flipped classroom
Average grade increase over
spring 2011 traditionally taught class
+7.4% +7.3%
Average grade increase over
autumn 2011 traditionally taught class
+11.8% +11.6%

The improvements in Asef-Vaziri’s students’ grades are undoubtedly impressive, and these high gains are likely to result from the significant amount of time and effort that Asef-Vaziri put into re-designing the course.

What came across very clearly in Asef-Vaziri’s paper is the idea that the flipped classroom offers ‘the best of both worlds’, creating increased opportunity to engage in active learning in ways that are difficult for the traditional classroom (due to lack of time) and difficult for online classes (due to lack of face-to-face interactions).

A cursory glance at a number of other recent publications about the flipped classroom makes it clear that a key motivation for using it has been in order to create more active learning opportunities. For example, in their paper, ‘Moving from Flipcharts to the Flipped Classroom: Using Technology Driven Teaching Methods to Promote Active Learning in Foundation and Advanced Masters Social Work Courses’, Holmes, et al (2015) state that the desire to engage in more active learning was the primary driver behind introducing the flipped classroom.

A number of other papers bear out the notion that flipping the classroom is a popular way of adopting a more active approach to teaching and learning, including: Gilboy, et al (2014); Hung (2015); Love, et al (2013); Roach (2104); See and Conry (2014); Simpson and Richards (2015); and Tune, et al (2013). All of these papers make the connection between the flipped classroom and increasingly active approaches to teaching and learning.

Hopefully the above discussion goes some way to making the case that the flipped classroom is a good (or, at least, a popular) way of creating a more active classroom. We will now look at some more evidence in support of the idea that adopting an active approach to teaching and learning is likely to improve student performance.


Active learning increases student performance

Active learning is certainly not a new idea. John Dewey (1902, p.6) knew that learning is an active process, and referred to it as such since the beginning of the last century. Some years later, 112 to be exact, Freeman, et al (2014) published an important meta-analysis of STEM education in which 158 active learning classes were compared with 67 traditionally taught classes. Aleszu Bajak, writing in the daily news site of the journal ‘Science’, summarised the paper as follows: ‘Lectures Aren’t Just Boring, They’re Ineffective, Too, Study Finds’. And Eric Mazur, cited in Bajak (2014), said

“This is a really important article—the impression I get is that it’s almost unethical to be lecturing if you have this data.”

The results of the paper “indicate that average examination scores improved by about 6% in active learning sections, and that students in classes with traditional lecturing were 1.5 times more likely to fail than were students in classes with active learning.” (Freeman, et al, 2014, p.8410) To get a sense of the significance of the results, the authors note (p.8413) that had it been a medical randomised control trial it may have been stopped early because of the clear benefit of the intervention being tested; in this case, the active learning. The authors also note that because the retention of students on active learning courses is higher, and because it is lower ability learners who typically drop-out, the positive effects of active learning could actually be greater than reported because the active learning classes were holding on to a higher proportion of their lower ability learners than the traditional classes. And, good news for Waterside, active learning was shown to have “the highest impact on courses with 50 or fewer students.” (p.8411)

One issue which may be useful is to define what is meant by active learning. For the purposes of their study, Freeman, et al (2014, p.8413-4) adopted the following definition:

“Active learning engages students in the process of learning through activities and/or discussion in class, as opposed to passively listening to an expert. It emphasises higher-order thinking and often involves group work.”

Freeman, et al (2014, p.8410) state that for the purposes of their study the “active learning interventions varied widely in intensity and implementation, and included approaches as diverse as occasional group problem-solving, worksheets or tutorials completed during class, use of personal response systems [clickers] with or without peer instruction, and studio or workshop course designs.”

Other studies about the effectiveness of adopting a more active approach to teaching and learning in STEM subjects include Hake’s 1998 paper ‘Interactive-engagement vs traditional methods: A six-thousand student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses.’ The paper concludes that:

“Comparison of IE [interactive engagement] and traditional courses implies that IE methods enhance problem-solving ability. The conceptual and problem-solving test results strongly suggest that the use of IE strategies can increase mechanics-course effectiveness well beyond that obtained with traditional methods.”

Also of interest is ‘Peer Instruction: Ten years of experience and results’ in which Crouch and Mazur (2001) discuss the positive effects of replacing a more traditional approach to physics teaching with Mazur’s method of peer instruction, an approach to teaching and learning developed in the 1990s which inspired the flipped classroom movement.

Whilst a good deal of the most rigorous and credible quantitative studies into active learning have been carried out in STEM subjects, Hung (2015) makes the point in the paper ‘Flipping the classroom for English language learners to foster active learning’, that,

“it is evident that although the flipped classroom approach has mainly been conducted in STEM fields, its feasibility across disciplines (in this case, language education) should not be underestimated.”



It’s important to make clear that this has not been an extensive, rigorous and systematic study of every recent publication on the flipped classroom, so any conclusions drawn must take that into account. Nevertheless, and with this in mind, I think that we can still draw a few conclusions with certainty, and a few more with slightly less certainty.

We can be very confident that:

  • Active learning produces statistically significant improvements in student achievement in science, engineering and mathematics.
  • Active learning in classrooms of under 50 students produces the largest gains.
  • Even a small amount of active learning will produce positive gains in student achievement.

We can be reasonably confident that:

  • The positive effects of active learning seen in science, engineering and mathematics will be applicable to other subject areas.
  • Lecturers in a variety of subject areas have successfully flipped their classrooms.
  • The gains in students’ learning achieved by the flipped classroom are more likely to be a result of increasing the amount of active learning taking place online and/or in the classroom.
  • Flipping the classroom is a good way of creating a more active learning environment.

It may be the case that:

  • The gains in student achievement produced by flipping the classroom will have a greater effect in non-Russell Group universities.
  • Flipping the classroom will have a greater effect when focused at the level of knowledge, understanding and application rather than analysis, synthesis and evaluation.

From the papers looked at, it is not clear:

  • Whether there are significant differences in the effectiveness of different types of flipped/active learning opportunities.
  • Whether there is an optimal level of student activity online and in the classroom (i.e., is more always better?)
  • Whether students from all cultural backgrounds experience similar improvements in performance from the flipped/active classroom.
  • Whether students whose first language is not the language in which the course is taught experience additional benefits or disbenefits from flipped/active classroom.

Readers wanting to look at the literature themselves and draw their own conclusions are directed to the further reading section at the end of this blog post, which provides links to many recent papers on the flipped classroom from a diverse range of subject areas.



Asef-Vaziri, A. (2015) The Flipped Classroom of Operations: A Not-For-Cost-Reduction Platform. Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education. 13(1), pp.71-89.

Bajak, A. (2014) ‘Lectures Aren’t Just Boring, They’re Ineffective, Too, Study Finds’ Science News. 12th May.

Biggs, J. and Tang, C. (2011) Teaching for Quality Learning at University, 4th Edition. Berkshire: Open University Press.

Dewey, J. (1902) The Child and the Curriculum. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p.9.

Crouch, C. and Mazur, E. (2001) Peer Instruction: Ten years of experience and results. American Journal of Physics. 69(9), pp.970-977.

Freeman, S., Eddy, S., McDonough, M., Smith, M., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H. and Wenderoth, M. (2014) Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering and mathematics. PNAS. 111(23), pp.8410-8415.

Gilboy, M., Heinerichs, S. and Pazzaglia, G. (2015) Enhancing Student Engagement Using the Flipped Classroom. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. 47(1), pp.109-114.

Hake, R. (1998) Interactive-engagement versus traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses. American Journal of Physics. 66(1), pp.64-74.

Holmes, M., Tracey, E., Painter, L., Oestreich, T. and Park, H. (2015) Moving from Flipcharts to the Flipped Classroom: Using Technology Driven Teaching Methods to Promote Active Learning in Foundation and Advanced Masters Social Work Courses. Clinical Social Work Journal.43(2), pp.215-224.

Hung, H-T. (2015) Flipping the classroom for English language learners to foster active learning. Computer Assisted Language Learning. 28(1), pp.81-96.

Jensen, J., Kummer, T.. and Godoy, P. (2015) Improvements from a Flipped Classroom May Simply Be the Fruits of Active Learning. CBE – Life Sciences Education. 14(1), pp.1-12.

Love, B., Hodge, A., Grandgenett, N. and Swift, A. (2014) Student learning and perceptions in a flipped linear algebra course. International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology. 45(3), pp.317-324.

Roach, T (2014) Student perceptions toward flipped learning: New methods to increase interaction and active learning in economics. International Review of Economics Education. 17, pp.74-84.

See, S. and Conry, J. (2014) Flip My Class! A faculty development demonstration of a flipped-classroom. Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning. 6(4), pp.585-588.

Simpson, V. and Richards, E. (2015) Flipping the classroom to teach population health: Increasing the relevance. Nurse Education in Practice.15(3), pp.162-167.

Tune, J., Sturek, M. and Basile, D. (2013) Flipped classroom model improves graduate student performance in cardiovascular, respiratory, and renal physiology. Advances in Physiology Education. 37(4), pp.316-320.


Further reading about the flipped classroom

Asef-Vaziri, A. (2015) The Flipped Classroom of Operations: A Not-For-Cost-Reduction Platform. Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education. 13(1), pp.71-89.

Bristol, T. (2014) Flipping the Classroom. Teaching and Learning in Nursing. 9(1), pp.43-46.

Brunsell, E. and Horejsi, M. (2013) A Flipped Classroom in Action. The Science Teacher. 80(2), p.8.

Chen, Y., Wang. Y., Kinshuk, and Chen, N-S. (2014) Is FLIP enough? Or should we use the FLIPPED model instead? Computers & Education. 79, pp.16-27.

Enfield, J. (2013) Looking at the Impact of the Flipped Classroom Model of Instruction on Undergraduate Multimedia Students at CSUN. TechTrends. 57(6), pp.14-27.

Forsey, M., Low, M. and Glance, D. (2013) Flipping the sociology classroom: Towards a practice of online pedagogy. Journal of Sociology. 49(4), pp.471-485.

Gilboy, M., Heinerichs, S. and Pazzaglia, G. (2015) Enhancing Student Engagement Using the Flipped Classroom. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. 47(1), pp.109-114.

Herreid, C. amd Schiller, N. (2013) Case Studies and the Flipped Classroom. Journal of College Science Teaching. 42(5), pp.62-66

Holmes, M., Tracey, E., Painter, L., Oestreich, T. and Park, H. (2015) Moving from Flipcharts to the Flipped Classroom: Using Technology Driven Teaching Methods to Promote Active Learning in Foundation and Advanced Masters Social Work Courses. Clinical Social Work Journal. 43(2), pp.215-224.

Hung, H-T. (2015) Flipping the classroom for English language learners to foster active learning. Computer Assisted Language Learning. 28(1), pp.81-96.

Jacot, M., Noren, J. and Berge, Z. (2014) The Flipped Classroom in Training and Development: Fad or the Future? Performance Improvement. 53(9), pp.23-28.

Jensen, J., Kummer, T.. and Godoy, P. (2015) Improvements from a Flipped Classroom May Simply Be the Fruits of Active Learning. CBE – Life Sciences Education. 14(1), pp.1-12.

Kim, M., Kim, S., Khera, O. and Getman, J. (2014) The experience of three flipped classrooms in an urban university: an exploration of design principles. The Internet and Higher Education. 22, pp.37-50.

Love, B., Hodge, A., Grandgenett, N. and Swift, A. (2014) Student learning and perceptions in a flipped linear algebra course. International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology. 45(3), pp.317-324.

Lujan, H. and DiCarlo, S. (2014) The flipped exam: creating an environment in which students discover for themselves the concepts and principles we want them to learn. Advances in Physiology Education. 38(4), pp.339-342.

Roach, T (2014) Student perceptions toward flipped learning: New methods to increase interaction and active learning in economics. International Review of Economics Education. 17, pp.74-84.

See, S. and Conry, J. (2014) Flip My Class! A faculty development demonstration of a flipped-classroom. Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning. 6(4), pp.585-588.

Simpson, V. and Richards, E. (2015) Flipping the classroom to teach population health: Increasing the relevance. Nurse Education in Practice. 15(3), pp.162-167.

Slomanson, W. (2014) Blended Learning: A Flipped Classroom Experiment. Journal of Legal Education. 64(1), pp.93-102.

Tune, J., Sturek, M. and Basile, D. (2013) Flipped classroom model improves graduate student performance in cardiovascular, respiratory, and renal physiology. Advances in Physiology Education. 37(4), pp.316-320.