The Flipped Approach: Appealing Features to Behavior Analysts

Kerri L. Milyko, Ph.D., BCBA-D

Precision Teaching Learning Center

Note: This article was originally published in the July 2016 issue of Behavior Analysis Quarterly, Vol. 2, (3).

With current advancements in technology, teachers are using different strategies in their teaching.  Blended learning is a style of teaching that incorporates on-line materials to replace some of the activity that occurs in the classroom (Donovan & Lee, 2015).  One application of blended learning is using a flipped approach to teaching (Garrison & Kanuka, 2004).  Using an elementary classroom as an example, a teacher traditionally introduces new concepts to the students in person, reviews a few examples of the concept, and then sends the students home with homework.  Here, instruction takes place in the presence of the teacher and practice is conducted outside of the classroom, in the absence of the teacher.  To flip this classroom, students would listen to a video lecture (appropriately designed to suit the needs of elementary students) at home while practicing the lesson (i.e., homework) in the presence of the teacher the next day.

The flipped approach was born out of the constructivist theory in education.  While conflicting with behavioral philosophies at its core (e.g., knowledge is originated and created within the organism; Scheurman, 1998), there may be aspects of this approach that should appeal to behaviorists.  First, students have access to unlimited viewings of the lecture (obviously, for younger or lower-functioning individuals, this recording would not resemble a college-level lecture).  These students, and parents who support their children at home, can pause, rewind, and repeat the recording as needed.  Both constructivists and behaviorists advocate active learning, in which students respond during the lecture. For example, students can be given guided notes to complete during the lecture viewing.  More technically savvy teachers can utilize software (e.g., Versal) to create interactive modules incorporating brief teacher recordings, quizzes to assess attending, interactive diagrams, and other technological tools.

Further, by introducing material at home, parents are able to be active and stay current in their child’s education.    However, when the parents are unable to provide such support, this creates an opportunity for students to struggle with the new or complex material.  For example, new computation strategies (e.g., compensation, partial sums) emphasized within the Common Core or Singapore Math curricula have left many parents confused and frustrated.  Simply google “Common Core Math memes” and see the plethora of images of “old way” versus “new way” and blog posts from both teachers and parents.).  A lot of this confusion is because these strategies are new to the parents. They were not taught math this way.  Given the lack of history and access to the new material if in a traditional model, parents might, for example, be unable to assist their children in understanding why a teacher would mark 3 x 4 = 12 incorrect and 4 x 3 = 12 correct.  If the parents were to have access to the instruction, then they could help facilitate learning and provide specific and accurate feedback to their child’s practice.

The flipped model further assists those children who may not have access to parental support with homework.  Traditionally, practicing at home or alone could give rise to repeated practice of incorrect responding.  Consider the student who practiced 30 multi-digit multiplication problems in the incorrect way by not inserting the “0” placeholder when multiplying the tens unit of the bottom factor, for example.  By missing this step, this learner will likely have to engage in many more practice opportunities to learn the correct way and break the incorrect chain of responses.  However, if the student was to practice in the teacher’s presence, the teacher can provide immediate and specific feedback.  The teacher can remedy the problem without delay, reducing the number of incorrectly answered the problem (Ash, 2012).  Further, the teacher can deliver immediate behavior-specific praise to those students accurately responding.  A traditional classroom would by default impose a delay from response (homework) to feedback (turning in homework the next day). 

Another behavioral benefit to the flipped approach is that students, given the proper framework and support of the school, are able to self-pace (Johnson, 2015).  The ability to progress at one’s own speed dependent upon personalized mastery of course work is an essential feature of Keller’s Personalized System of Instruction (PSI; Eyre, 2007; Keller, 1968).  According to Johnson, mastery learning (i.e., students practice and learn until a specific, individualized mastery criterion is met) is on the rise (2015). 

Switching practice from home to the classrooms serves to create greater time in project-based or problem-based learning in the classroom (Bishop & Verleger, 2013).  While the theoretical pillars to problem-based learning lies in constructivism (e.g., intrinsic motivation, flexible knowledge, self-directed learning skills), these notions can be re-framed behaviorally.  Following advice from Twyman on how to play well with cognitive scientists (Hockman, 2016) and Johnson (“hitch a ride,” 2015, p.146), breaking these constructs down into operationally defined, observable behaviors and possibly having behavior analysts serve as interventionists to promote individualism and success within this framework can help begin to bridge the gap between innovative educational approaches and our natural science.

These project-based learning opportunities allow for greater time to monitor and arrange the environment to promote generalization, which is appealing to behavior scientists and constructivists alike. Therefore, following initial concept instruction (lecture) and component skill acquisition (practice), the student combines these skills to novel situations and problem solves using the newly acquired skills (application and generativity).  For example, instruction to teach about money could be centered on the coins, bills, and their values (assuming the student already is fluent in computation), and where/how money is used.  The practice component then could have the student solve problems on worksheets involving money, add piles of coins, etc.  Then the generative combination of such components could be to have a class-wide store and buy, sell, make change, and further use money in a more naturalistic manner that blends and extends the skills acquired in the unit. 

It could be possible to ‘behaviorize’ problem-based learning as creating opportunities to assess and engage in generativity.  To be specific, generativity is the combination of learned skills in novel combinations with variety (Johnson, 2015).  Generativity is a phenomenon that is actively researched in behavior analysis and continues to gain support in our field.  By analyzing project-based learning through a generativity lens, problem-based learning can be researched and appreciated by behaviorists.  This shift can then create an opportunity for teachers to assess the student’s ability to apply the new skills in unique and practical experiences that appease both cognitive and behavioral scientists.  Specifically, teachers can create opportunities for the learner to engage in generativity via project-based learning and measure various dimensions of behavior during such opportunities.

The flipped approach can also be further extended to the practice of many consulting behavior analysts or those teaching behavior analysis at higher-education levels: 1) create online, self-paced tutorials to relay the initial information; 2) practice learned material with immediate feedback (quizzes, fluency modules, SAFMEDs); and finally 3) meet in person to answer questions and practice applying the newly reviewed topic. 

So, while flipping instruction may not have been born out of the behavior analytic literature, there are many key aspects that make the flipped structure appealing to those practicing as behavioral educators: self-paced instruction, opportunities to repeat and self-correct, immediate feedback on practice opportunities, immediacy of reinforcement, increased opportunities for parent involvement, and generative learning opportunities to make the learned material functional.  These positive features of flipping instruction actually appear to remedy many of the criticisms behavior analysts have of traditional education.  Further research is warranted, however, to evaluate the long-term benefits of students in flipped classrooms.


Ash, K. (2012).  Educators view ‘flipped’ model with a more critical eye. Education Week, 32(2), 6-8.

Bishop, J. & Verleger, M. (2013). The flipped classroom: A survey of the research. 120th ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Paper #6219:

Donovan, J. & Lee, S (2015).  How we flipped: student and instructor reflections of a flipped-class model in a sensory evaluation laboratory course.  North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture Journal, 59(4), 335-343.

Eyre, H. (2007). Keller’s Personalized System of Instruction: Was it a fleeting fancy or is there a revival on the horizon? The Behavior Analyst Today, 8(3), 317-324.

Garrison, D. R. & Kanuka, H. (2004).  Blended learning: Uncovering its transformative potential in higher education.  Internet and Higher Education, 7, 95–105

Hockman, A. (2016).  Dr. Janet Twyman: We are not preparing behavior analysts for the jobs the world needs them to take.  Operants, 8(2), 11-13.

Johnson, K. (2015). Behavioral education in the 21st century. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 35(1-2), 135-150. doi:10.1080/01608061.2015.1036152

Keller, F. S. (1968). “Good-bye teacher”. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1, 79-89.

Scheurman, G. (1998).  From behaviorist to constructivist teaching.  Social Education, 62(1), 6-10.


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  1. Great article! And an important reminder not to throw the baby out with the bath water! Though philosophically inconsistent with behaviorism, many constructivist/constructionist techniques are ultimately effective means of environmental engineering. To quote Sidman (1997) “… data rather than [philosophical] debate will show the way” (p. 258).

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