Flipped Learning Part 1: What Is It?

Abstract photo of a drop of water.

By Kristen Mosley

Flipped learning has increased in popularity over the past decade and is thought to advantage the inclusion of critical thinking, problem solving, and collaborative and self-directed learning.1 Its name, “flipped”, is meant to communicate that the traditional instructional style has been flipped or inverted. Teacher-led content that is traditionally conducted in class is now replaced with more student-led and active engagement with the learning which is traditionally reserved for out-of-class time.2 To ensure student engagement with material in class, the flipped learning model tasks students with reviewing teacher-created materials (e.g., a short mini lecture) prior to coming to class.3 

Several perspectives ground the rationale for flipped learning, most notably cognitive load theory4 and constructivist learning theory5:

  • According to cognitive load theory, the limited capacity of working memory constrains the amount of new information we can hold at one time—roughly 5-11 “chunks” of information. So, when a student is presented with novel information in-class, their capacity for working with this information is inherently limited by working memory constraints. A workaround, however, is that when our working memory processes information that is retrieved from our long-term memory (i.e., information we’ve already learned), our working memory has no known limits.4 Thus, the flipped classroom model decreases the likelihood that the information students are working with is new, thereby increasing their working memory capacity.
  • Regarding constructivist learning theory, which suggests learning occurs through actively constructing – not passively absorbing – new knowledge, the flipped learning model increases the opportunities for students to co-construct new knowledge during in-class time. Key to this theory is the belief that experiences that tap into students’ prior knowledge enable them to create new, more complex knowledge.6 Thus, the flipped classroom model gives students an opportunity to come to class with prior knowledge (gained from reviewing teacher-led materials before class), which provides fertile ground for expanding their understanding during class. Additionally, the increased opportunities for active student engagement in class strengthens the socially constructed knowledge students can develop.7

The means of conducting flipping instruction vary, but the heart of the approach is that by removing teacher-led learning from in-class time, instructional minutes can instead focus on engaging students in active, higher-order learning experiences. One caveat to note, though, is that the philosophy of the flipped learning model retains the instructor-led nature of presenting new information—i.e., merely assigning reading before class would not “count” as flipped learning. Instead, flipped learning is typically executed by students engaging in teacher-created, audiovisual instruction that mimics a traditional lecturing style prior to coming to class so that in-class minutes can focus on active, student-led learning.

Curious to try it out? Reach out to OI2 for help with this instructional model!

1. Hawks, S. J. (2014). The flipped classroom: now or never?. AANA journal82(4).

2. Pierce, R., & Fox, J. (2012). Vodcasts and active-learning exercises in a “flipped classroom” model of a renal pharmacotherapy module. American journal of pharmaceutical education76(10).

3. Lage, M. J., Platt, G. J., & Treglia, M. (2000). Inverting the classroom: A gateway to creating an inclusive learning environment. The journal of economic education31(1), 30-43.

4.  Sweller, J. (2020). Cognitive load theory and educational technology. Educational Technology Research and Development68(1), 1-16.

5. Tobin, K., & Tippins, D. (1993). Constructivism as a referent for teaching and learning.In K. Tobin (Ed.), The practice of constructivism in science education (pp. 1–20). Lawrence Erlbaum.

6. Howe, K. R., & Berv, J. (2000). Constructing constructivism, epistemological and pedagogical. In D. C. Phillips (Ed.), Constructivism in education: Opinions and second opinions on controversial issues (pp. 19–40). University of Chicago Press.

7. Roehling Roehling, P. V. (2018). Flipping the college classroom: An evidence-based guide. Palgrave. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-69392-7