Flipping Without Flopping: Combining Learning Approaches to Best Benefit Students

Grant program: Teaching and Learning Development Grant (TLDG)

Grant recipient: Sean Markey, School of Resource and Environmental Management

Project team: Gretchen FergusonMark Roseland and Maria Spiliotopoulou, Centre for Sustainable Development, School of Resource and Environmental Management

Timeframe: December 2017 to January 2019

Funding: $6000

Course addressed: SD/REM 483 – Leadership in Sustainable Community Development

Final report: View Sean Markey's final report (PDF)

Description: The pedagogical approaches that we use in the Sustainable Development Program courses are in alignment with UNESCO’s recommendations for enquiry-based learning, engagement, collaboration, and communication (Scott, 2015). Our pedagogy includes lecture (expert-driven learning), flipped classroom (student-led discussions and classes), problem-based learning (looking at a specific issue in a one-time activity, in groups, in pairs or individually), and project-based learning (working on a semester-long project, in groups or individually).

In this research project, we want to test combinations of pedagogical approaches in order to better understand the best combination to achieve the course objectives and to help students develop the higher-order skills of a ‘sustainability leader.’ The key competencies in sustainability leadership that have been identified in the literature are:

  1. Systems-thinking (“the ability to collectively analyze complex systems across different domains [society, environment, economy, etc.] and across different scales [local to global]”)
  2. Anticipatory skills (“the ability to collectively analyze, evaluate, and craft rich ‘pictures’ of the future related to sustainability issues”)
  3. Normative skills (“the ability to collectively map, specify, apply, reconcile, and negotiate sustainability values, principles, goals, and targets”)
  4. Strategic thinking (“the ability to collectively design and implement interventions, transitions, and transformative governance strategies toward sustainability”)
  5. Interpersonal skills (“the ability to motivate, enable, and facilitate collaborative and participatory sustainability research and problem solving”) (Wiek, 2011).  

We are interested in what kinds and what mix of pedagogical approaches can best support students’ learning in these five competency areas.

The four approaches to test are:

  • course materials (expert-driven learning);
  • in-class activities (problem-based learning/ student-led learning);
  • semester-long projects (project-based learning/ student-led learning); and
  • lectures (expert-driven learning).

Our research will build on our previous TLDG project that explored the ‘flipped classroom’ concept and use of open educational resources (OER) and reading-related activities.


Scott, C. L. (2015). The Futures of Learning 3: What kind of pedagogies for the 21st century? UNESCO Education Research and Foresight, Paris [ERF Working Papers Series, No. 15].

Wiek, A., Withycombe, L., & Redman, C. L. (2011). Key competencies in sustainability: a reference framework for academic program development. Sustainability science6(2), 203-218.

Questions addressed:

  • Which of these four approaches and what mix of these approaches help students develop each of the five key competencies for sustainability leadership?
  • What is the appropriate mix between the four pedagogical approaches for learning and each of the five sustainability leadership competencies?
  • How does this teaching and learning approach work in the online version of the course?
  • What suggestions do students have for future sections of this course to improve learning?

Knowledge sharing: We will discuss the learnings, findings and results of our TLDG project within the Centre for Sustainable Development, the Sustainable Development Program, the School of Resource and Environmental Management, and the Faculty of Environment during research group meetings and other occasions. Given the opportunity, as usual we will discuss our experience with colleagues in other SFU departments and programs, through workshops, conferences and other events.

We believe that the results of this project will be useful to our department and to colleagues in other SFU departments, particularly to the programs that offer courses in both in-person and distance education formats. We will encourage interested faculty members to make use of our project’s outcomes to redesign their courses or test similar pedagogical approaches.

Keywords: Sustainability teaching, sustainability skills, sustainability leadership, sustainability competencies, pedagogical approaches