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Want to Make Learning Stick? Flip It!

Tammy Berman, Ph.D., Senior Vice President of Design

Years ago, Ray Bareiss, our EVP, was consulting with a global training director who asked him a question not unlike the question we’re asked by some new clients today, "What’s the quickest and cheapest way to make our company’s training more effective?"

Ray responded, "In your courses, you teach with lectures and then give participants practice problems to work on, right? Flip it. Have your participants problem-solve first." That change, he explained, will give them an active mental context for integrating the lecture-based material. In other words, "practice first, teach second."

"Teach first, practice second," however, is still the primary model of instruction at many organizations today. Business sponsors of learning programs think it’s OK because that’s how they were taught in school. Sometimes when we suggest a flip to "practice first, teach second," we see the discomfort over Zoom.

Do you mean "flipped classroom?"

The idea of a "flipped classroom" is popular right now, but that’s not what we mean. In a flipped class, students are asked to take responsibility to learn prior to active engagement in class. Typically, they are assigned a video lecture to watch before they do practice problems in class.

The flipped classroom does have benefits: it is learner-centered in that learners are actively engaged in pursuing learning, and it allows instructional time in the classroom for more active application and discussion where creative teachers can lead engaging and effective learning activities. However, they still rely on students to "learn" the material at home the night before. It’s still teaching first and practicing second.

So, what is "flip it"? Why should we do it?

When Ray told the training director to "flip it," he was referring to a process learning scientists have shown to be most effective - learners first engage with a motivating problem and grapple with how to solve it. During grappling, they mentally formulate questions, which creates an authentic and motivating need for learning. Once they realize what they don’t know, learners naturally desire new information to adjust their mental model of the content/task. This problem solving or grappling:

"Providing students with opportunities to first grapple with specific information relevant to a topic has been shown to create a ‘time for telling’ that enables them to learn much more from an organizing lecture (as measured by subsequent abilities to transfer) than students who did not first have these specific opportunities."

(Bransford et al., 2000) based on the research of (Schwartz & Bransford, 1998).

Grappling reveals to them what they need to learn to solve that problem and readies their minds to learn. It creates the right conditions for learners to assimilate the information from exploration, coaching, explicit instruction, and even well-targeted lectures, into their memory. The way they store what they learn aids in future retrieval in similar problem-solving situations. In other words, it aids in better "understanding," which cognitive scientists would refer to as, "knowledge encoding and indexing," and more effective transfer of the learning from class to real-world environments.

What does "practice first, teach second" look like?"

Here are the essential components.

A. Practice First

B. Teach Second

These methods can and should be used in tandem. When we say, "teach second," we mean provide learning support just in time - when the learner needs it and knows how to use it to solve an immediate problem (immediacy is important—it’s not effective to teach for needs that are too far in the future).

And what about the future? Isn’t the point of learning something to transfer it to new contexts? Yes! First, give learners the motivation and context they need to learn effectively "in-class." Then, give them the opportunity to successfully solve the immediate problem with their newly acquired knowledge and skills. Once they experience the emotional satisfaction of their "win," conduct a debrief/reflection discussion to help them think through how they might transfer these new techniques to similar challenges on the job.

Is practicing first and teaching second new? Is it a fad that will pass?

Far from it. For starters, notice the research cited above is from nearly 25 years ago. More importantly, consider how people naturally learn. Before schools and corporate training existed, people learned by attempting to do things. You can see this organic learning process in children today, when they learn to ride a bike, for example. Below are theories about the process by which people naturally learn.

1 Theory 1: Dynamic Memory

We have a goal we wish to achieve. Based on our understanding of how things work, we plan for how we will achieve that goal. We implement the plan, and either it works or doesn’t. If our plan works, we don’t learn anything. And we don’t need to. Our existing knowledge and skills are effective. However, if we fail, then we seek to understand what went wrong. Failure primes us for learning.

So, first we try, then we become ready to learn. We formulate an explanation of why our plan failed. We seek help from others, reason on our own, Google it…whatever works. We are now motivated to solve the problem, we want to succeed, and we want the right resources or tools. This is the time to learn (we are ready be taught)!

Next, we add what we’ve learned to our understanding of how things work. Then, we can try again given our new understanding.

What if we have a goal in mind, but no idea where to start? We begin by asking ourselves questions – we grapple. We realize there’s something we don’t know, and we seek assistance and explanations. Grappling primes us for learning – we’re now ready for instruction.

In other words, failure and grappling are pre-conditions for learning. We become ready to learn when we can’t formulate a plan, we struggle to implement our plan, or we implement a plan and fail. These are all moments when we realize there’s a gap in our understanding and ability; assuming we care about the goal, this is when we are most ready to receive instruction and assimilate it effectively for future retrieval (Schank, 1982). We try first and then we learn, not the other way around.

2 Theory 2: Case-Based Reasoning

Another element to consider in the natural learning process is working on an authentic problem which becomes a "case" in our memories of a time when we solved a problem "like that." When people confront a challenge, they develop plans for tackling it by recalling prior cases in their memory – things that worked or didn’t work in similar situations. The more cases we have, the more expert we become in solving similar kinds of problems. We get better at learning transfer. This process is known as "case-based reasoning" (Bareiss, 1989, Hammond, 1989; Kolodner & Jona, 1991; Riesbeck & Schank, 1989; Schank & Abelson, 1977).

Case-based reasoning theory contradicts traditional instructional practices in which instructors attempt to teach learners generalized concepts, procedures, and skills with the expectation that the learners will be able to apply them in any number of future contexts. Learning and cognitive science research suggests people do not effectively learn abstract principles divorced from relevant usage contexts (Collins, 1996). We learn because of our experiences in specific contexts, and then, through repeated practice in varied contexts, we eventually abstract (generalize) the principles we learn and develop the ability to apply them in a more general way (Bransford et al., 1989). Again, this suggests practicing in context first and learning as a result, not the other way around.

3 Theory 3: Situated Cognition

Effective learning occurs when people are engaged in meaningful experiences, especially during the pursuit of motivating goals—in other words, learning-by-doing. Learning and context are intertwined. The theory of situated cognition (Brown, Collins, and Duguid, 1989) holds that the context or situation and activities in which learners are engaged when they acquire new knowledge are intricately connected to the knowledge that is gained and how it is stored in memory.

"The activity in which knowledge is developed and deployed, it is now argued, is not separable from or ancillary to learning and cognition. Nor is it neutral. Rather, it is an integral part of what is learned. Situations might be said to coproduce knowledge through activity. Learning and cognition, it is now possible to argue, are fundamentally situated" (Brown, Collins, and Duguid, 1989).

So, whatever learners are doing when they develop a new understanding becomes tied to what they learned. This context plays a critical role in knowledge retrieval and use. Learners do not fully understand abstract ideas without experiencing their relevance in usage contexts, and those usage contexts become an inherent part of what they learn.

As Allan Collins explained in his book chapter, "Design Issues for Learning Environments,"

"Students should first learn knowledge and skills in context, and by experiencing multiple contexts they should learn to generalize their knowledge." The reason, he explains, is that "it is difficult to remember abstractions, if they are not grounded in situations that are memorable" (Collins, 1996 p. 18).

A clear context shows learners why the knowledge and skills are relevant. Grappling with a problem causes students to notice gaps in their knowledge and primes them to receive and assimilate new information. This is the best time for instruction – after, not before, learners initially try to solve a relevant problem (Bransford et al., 2000).

Do lectures ever have a place in a flipped approach? Yes!

Once learners have had a chance to understand the goal or challenge and they are motivated to grapple with it, then explicit instruction about the required knowledge and skills can be quite effective. Especially brief, well-targeted lectures are helpful. The instructor can reliably evaluate how well learners understood the lecture once those learners have a chance to apply the new knowledge and skills. Ideally, the learners will then have multiple chances to practice and demonstrate proficiency.

Let learners struggle, but not for long

While failure is a great way to help learners realize they have a gap or misconception in their knowledge, forcing them to fail or making them struggle too long without support is unfair. It can feel like a trick in a learning program, as opposed to real life. The best time to provide instruction is when the learner wants it. The optimal moment is when they become curious and desire assistance to formulate a plan or explain a failure. This is practical in a one-on-one learning situation, making apprenticeships ideal. For group learning, it’s easier and still effective to "tee-up" a planned tutorial once learners have had a chance to get into the problem and struggle just a bit. Before frustration builds or time is wasted, instructors can "catch" the learners when they’re curious and hungry for the help.

What happens when we teach first? Where does that information go?

When instruction is provided without enough context the information taught can become "inert knowledge," (Whitehead, 1929), knowledge that resides somewhere in memory but cannot be retrieved reliably. Cognitive psychology research has shown that the more similar the learning context (training) is to the practice context, (the job), the more likely that learners will reliably retrieve the relevant lessons on the job. (Bransford et al., 1989; Godden & Baddeley, 1975; Ross, 1989; Tulving & Thompson, 1973, as cited in Berman, 2001).

When we learn in rich, authentic contexts that reflect the real-world in which we need to apply the lessons, the learning context provides memory cues that help us store and retrieve the new information. This is case-based reasoning in action. In the future, the real-world context will trigger these memory cues and remind us of what we learned previously.

In contrast, lectures provided prior to practice present only decontextualized principles. There are too few cues, without the context, to aid in memory retrieval. These lectures come before there’s a need to know. So, the information enters the mind, has nowhere to "anchor," and becomes inert.

What prevents organizations from using the more effective "practice first, teach second" approach?

When given the suggestion to allow learners to practice solving a problem before learning the official method for how to do so, business leaders, and sometimes learning leaders too, are reticent or fully reject the idea. There are three common obstacles:

  1. Personal learning history. The people who are making instructional decisions expect learning to be the way it was when they went to school.
  2. Lack of awareness about learning, memory, and retrieval. Subject-matter experts and business leaders know what topics they want to address in the learning program, and they want to see that material covered explicitly so they know the learners will have (theoretically) received the message. They are unaware that a different approach (flipping it) would be more effective for learning retention.
  3. Concern about creating a negative experience. Leaders fear learners will struggle and potentially fail and will have a negative experience as a result. They assume learners won’t succeed, because there are things the learners need to know to be able to solve the problems. So, they want to "teach it all first."

How can you get started with a practice first, teach second approach?

Sometimes the best solution is to start with one part of the organization – find a stakeholder or SME who is daring enough to try a practice-first, problem-based approach – to have a strong example that becomes a model of what’s possible. Success here typically leads to others becoming willing to try it too.

three dots


Tammy Berman, Ph.D.

Tammy Berman, Ph.D.

Senior Vice President of Design

Learn more


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  2. Berman, T. R. (2001). Why Corporate Training Doesn’t Work: Trainers’ Common Misconceptions about Learning, Resulting Course Design Errors, and Design Principles for Constructing Effective Training Courses [Unpublished doctoral dissertation/master’s thesis]. Northwestern University.
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