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In my opinion

From flipped classroom to flipped thesis: A model for engaged graduate student research

Building stakeholder partnerships from the beginning of a thesis project is a great way to inspire meaningful knowledge mobilization from student research.


Most academics are familiar with the benefits of the flipped classroom teaching method. Instead of lecturing students about the course material, the instructor invites students to engage the material beforehand and then uses class time for discussion, clarification, answering questions, and problem solving. In short, the lesson plan is not entirely determined before each class meeting and is instead co-designed during, responding to diverse student learning needs in an agile manner. For my own teaching practice, the flipped classroom method has helped me to:

  • embed interactivity, flexibility and variety into my lesson plans;
  • focus on motivating students to complete pre-class work; and
  • incorporate co-design opportunities into all aspects of my courses.

Students can also benefit from these principles, which encourage them to value supplementary independent learning opportunities and take initiative in making suggestions to their instructors.

Read more: How to flip your classroom

But classwork is only one part of scholarly practice. Are there other contexts where the presenter and the audience should co-design a plan based on the latter’s needs or priorities? I adapt flipped classroom thinking for my own research and supervision responsibilities, using a “flipped thesis” process to support graduate students in communicating findings to stakeholder groups (i.e. just as a flipped classroom supports instructors presenting course material to students). Unlike a traditional thesis, where dissemination of findings is considered only at the end and only to a small (academic) audience, a “flipped thesis” means setting students up with enough time and flexible support to engage with a partner organization or community from the start of their program. The research plan is not generated until after conversations with potential stakeholder audiences, allowing for a genuine response to partner priorities and leading to better uptake of research findings.

My conceptualization and use of the “flipped thesis” method is  new and has ample room for refinement. Still, here are the basic steps:

  1. Start by building a network of connections to a variety of external organizations. Take part in engagement events and consider including community partners in short-term collaborations (e.g. class projects or research assistantships) in order to develop relationships.
  2. Recruit graduate students who are more interested to do impactful or partnered research within your discipline than in pursuing a specific sub-topic. Look for flexible statements of interest as well as proposals that identify (and demonstrate preliminary understanding of) potential stakeholder audiences.
  3. Near the beginning of the student’s program, work with them to map out potential intersections between your interests, their interests and the interests of relevant stakeholders in your network. Identify the best matched partner organizations and engage in preliminary conversations about the possibility of collaboration. Follow (and train the student in) best practices for research partnership building: ask open ended questions, let the partner lead with their own priorities, do not pressure the partner into collaboration and only proceed if the match is genuine.
  4. If all parties agree to proceed, mutually agree to a tentative timeline and points of contact with the partner. For example: will you start with a signed agreement in principle? How often will you meet? What material should get the partner’s feedback before proceeding? What final outputs will be useful to the partner? How will the collaboration fit with the student’s program requirements?
  5. Follow through with the project plan as agreed. Remember that flexibility is important in partnered research but check with the partner about any major departures from the plan. Commitment to the partner will motivate responsive and timely work from the student and supervisor. The ideal end result will be more impactful research, stronger research relationships and greater skills development for the student.

Unfortunately, higher education institutions are not always well set up for the “flipped thesis” process. There are several required pre-conditions that may not be met for any given supervisor or student:

  1. The supervisor’s research interests must be broad and/or flexible enough to allow for potential collaboration between a variety of stakeholder organizations and student research interests. If your interests are too specialized (or if your position requires extensive specialization), chances of identifying fruitful intersections with both the partner’s priorities and the student’s own interests are low.
  2. The student’s research interests must be sufficiently broad and/or flexible for the same reasons. Using a manuscript-style thesis rather than a monograph-style thesis may make it easier to satisfy multiple different (but related) priorities in the same project.
  3. The student’s program must be broad and/or flexible enough to allow for exploration of potential collaborative topics with the partner organization after acceptance without jeopardizing the student’s chance of admission or completion of program requirements. For myself, I am fortunate enough to be affiliated with a graduate program (i.e. the MA in environmental policy) that allows for any policy-relevant thesis research on a sustainability issue.
  4. The student’s funding package must be sufficiently broad and/or flexible for the same reasons. Baseline funding with no conditions, if available at the relevant institution, works well for this, as do grants that allow for flexibility once awarded.

Of course, the benefits of partnered research and knowledge mobilization are nothing new, so what does “flipped thesis” really add to the discussion? First, “flipped thesis” suggests an inversion of the entire thesis process, rather than a simple addition. The timelines for most graduate students do not allow for much post-research knowledge mobilization, other than the thesis itself and maybe a journal article or two. Thus, considering stakeholder partnership from the beginning is one of the only ways to actually build meaningful knowledge mobilization into graduate student research. Similarly, many existing partnerships for thesis research, in the rare cases that they exist at all, are secondary to the main research priorities of the student (or, more likely, the supervisor). For example, the other graduate program I am affiliated with (i.e. the PhD in transdisciplinary sustainability) requires thesis research to be partnered, which is good, but does not currently require those partnerships to be built from the beginning, which can limit their effectiveness. Second, “flipped thesis” capitalizes on the logic and popularity of the flipped classroom to, in theory, make conversations about partnered thesis research more common. Current references to “flipped thesis” are rare online, limited to “flipped thesis statements” (i.e. a strategy for dialectic essays) and flipped classroom approaches to workshops on developing thesis projects. I envision student-supervisor meetings where the phrase “What if we use a flipped thesis approach?” becomes as common as “What if we use a manuscript thesis format?”

Just as we have reconsidered our traditional approach to teaching with the flipped classroom, let us reconsider our traditional approach to thesis supervision and graduate supervision with the “flipped thesis” model. The benefits of impactful findings, partnership building and practical student training are fruits ripe for picking.

Garrett Richards is an assistant professor with the Environmental Policy Institute at Grenfell Campus, Memorial University of Newfoundland.

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