By Sheik Malik
For today’s engineers, it is simply not enough to graduate university with the necessary technical capabilities to be able to successfully navigate the challenging modern industrial landscape. A host of additional skills and theoretical knowledge can give students a competitive advantage over their similarly qualified peers.
With the way we communicate information constantly changing, how can universities instil the so-called transferable skills such as critical thinking and teamwork in student-centred learning whilst simultaneously ensuring that what they are teaching is providing a maximal level of conceptional understanding and boosting student engagement?
Research has shown that active learning is a powerful learning tool as compared with conventional teaching when delivered effectively. Yet, there are several potential barriers that educators experience in delivering these outcomes requiring innovation in the traditional pedagogies typically encountered in university engineering courses.
The slow adoption of active learning as an effective educational method can be distilled down to two frequently held beliefs; the robust engagement of students comes at the sacrifice of critical course content. Secondly, that the preparatory efforts of organising the curriculum and its associated intended learning outcomes will substantially increase.
In a recent paper, Alcaraz et.al  demonstrated that both perceptions were false, establishing an alternative teaching framework called inverted learning, evaluated through implementation in an introductory Digital Systems course. Practical laboratory sessions remained unchanged. Divergence from traditional teaching methods occurred through the use of inverted lectures where theoretical material was disseminated out with the class while lecturer-driven tutorials and classes focusing on active learning.
Using hands-on, practical activities, it was hoped that strong links between theory and practice within the confines of the course could be forged and applied beyond the explored learning environment. An additional aim of the study was to investigate the sustained use of inverted learning-based frameworks and their overall benefits to students. This was measured by answering three key research questions; can inverted learning be proven more effective at increasing student engagement whilst offering a more immersive understanding of key concepts in the syllabus? Could a blended approach of offering both traditional teaching and inverted learning methods be more effective than both individually? Finally, do inverted learning methods and their associated frameworks increase the burden for both course instructors and students alike?
The Digital Systems course which was the focus of this study had the following requirements for students: 40 hours of lectures coupled with 20 hours of laboratory sessions held over 13 weeks. There were 10 associated intended learning outcomes allowing for the assessment of the student's comprehension and engagement with the materials.
Sustained evaluation of the course over six academic years provided the opportunity to study the framework with successive peer groups with a total of 184 full-time students participating in the study. Students were allocated into one of three groups, traditional teaching, inverted learning and inverted learning framework with various activities carried out pre, in, and post-class.
Linking the results to the research questions, it was shown that traditional teaching methods did not completely serve the student cohort in effectively consolidating their learning in comparison with the inverted learning and framework methods. Students in these groups also reported feeling more engaged throughout the learning process. Those in the inverted learning framework group also demonstrated the greatest level of theoretical understanding. Finally, it was discovered that implementation of the inverted learning and inverted learning framework models did not increase the amount of work necessary for either student or the course leader.
The advantages of the aforementioned methodologies have clear successes in improving student learning and engagement but as stated, have been met previously with some resistance. This study highlights the compelling evidence to the contrary. Impacts of the research can be measured using student attendance rates, student marks and satisfaction all of which are readily transferrable metrics which can be applied across institutions globally.
The study had several limitations acknowledged by the authors which included the reliability of self-reported workload by staff and students and how best they could ensure the engagement of lower-performing students to improve their levels of attainment.
From the data collected in this study, should wider-scale adoption of the inverted learning and inverted learning frameworks be employed over typical traditional teaching methodologies the following advice should be considered:
Whilst this study focused on an engineering course, the benefits of following inverted learning methodologies could successfully be applied across all faculties and courses with demonstrable improvements to student learning and to teaching resulting from these changes.
Offering students, the ability to gain a deeper comprehension of the syllabus and engagement with the material has not only profound benefits for them, but for institutions as a whole with such gains continuing to be felt well beyond the remits of the lecture hall.
[Source Paper] Alcaraz, R., A. Martínez-Rodrigo, Roberto Zangróniz and J. Rieta. “Blending Inverted Lectures and Laboratory Experiments to Improve Learning in an Introductory Course in Digital Systems.” IEEE Transactions on Education 63 (2020): 144-154.