Flipped learning vs. project-based: which works best?

Coorous Mohtadi, Senior Academic Technical Specialist at MathWorks, talks about the STEM skills gap and how to address the issue in the classroom

In a report on STEM skills by the National Audit Office, earlier this year, we were starkly reminded that the returns from work to address skills gap in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) were not working. Whilst some initiatives have witnessed a degree of success, the quality and take-up of STEM subjects by undergraduates is not happening fast enough to fill the burgeoning skills gap. So, how can we ensure future investment directly translates into the narrowing of the STEM skills gap?

Currently, there are campaigns for both project-based learning and flipped learning being used in universities. But, which is most suitable for these technical subjects? And which will encourage more students into STEM careers for the UK to keep up with our European peers?

To clarify, project-based learning is defined as student-centred teaching, which includes a dynamic classroom approach in which it is thought that students acquire a more profound knowledge through active exploration of real-world problems and issues. Conversely, flipped learning is a type of blended learning which reverses the traditional learning environment by distributing instructional content, usual via an online portal, outside of the lecture theatre. It takes activities, including those that may have traditionally been considered homework, into the classroom.

Of course, there are pros and cons to both. Project-based learning allows students to see, hear, and touch what would otherwise be abstract, making their experience more absorbing and interesting. It also helps them learn how to work independently and discover the answers to their own questions. Furthermore, by learning to complete projects in teams, students gain communication and leadership skills that they can adapt to the real world. Finally, advocates say the knowledge students gain from solving advanced mathematics and science problems are critical for helping plug the STEM skills gap.

Project-based learning allows students to see, hear, and touch what would otherwise be abstract, making their experience more absorbing and interesting.

However, there can be problems with project-based learning if there is a poor group dynamic. It may make it difficult to determine which students contributed the most to the project, thus complicating student assessment. Furthermore, given that some activities will take place outside of the classroom, it gives the opportunity for lazier student to take advantage of those who are more diligent, meaning the lecturer needs to play a large role in the delegation of work within the group.

When considering flipped learning, its student-centred structure means students can consume lecture materials at their own pace, compared to traditional styled lectures, where students are confined to the pace of the whole course. Other benefits are created by shifting the focus from teacher to student needs, such as when students don’t understand a new concept, they can ask questions and get immediate answers. This style has also been found to promote greater collaboration. Lastly, students who are absent due to illness, or any other reason, can catch up with their peers faster and easier with the flipped classroom model than with the standard one. 

On the downside, the initial set up of a flipped learning course can be a huge undertaking. Having to upload summarised lectures, and ensuring that all students have fully prepared for their lectures and classes takes a great deal of effort. Flipped learning is quite an unusual way of teaching which can challenge some students. It necessitates a large amount of self-discipline, so those students who are easily drawn away by the plethora of extra-curricular activities available at university might not benefit from this style of teaching.

Some parties suggest that the two methods should be combined and are, in fact, complimentary as they both place a great deal of emphasis on higher level thinking skills, as well as help to improve productivity and time management.

MathWorks’ experience is primarily in project-based learning, and, prior experience seems to suggest that this technique is best suited to addressing the STEM gap, as it is very effective at helping student address complex mathematical and engineering problems in the real world. However, whichever particular method is chosen, MathWorks provides the supporting tools to engage students at university in STEM subjects.