Why Flipped Classrooms Fail



As a champion of the popular flipped learning method developed by Eric Mazur, this phrase always hits me hard when I hear it from fellow educators. And I do hear it.

Over the years, I’ve run into many different accounts of experiments in innovative teaching and flipped classrooms, not just Peer Instruction, gone awry.  I have heard many refrains about clickers, “I tried clickers and it was a disaster.” About flipped learning with videos, “I tried it but my students didn’t watch the videos.” And even about the student engagement all-star, project-based learning: “I gave it a shot but my students perform better when I lecture.”

Of course, there are sundry reasons why one venture toward innovative teaching succeeds and another stumbles. I don’t claim to have the one answer or a lock on the perfect explanation. In this 3-part series, I will offer possibilities to consider if your teaching improvement efforts have come up shorter than you expected starting with reason #1 why I think flipped classrooms fail.

Reason #1 Not targeting students’ attention

One big measure of success in a flipped classroom is how well students perform on high stakes assessments. I believe one reason flipped classrooms fail in this way has to do with neglecting to adequately target students’ attention to the things they need to perform well on those high stakes assessments before they take them [Authors note: Added for clarification on 2/11/16].

People only learn and retain what they pay attention to and think about.  If students aren’t performing well on assessments,

one question to ask yourself is, “what are they paying attention to when they are preparing for those assessments?” The critical follow up to that is, “how am I directing students to hit the target…or the things I want them to learn and to be able to do?”

These targets are known as learning outcomes or goals. Many of us list learning outcomes on our syllabi and consider them when we write assessments. If we have time, we think about them when we select content and design lessons or assignments. Yet, generally, we direct students’ attention to content by telling them what to read (or watch), assigning related homework, talking about it during class, and then revisiting the topic only once through a test question or essay assignment.

The most powerful way to direct students’ attention is through that last strategy – assessment. However, that is the most infrequent thing we do – test students. And when we do test students, most of us do so only to measure learning, not to drive it.

Test-based learning, also known retrieval practice, is better way to direct students’ attention to the bulls eye.  Retrieval is the act of trying to call something to mind and then successfully doing so.

Let’s try it: I am going to give you a retrieval cue and then you will call that information to mind.

What was the name of your first grade teacher?

Mine was Mrs. Brown. The act of successfully pulling that information from my mind is retrieval. The mental work to generate your teacher’s name is qualitatively different from reading the name on a piece of paper or looking it up on the Internet. And the exercise of retrieving content in an effort to learn it is called retrieval practice.

The trick to helping students’ learn, retain what they learn for the long-term, and even apply what they learn in novel contexts is to ask them questions that require retrieval of the key concepts that constitute your learning outcomes.  You can do this in a variety ways – in quizzes, flashcards, clickers or other classroom response systems, immediate feedback assessment scratch offs, one minute papers, or any of the 50 Classroom Assessment Techniques by Angelo and Cross.

Warning: When designing retrieval questions, don’t get lured into asking things you don’t really care if your students remember or not. These are items around or outside the black ring of the dartboard, not totally unrelated but not critical. Sometimes we like to check to see if students have done their reading and we use verbatim questions as a stick, or to see if we can catch them not doing their work. Verbatim questions are ok, but only if they guide students to things you want them to learn.

For example, if we have assigned Pride and Prejudice as a reading we might ask students to identify Collins’ profession to determine if they did the work. He is in the clergy and you would have to read the text or watch the movie to get that and probably pay a little bit of attention. But his profession is tangential to the key themes of the novel. Successful retrieval is powerful, so be careful not to misdirect attention with unimportant verbatim questions.


I have to admit that it is demoralizing and painful to put intensive time and effort  (always at the expense of other things that need your attention) into teaching improvement only to find no difference in how your students perform or experience your courses. Many students and teachers I talk to about student success suggest that aligning preferred learning styles is the answer.

Forget designing instruction based on students’ learning styles, an approach that has all but been debunked by the cognitive science research community.  One reason flipped classrooms fail is because we don’t direct students’ attention effectively. If students don’t think about or pay attention to the right things, they won’t learn the right things. Direct their attention carefully and purposefully to get the pay off you are looking for.

Reason #2 – Students are not able to apply knowledge in novel situations 

On high stakes assessments, especially standardized tests, we typically ask students to demonstrate their ability to apply what they know on questions they have never seen before. To me, this ability to transfer learning across situations and use it to solve novel problems is the holy grail in education. We hope we train students to take what they have learned in the context of our classrooms and apply it to an unfamiliar or new situations off campus.  I propose that problems of transfer offer another reason some flipped classrooms fail on the student performance measure.

Application or transfer questions are more than procedural tasks that require plug and chug or rote problem solving.  Such questions require students to transfer what they have learned to novel situations and are very common on  mid-term and end-of-term exams. They are not as common in homework problems or quizzes. As such, students don’t generally have enough practice preparing for the transfer questions that are going to determine their overall course performance.

Transferring learning is a very difficult thing to do. Especially far transfer or transfer between very different contexts.*

My favorite example of the complexity of far transfer of learning is demonstrated in the movie The Karate Kid.

To prepare Daniel to compete in an upcoming tournament, Mr. Miyagi has him wax a car using very specific movements. Miyagi varies the context in which Daniel learns the movements with the commands “wax on, wax off,” “paint the fence” and “sand the deck.”

Daniel is flabbergasted at the ridiculousness of all this and feels he is being abused. Moreover, despite Miyagi telling him that he is Karate training by doing these tasks, Daniel never makes the connection that by practicing “wax on, wax off” he is actually learning to

block using his reflexes. Miyagi has to do a big reveal by simulating the connection between the movements in an intense showdown before Daniel gets it .

So, if I am facing a situation where I have invested time and energy in flipping my class and students aren’t performing, another question I am going to ask myself is –“have I trained my students effectively to apply what they have learned?”

Two Strategies for Addressing Problems of Transfer

According to Barnett and Ceci (2002), there are two overarching domains of far transfer: the content domain (what is actually transferred), the context domain (when and where something is transferred to and from) and multiple subdomains within.  To help address the complexity of designing for and measuring transfer across far or unfamiliar contexts in education, Barnett and Ceci developed the transfer taxonomy displayed in Figure 1.


To  help students apply their learning to novel situations and far contexts I recommend embracing a two fold strategy of variability and telling.

Variability: to prepare students to apply their knowledge of a single concept in novel situations, vary students’ practice by both content and context.  Miyagi employees this strategy, he puts Daniel in a variety of situations using very different content and contexts (car waxing, fence painting, deck sanding) to learn the foundational skill of blocking at a deep level.  By exposing students to content and contexts with such variety, you help them strip out what is extraneous and hone in on the deep meaning of the underlying concepts, topics, or skills. But as discussed above, varying the context isn’t enough.

Telling: Miyagi is like most of us educators. He carefully and artfully sets up an elegant learning experience and sits back and waits in anticipation for the fireworks to go off.  He leaves his student to make the connection that what he is learning in one context can be transferred to another context. He’s almost as flabbergasted that Daniel doesn’t see the bridge as Daniel is that he is doing Miyagi’s yard work.  It is critical to teach students how to apply their knowledge to novel situations; that is to do a reveal demonstrating the various connections before the high stakes assessment.

In conclusion, so far I have offered two reasons why I think flipped classrooms fail on the student performance measure:

1) Students aren’t paying attention to the right things for long enough (see Part 1 for more on this)
2) Students don’t know how to apply their learning in novel situations.

As strategies for addressing these two issues, I suggest asking yourself how and where you are directing students attention and how you are teaching students to apply their knowledge in novel situations.

Flipped classrooms sometimes fall flat. You will gain diverse perspectives and new strategies from expert practitioners in K-12 and higher education including flipped learning pioneer, Aaron Sams.  This post is part of The Neighborhood, a special Turn To Your Neighbor series where we invite innovative educators from around the globe to discuss a variety of education topics. We encourage you to interact with us and contribute your own theories on flip class flops in the comments section or via Twitter.

Aaron Sams, Educator, Author Consultant of Sams Learning Designs and Saint Vincent College.  The quickest way to derail a flipped classroom is to assign a video, get frustrated when a large percentage of the class did not view the video, then proceed to lecture the content. By doing so the teacher sends a message to the irresponsible student that the teacher will bail students out when they make bad choices and there is not motivation to make good choices. The teacher sends a message to the responsible student that their work was in vain and there is no motivation to complete the assigned work in the future. Instead, a teacher must have a procedure in place to monitor and deal with students who haven’t done their flipped assignment.

Crystal Kirch, Digital Learning Coach, Tustin Unified School District. Flipped classrooms fail when teachers do not design and differentiate the classroom learning environment based on student feedback and needs.  I believe teachers need to have a method (such as my WSQ method) to hold students accountable for engaging and interacting with the video content and to give them structured processing and reflection time after the video.  This helps to ensure students come to class ready to dive deeper and apply their knowledge, as well as gives the teacher information about specific student misconceptions to address during face to face time.

Ken Bauer, Associate Professor and Board Member, Tecnológico de Monterrey and Flipped Learning Network.Flipped classrooms fail when there is a mismatch of understanding of responsibilities. In general, students are waiting for faculty to “teach them” and the newly flipped teacher is eager for the students to grab this amazing opportunity to have control. This shift requires time and a building of trust in the learner/mentor relationship. In my experience, some students embrace this easily, the majority take a few months and others will take much longer to embrace this change; learning is a social process and a relationship of trust is essential.

Helaine W. Marshall, Director of Language Education Programs and Associate Professor of Education and Board Member, LIU Hudson and Flipped Learning Network. One reason for failure stems from the mindset of the educator – that flipped learning is a single concept. As with any comprehensive approach, flipped learning consists interlocking concepts that work together. Unfortunately, due to misconceptions, or the tendency towards expediency, some educators simply flip the classwork and the homework and call that flipped learning. Or, they may assess the students in traditional ways that do not reflect their mastery of deeper learning, such as standardized tests that favor discrete point evaluation techniques. And so on. Without implementing ALL of the elements of the flipped learning approach, success may prove elusive. Those who pick and choose do so at their peril. Follow Helaine @lainemarsh

Matthew Whitson, Teacher, English 1, Weatherford ISD. In my opinion flipped classrooms fail because of fear.  Fear of the unknown factors that may drive or derail learning. Fear that people will not see the model as a legitimate model in spite of the research. As a teaching society we are slow to allow ourselves to relinquish control of that which we hold most dear out of fear.  Our sense of control can empower us and give us comfort, but in retaining this control we fail to ask ourselves the question, “What would our society be like if learning really did have no walls and access for all?”

Julie Schell, Clinical Assistant Professor, Director, and Board Member, The University of Texas at Austin and Flipped Learning Network.  Student resistance is the surest way to kill a flipped classroom dead in the water. When I first started using my favorite flipped method, Peer Instruction, at Columba University a student said to my face, “I am not paying $3,000 to sit in your class and learn from novice peers!” In the worst cases, student resistance shows up in the form of a down right revolt (i.e. students create an anti-you Facebook group or write no confidence letters to your chair). Often, resistance is showcased in horrible end-of -course evaluations that have their own brand of anonymous vitriol.  It can also be more subtle and show up as a red herring. In Peer Instruction this often happens when students argue about unimportant details in clicker questions, like typos, to avoid the having to confront their own misconceptions in front of peers. Most humans have an internal drive to feel successful. Our students come to flipped classrooms with the deeply ingrained belief that education means passively sitting at the feet of the most admirable professors soaking up all of their knowledge and that they cannot be successful any other way.

Even with these very common bumps, thousands of flipped classrooms around the world succeed. By practicing some of the strategies in these three posts my colleagues and I hope you will avoid the common pitfalls we have all blundered through. When students engage, like those in Professor Mizokami’s psychology class in Kyoto Japan, the power of flipped classrooms prevails.



Why Flipped Classrooms Fail

Why Flipped Classrooms Fail Part 2

Why Flipped Classrooms Fail Part 3



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