Thoughts on Teaching History in a Scale-Up Classroom (Part VIII)
March 6, 2013 § 2 Comments
The dust has settled after the midterm and students are beginning to look toward the next major task in my History 101 class taught in a Scale-Up Classroom. We have passed the halfway point of the semester and each of the 9 student tables are preparing to write their chapters for a “flipped textbook”. Two weeks ago, the students wrote proposals for each chapter and they were solid. Last night, the prepared outlines, talked with other tables to avoid overlapping content, and apportioned responsibilities for preparing the first draft.
This work led to a few revelations on how the Scale-Up Room worked and how I will set up my class in the future.
1. Open Ended Assignments. As I developed my class, I imagined lots of small task based assignments. This came in part from my exposure to faculty in the sciences who were preparing their course for this room. As a result, I had a number of assignments that asked students to make lists. Lists had the advantage of a finite amount of work: I asked individuals, pods, and tables to compile a group of objects in some kind or order and supported by some kind of evidence. The bounded nature of these assignments helped me to manage classroom time, assess success or failure, and build a foundation of “factual” information that students could draw upon later in the semester. Typically, students worked on lists in pods and then compiled their lists as a table and uploaded it to a wiki. The major problem with lists is that students either didn’t finish or they finished early and goofed off when they were done. These two outcomes were annoying.
This week, I asked the students to prepare an outline for their chapter, based in part on their proposal. Unlike my list assignments, I provided very few rules on how long the outline should be, how much detail it should have, and how many entries it needs to include. I offered three more or less required suggestions: first, I told them to use a standard outline format (I.,B.,1.,b.,i., et c.), I recommended that they include more detail and sources rather than less, and I asked the group to use the outline to divide up specifically the work of writing the first draft among the pods at the table.
That’s all it took for the students to work for over an hour and a half without interruption on their outline. Groups were asking for help flagging me and my GTA down constantly. They asked good and substantive questions about their chapters. The various tables interacted with one another and negotiated the topical and chronological boundaries of their chapters. By the end of class, outlines had taken shape and most of the groups were involved in the sticky negotiation surrounding who would write what over spring break.
With more clearly bounded tasks like preparing lists, students had a tendency to doing the least amount of work possible or becoming hung up on the details of the assignment (e.g. what happens if we only have 5 entries in our list?). With the open ended assignment to write an outline and a practical goal in mind, students embraces their task with tremendous enthusiasm and focus. The results were good.
2. Scale-Up and Its Discontents. I got a great insight from a couple of good, but not entirely enthusiastic students about the limits of the Scale-Up room. Inevitably there is a time in each class that some lecture is required. Most days, it involves introducing a concept (10-20 minutes), giving instructions (10 minutes), or trouble shooting a persistent problem (5 minutes). The most lecture heavy class will involve no more than 45 minutes of lecture over the 2:20 minute course (32%). Most days, however, lecture totals are less than 25% of the class.
Unfortunately, the Scale-Up class is terrible for even short lectures. Students do not face one direction. There are pillars in the classroom that obstruct many students’ view. The acoustics are challenging so I have to use a wireless microphone. I pace while I lecture so that most students can see me, but unlike a standard classroom, it’s very difficult to make eye contact with any student or group and I am usually out of sight from some part of the class at all times. The result is that for most students part of my lectures tend to be disembodied voice. In other words, my lecture becomes the voice you hear at the airport telling you that the moving walkway is coming to an end or not to leave any unattended baggage. Students clearly have problems connecting with this kind of lecture and when they don’t connect, they do not retain information.
3. Writing as a Group. We use the Blackboard CMS to manage most of the group work. For writing as a group and disseminating it to the class, we have used the Wiki function. In almost every way this textbook captures the spirit of wiki-based composition. Unfortunately, Blackboard’s Wiki application is dreadful. It gets jacked easily on formatting artifacts on text imported from Word or other word processors. It doesn’t handle spacing or font size with any elegance making most text either cramped and bobo looking or spaced out like Miles Davis in 1976.
This makes the prospects of creating a textbook from text disseminated through the Wiki feature in Blackboard a dreadful prospect. There is not much I can do at this point except imagine a better application in the future or look at the various web-based collaborative writing platforms on the internets.
The last few classes in the Scale-Up room began to fatigue me as I felt like the students were going through the motions, last night was energizing and positive. For more on my experiences in the Scale-Up room click here.