Be Actively Passive: Embrace Your New Role in Flipped and Active Learning Classrooms

How to be actively passive. Here are three strategies to help you embrace your new role in flipped classrooms and active learning environments.

"You want your students to be active; you've got to be a little passive." --Professor Timothy Bresnahan, Stanford University
Flipped classrooms and active learning environments are dynamic, interactive, and engaging.  If you observe one, you'll see students actively engaged in solving problems, talking with each other, working through a task, or creating a product.

You’d see the instructor walking around the room, mingling with the students, providing assistance, and asking questions. The instructor might take a moment or two to gather everyone’s attention and provide an explanation, reinforce a concept, or explain an idea in a mini-lecture, but then the focus would immediately “flip” back to the students.

At its core, a flipped learning environment is all about what the students DO in the space shared with the instructor.  In my work, the FLIP is when you Focus on your Learners by Involving them in the Process. The FLIP occurs because the focus of the learning environment is on what the students are doing, not on what the instructor is doing. 

If we relate this idea to the quote above, you might say your role is more passive while your students' roles are more active. But, I don't think your role as the instructor is completely "passive." It takes quite a bit of energy, restraint, and focus to step to the side and take on a supportive role in the classroom.

You still have to answer students' questions, pay attention to their conversations, and help them make connections between their discussions and the course content if they need clarification. I prefer to think of the instructor's role as "actively passive."

Learning to be an “actively passive” instructor means building a different set of skills to ensure the flipped learning environment is successful.  It’s not about delivering the most organized, most well-prepared, most structured lecture. 

It's about being present in the moment, being able to make adjustments to help students learn, and being flexible with the process. For many faculty, these are the most challenging aspects of teaching in a flipped classroom.

Here are three ways to begin addressing these challenges and becoming more comfortable in your new role in flipped classrooms and active learning environments:


1. Your new role:  Let go.

If you need structure and to be in control, and if you need to know exactly what to expect at every moment in your lesson plan, then this will probably be the most difficult challenge for you to address.

When you present a lecture, you know what you are going to say, which examples you are going to use, and how much time you want to spend on a topic before moving on to the next. You know how to organize your slides or how to show each step of solving a problem.

If you've given this lecture many times before, you may know the material so well you can probably anticipate the questions students will ask. You can prepare your answers and locate references as needed.

What do you notice about this scenario?

You are the one doing most of the work.

When you FLIP It, your students should be the ones doing the work. And as they do, your role is to let go and allow the space for the learning happen.

Letting go does not mean losing control of your classroom. It means being there for your students, providing resources, and organizing the structure. But, it also means stepping back and letting students work through the learning process without too much input from you until they need it.

To practice letting go, try a simple, low-stakes, flipped strategy first. For example, if you are planning your lecture and organizing your slides, add a blank slide in the middle of the lecture as a signal to pause and ask your students to do something.

You can pose a question and ask students to participate in a think, pair, share activity (takes 3 minutes). Or, use a formative assessment strategy to see what students recall from the first half of the lecture.

For more class discussion strategies, check out this Big List of Discussion Strategies from the Cult of Pedagogy blog.

2. Your new role:  Embrace messy.

A flipped classroom is “messy."  It's dynamic and interactive. Your students may be analyzing problems where there might not be a clear answer or a perfect approach.

This may be difficult and frustrating for some students which is why the "messiness" of the flipped classroom might be the most challenging part for your students. Some students do not appreciate the “gray” area in the learning process. They get frustrated easily.  They want to know the answers. They want to memorize the definition. They want to know if the choice is true or false, A or B, correct or incorrect (For more about college students' development, see Perry's Scheme below, or for a quick overview, read this article.).

Now, a word of caution. Your flipped classroom cannot be chaotic or out of control. This is one of the main complaints students have about flipped and active learning classrooms. You still create a plan, organize the resources, and structure the activity, but you allow time and provide space for students to practice, make mistakes, try again, and make connections about the course material. It's a balance.

To practice embracing the mess, try starting your class with a provocative quote, fact, or statistic. Then allow time for students to quickly write down their thoughts, discuss them with a neighbor and explore other perspectives as a whole class.

Try not to judge, critique or edit their responses. You don’t know what they will say or which way the conversation will go, so try to listen (see #3 below), record a few notes, and hold your comments until the end of the discussion.  (Notice that you’re practicing being “actively passive” with this exercise!).

As you become more comfortable with the students leading the discussion, you can add more of these types of activities into your class.  Start small and practice with a “low stakes” activity.  Have patience with yourself and with your students as you learn to become more comfortable with the unknown.

3. Your new role: Ask questions and listen.

In flipped and active learning classrooms, students are engaged in an activity or working on a problem. Your role is to support their learning process. When you’re serving as the “guide on the side” then it’s essential for you to learn to ask questions that generate a response. And then LISTEN.

Many instructors ask “dead end” questions, meaning the questions have a “yes or no” response. These questions aren't effective for generating discussion because they don't stimulate critical thinking or analysis or conversation beyond the "yes" or "no."

You also want to avoid asking, “Are there any questions?” because most of the time, this creates the awkward silence where you and your students are looking around, feeling anxious, and wondering when you're going to move on.

To practice asking effective questions, you can begin by designing small tasks and pre-planning questions related to the task.  As you plan your lesson, look for moments where you can ask students questions rather than telling them the answers.

But, these questions should be worded carefully. Use a tool such as Bloom’s Taxonomy to carefully organize and scaffold tasks and questions.  Start with a lower level task such as, “In small groups, list and describe the main characters in the story.”  Then ask a question about the task such as, “Joe, which of the characters resonates with you and why?” This strategy engages your students and gives them time to prepare to answer the question properly. 

Notice how your role during class is to provide structure for the task and to ask the questions, but not to provide the answers.  Also notice again how you are being “actively passive” with your approach to engaging your students in the flipped classroom.

Finally, get comfortable with wait time. This is the amount of time you stay silent after you ask a question. For many instructors, silence in the classroom is awkward and they want to fill up the time by talking more, lecturing more, or sharing more examples. But sometimes students need quiet time to think, to process their ideas, or review what they’ve just learned.

Final Thoughts

Learning to be “actively passive” is probably one of the most challenging aspects of flipping any learning environment.  You may be used to having all of the attention focused on you as you stand at the front of the room and lecture to your students.

It’s challenging to re-frame this role, and it can be a little scary to let go of what is known and comfortable. But when you do, a whole new world opens up to both you and your students.

What advice can you share for becoming more "actively passive" in the flipped learning environment? What strategies have helped you overcome the fear of letting go of some of the control in your classroom? Share your ideas in the comments below.

References and Recommended Resource:
Perry, W. G. (1970; 1999). Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years: a scheme. Jossey-Bass. Online abstract available: