Advances from AEE

Advances from AEE

Flipping Isn’t Always the Answer

Whether it works better than lectures depends on course content.

By Ann Saterbak, Tracy Volz, and Matthew Wettergreen

The “flipped class” is a buzzword in education circles. This transformative approach inverts the traditional workflow of each lesson, and places the listening to lectures out of class and the doing of work inside the class. The flipped model reflects a drive toward more student-centered, active classrooms and also supports meeting the students halfway in their pervasive use of technology by bringing it into the instruction. Within the engineering education community, there are different perspectives and outcomes regarding the effectiveness of the flipped model; these differences may be linked to the type, level, and content of the course. When we flipped our freshman design class, we found it did no harm but neither did it help.

Introduction to Engineering Design is a one-semester, multidisciplinary, elective design course available for all first-year students at Rice University. Teams of students work for an entire semester on an authentic, open-ended design challenge and produce a physical prototype for their client. The design challenges are drawn from local health care providers, community partners, industry, and humanitarian organizations.

Historically, we have split class time equally between content delivered by PowerPoint lectures and team time. As instructors, we observed that students struggled to move from listening to a lecture about a process-based topic (e.g., brainstorming techniques) during the first 30 minutes of class to immediately applying this new knowledge to their own design project (e.g., generating solution ideas). This makes sense because students had to jump up on Bloom’s taxonomy quickly—from exposure to new material to creating and evaluating their design project within 75 minutes.
To support student learning, we created instructional resources for the flipped classroom that targeted tiered, discrete learning stages of Bloom’s taxonomy. Specifically, students watched videos and took quizzes before class to master key vocabulary, concepts, and processes associated with engineering design. When they got to the classroom, students worked in groups to complete short exercises that involve practicing the steps in the engineering design process. Then, in the second half of the class period, teams applied this step to their own project.

To measure whether shifting the delivery model affected students’ ability to apply the design process, we looked at two strands of student work: (1) a cumulative exam, and (2) a critique of a sample Gantt chart. The exam was administered two thirds of the way through the course; in comparing students’ exam grades, we found no statistically significant difference between the lecture model (N = 132) and the flipped model (N = 96) (P>0.5, t-test). The Gantt chart was completed as pre- and post-tests at the beginning and end of the semester; raters coded three topics related to the design process. For the lecture (N=78) and flipped (N=75) models, the “gain” between pre-test and post-test values for all three topics indicated that students were capable of critically analyzing a proposed design process with high proficiency. However, we found the “gain” was not significantly different between the two class models (P>0.1, permutation test). Overall, neither method showed differences in students’ application of the engineering design process when comparing the flipped vs. lecture model in the context of our project-based design course.
Some studies have shown improvement in student performance in a flipped vs. lecture class, but most of these implementations focused on traditional content-based courses such as thermodynamics or signal processing. In contrast, we flipped a project-based engineering design/build course and were thus evaluating improvements in process-based knowledge. Recognizing that formative assessment methods may be better for our process-based class, we are in the process of evaluating student design work.

As faculty flip courses and measure against defined learning outcomes, each of us needs to carefully document the type and content of the course, as well as the type and time of assessment to effectively place the flipped classroom model within the tool kit of instructional strategies for engineering educators.

The instructional materials we developed are free and accessible to other educators; we welcome faculty to add materials to expand the library. The videos are hosted on the YouTube channel “Learn Engineering Design” at The quizzes and in-class exercises are at


Ann Saterbak is an associate dean of engineering education, Tracy Volz is director of the Program in Writing and Communication, and Matthew Wettergreen is a lecturer in bioengineering at Rice University. This is an excerpt from “Implementing and Assessing a Flipped Classroom Model for First-Year Engineering Design” in the Fall, 2016 issue of Advances in Engineering Education.

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