Friday, May 22, 2015

Tilting at Windmills, Vol. 1, No. 2

What does Engagement mean in the Flipped Classroom?

            As some readers already know, I am a proponent of the flipped classroom. I used this technique in the second half of my American History to 1865 course during the Spring 2015 semester and the results were encouraging. The final exam scores were higher, students who were missing classes consistently started attending classes, and student engagement with the course materials increased. They didn’t have much of a choice with engaging the course content because in order to answer the questions given to them for each lesson they had to use the content.  In addition to that, students were “engaged” in the actual course.

Give the order, Captain!
            Let us focus on the word “engage” for the central theme of this post. In discussing the flipped classroom with those who do not understand how it works as well as those who oppose it, the word “engage” comes up all the time. Those of us who embrace this pedagogical concept say we engage our students, our students are engaged in the course, they engage the materials, or simply they’re engaged. Detractors deny that students are engaged and at this point it becomes clear that both sides need to define what the word engage means. Both sides apply different meaning to the word. So in order for any serious dialog to be established between the two sides, we have to have common meaning for the language we use. 

            According to the dictionary, the word engage has several meanings. A full listing of the word can be found on the Merriam-Webster (2015) site, but the meaning used by those of us who are flipped classroom advocates is as follows:

            Transitive verb-
a :  to hold the attention of :  engross <her work engages her completely>
b :  to induce to participate <engaged the shy boy in conversation>

Intransitive verb- 
a :  to begin and carry on an enterprise or activity —used with in <engaged in trade for many years>

b :  to do or take part in something —used with in <engage in healthy activities> <engage in bad conduct>

c :  to give attention to something :  deal <failing to engage with the problem>

This is the basic meaning of the term engage. Thus, when I say I am engaging students, I mean to do or take part in something. One of the central tenets of the flipped classroom model is that students will engage with materials more than they will in a standard classroom model. Kathleen Fulton’s research on this places increased student engagement as the number eight reason for flipping classes (Fulton, 2012). By the way, that is a top ten list article that David Letterman should have used on his show.

A more recent article reveals that student engagement with course materials is a key reason for flipping classes (Clark, 2015). The literature review for this article lists other studies which show student engagement (as defined above) increases in the flipped classroom model. This research study was a mixed-methods approach that combined student interviews with a survey and assessment results. In the interviews and focus groups, the word engage was one of the most commonly used terms. When compared with the researcher’s journal, active engagement emerged as one of five main themes (Clark, 2015). Two classrooms were used, the flipped classroom and a traditional classroom in order to make a comparison.

The study’s section on engagement reveals both students and instructors in the flipped classroom had significantly higher levels of engagement both in their own perceptions and those of the observers. Students were usually working in groups (note this use of collaborative education practices in the flipped classroom is a method of engaging students) and were rotated between groups as well. Engagement was considerably higher as meeting the definition of the word earlier in this post.

Let us look at the statistics now. Engagement comparisons between the two classes showed 88% of the students in the flipped class were active participants compared to 76% in the traditional class. The interesting statistic for this comparison was that the mean score for the traditional class on the unit test was 80 out of 100. The flipped class scored 80.38. Obviously this is not statistically significant in scoring differences (Clark, 2015). However, the author of the study pointed out the side benefits to this were in the critical thinking skill development. That would be the catch phrased used throughout higher education for everything under the sun it seems like.

Yet, here in this flipped classroom, the study showed students using critical thinking skills in analyzing their performance. The students in the flipped classroom realized they learned higher order skills at the same time they learned the materials with their course lessons. Thus, they stated that the flipped instructional model should have been introduced to them earlier during an easier content phase so they would not have had to learn more difficult content while also learning how to learn in a different classroom system (Clark, 2015). That was not from the instructors or researchers perceptions, but from the students themselves. That leaves room for more study. What if the research had focused on another unit of study after this one where the flipped classroom was introduced?

Obviously more research is needed. The results show a small gain, but not a statistically significant gain. However, when it comes to student engagement, the study shows a significant gain there. Additional longitudinal study is definitely needed to show the long term results in learning. This model is relatively new and that study has simply not been done as of yet. An investigation by Heng Ngee Mok (2014) into flipped classrooms shows studies that have shown significant differences in learning, but also that not all studies have shown this (Fulton shows increases as well). His study does show that there is a major gap in the research on this subject. Student engagement increase is always higher with the flipped model compared to traditional lecture (Mok, 2014). 

As a result of the increased student engagement, the real question here is does this model yield significant increases in learning over time? Instructors want engaged students. The flipped model produces them. Does that create a student capable of learning more things, difficult things, or just a student able to learn more efficiently? In my role as a history educator we have seen almost no increase in student learning within our discipline since the first attempts to measure learning a century ago. For 90% of that time as well as almost all of the instruction itself, learning has been through the lecture or instructivist model. The results of that approach speak volumes.

Isn’t it time to try something else instead of making excuses for instructors who are too lazy, too scared, or simply unwilling to consider a different teaching method? The flipped model is not decreasing scores that is for sure. It is increasing critical thinking skills as a direct result of the student engagement. Folks, that is exactly what the business community desires in their employees! (Head & Wihbey, 2014). The flipped model delivers just that…engaged students who become employees capable of thinking.  


Clark, K. (2015). The effects of the flipped model of instruction on student engagement and performance in the secondary mathematics classroom. Journal of Educators Online, 12(1), 91-115.

Fulton, K. (2012). Ten reasons to flip. Phi Delta Kappan, 94(2), 20-25.

Head, A. & Wihbey, J. (July, 2014). At sea in a deluge of data. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from:

Mok, H. (2014). Teaching tip: The flipped classroom. Journal of Information Systems Education, 25(1), 7-12.

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