Is Flipped Learning Really Worth the Trouble? Or, Flipped Learning and Learning Gains in the ESL/EFL Context

A few weeks ago, I discussed Bauer-Ramazai, Graney, Marshall, and Sabeih (2016) and their exploration of flipped learning in TESOL. For those of us getting started with computer-assisted language learning (CALL), it is a handy piece that carries out important definitional work and provides helpful tips to the reader about the implementation. As I was considering what my next post should focus on, the editor of ELT Research Bites suggested looking for recent work that examined the efficacy of flipped learning solutions in English language teaching. This suggestion gave some justification to a nagging curiosity that was taking root in the back of mind. So, I started skimming through a few articles before settling on the one that I will discuss today, Webb and Doman’s (2017) CATESOL Journal article, “Does the Flipped Classroom Lead to Increased Gains on Learning Outcomes in ESL/EFL Contexts.” I chose this piece because of its scope—seeking to not only address the efficacy of flipped learning approaches but also to explore the possible difference between students in the ESL and the EFL contexts.

Summary

Webb and Doman (2017) began by providing a definition of flipped learning that appears to be popular among researchers and practitioners working on this topic, quoting at length from the Flipped Learning Network (2014 (FLN)). The FLN defined flipped learning as moving direct instruction to out-of-class time by using computer-mediated tools to deliver instructional content. This move allows class time to be used for extension and application activities. They then provided a protracted discussion of the differences between flipped and traditional classes, highlighting the possibility for the flipped classroom to provide additional opportunities for spontaneous, formative feedback for the learners.

For their own study, they utilized a quasi-experimental, pre-/post-test design with a follow-up survey and a focus group to elicit students’ perceptions of the flipped learning instructional design. The pre-/post-test consisted of 32-item grammatical judgment quizzes, administered in weeks 2 and 14 of the study. To add texture to their study, they chose to use a cross-context, contrastive approach to sampling. Their sample of 64, high-intermediate English students came from both a U.S.-based and a Macau-based institution. It should be noted that, here, the authors get creative with how they present their information about participants, doing so in a way that partially masks just how many participants from each context were involved in the study. For example, in their table 1 (p. 47), the information on the number of participants switches from discrete numbers to percentages, and when they discuss the size of control and experimental groups they don’t provide detailed breakdowns for the experimental groups (U.S. students/Macau students). Also, despite the vast difference in the average age of the population and a relatively hasty contextualization of education in the two contexts, the authors unproblematically present these two populations as comparable.

To test the efficacy of flipped instructional approaches, a quasi-experimental approach was used. Students were grouped into two experimental and one control group across the contexts. In both the flipped and traditional classes, students were provided with explicit grammar instruction beginning in week three of the study. For students in the flipped classes (experimental groups), grammar instruction took place out of class, using web-mediated content; while traditional classes (control group) made use of in-class lectures on the grammar points and in-class activities. For the flipped classes, class time was dedicated to application exercises and working to come to better understanding of the application of the grammar point that the class was focusing on for that day.

Regarding whether or not flipped learning led to real gains in learning, as relating to grammaticality judgments, the authors found the students in the flipped learning groups scored higher than their peers in traditional classes, and these findings were statistically significant. Despite the difference in performance on grammar tests, both groups reported feeling more confident in their abilities to make grammar judgments and to construct grammatically sound utterances and sentences at the end of the study. It was also found that this increase in overall confidence led to a seemingly concomitant increase in perceived skill on the part of the participants regardless of whether they were in a traditional or a flipped class.

An interesting finding related to the degree of student buy-in into the instructional approach being used. Buy-in here referring to the extent to which students engaged and maintained engagement with instructional activities in each setting (Webb & Doman, 2017, p. 55-56). What the authors found was that students in both class types across contexts experienced a mid-term slowdown in the number of activities they completed. However, this slowdown was apparently less marked for the Macau participants, who completed more activities overall when compared to their U.S. peers.

Webb and Doman (2017) conclude by offering pedagogical implications. They culminate this section by providing six actionable recommendations to practitioners. First, they suggest flipping only a small part of the course, like a unit on grammar or on connotative vs. denotative meaning, as opposed to the whole course. Second, they recommend being strategic in what modules to flip, choosing those that lend themselves well to out-of-class learning. Third, they advise practitioners to prepare the flipped portion of the course well ahead of the semester and to assure stable and durable access to web-based resources. Fourth, they warn the practitioner of the necessity to be flexible based on student responses to the activities and materials used in flipping the classroom, which leads to their fifth point—making sure to gather feedback from students regularly. Their sixth recommendation is to increase the amount of flipped classroom activities only if both the practitioner and their students feel comfortable doing so.

Closing Comments

Personally, I find the work as it’s presented in this piece to be problematic. There are methodological and theoretical issues that aren’t addressed. For example, Macau may very well be a site where an emerging variety of English is establishing itself—one influenced by contact with Cantonese and Macanese Portuguese. This could lead to markedly different notions of grammaticity, but ones that are perfectly valid in that diverse linguistic context. There’s simply not enough attention paid to this serious issue. One that is not just one of grammatical correctness, but also one of power and control over language and students’ rights to their own language (Conference on College Composition and Communication, 2003).

That being said, there is value in this piece. It begins to clarify the possible efficacy of flipping the classroom for certain activities and kinds of content. For the authors, it proved to be successful in helping students to acquire greater control over standard grammatical constructions. It also contributed to increasing students’ confidence in their grammatical abilities. These gains could be due to increased class time dedicated to applying abstract concepts to real-world examples, as well as the additional feedback from the teacher-as-grammar-expert. However, more work is needed in this area, which the authors also pointed out.

References

Bauer-Ramazai, C., Graney, J.M., Marshall, H.W., & Sabieh, C. (2016). Flipped learning in TESOL: Definitions, approaches, and implementations. TESOL Journal 7(2), 429-437.

Conference on College Composition and Communication. (2003). Students’ rights to their own language. Retrieved from: http://www.ncte.org/cccc/resources/positions/srtolsummary

Flipped Learning Network. (2014). Definition of flipped learning. Retrieved from: https://flippedlearning.org/definition-of-flipped-learning/

Webb, M., & Doman, E. (2017). Does the flipped classroom lead to increased gains on learning outcomes in ESL/EFL contexts?. CATESOL Journal, 28(1), 39-67.

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Joshua M. Paiz
Lecturer at NYU Shanghai
Joshua M. Paiz holds a Ph.D. in TESOL from Purdue University and is currently a lecturer and L2 writing specialist at NYU Shanghai. His research interests include L2 writing, SLA, identity in applied linguistics, and critical issues in TESOL.

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