May 7, 2013 § Leave a Comment
As most of you probably know, I’ve been teaching my 100-level history class in the University of North Dakota’s fancy Scale-Up classroom this semester. As part of that project, I made my teaching journal public here on the blog.
From those reflections, I’ve put together a working draft of an article that tries to briefly locate Scale-Up teaching in the larger context of teaching history at the university, outlines in a more systematic way my classroom techniques, and identifies certain key challenges that we faced teaching in this room. There’s a reflective conclusion that considers how shifting the educational paradigm from teaching-centered to student-centered embraces trends present in the development of online teaching and Late Capitalism.
I’ve included some of my basic lesson plans as an appendix and paired them with my reflective blog posts from throughout the semester.
As always, I’m keen for conversation and feedback.
May 1, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Last night was the last meeting of my History 101 class in the Scale-Up classroom at the University of North Dakota. Most of the class consisted of students doing a robust battery of assessment exercises and, then, revising the chapters of the textbook that the class composed over the course of the semester. Some students were still working away when I left the room after 9 o’clock. It was clear that a number of the groups not only saw that they could produce a high quality product that would get a good grade, but also felt some real ownership and pride in their work. This was heartening.
As with any experimental exercise, there will some good, some bad, and some downright ugly. My first semester teaching in the Scale-Up room was no exception. I am working on a longer reflective piece that will summarize many of the reflections that I have presented in this weekly series of blog posts, but for today, I’ll hit on some of the basic, practical issues that I encountered over the course of the semester.
1. Student Engagement. The level of student engagement in this course has been astounding. I have never encountered an introductory level course with more motivated and committed students. Two-thirds of the students took every assignment serious and a half did more than yeoman’s effort on most assignments. Making the classroom the space of active work was central to this. The Scale-Up room made the students more accountable to each other and giving students the room to lead and teach undermined their tendency to resist authority (see point 2 here). In short, this format works to keep students engaged in process.
2. Attendance. One the great failings of my survey courses, particularly the night class, is attendance and retention. I was pleasantly surprised to see that student attendance remained over 90% throughout the semester and my drop rate improved from over to 20% to less than 15%. These are significant improvements. Students – despite their occasional complaints – seemed to like coming to class in the Scale-Up room. Getting the students to class is half the battle in any large class. You can’t teach the students if they are not there.
3. Organize, write, edit, revise. The Scale-Up room provided a remarkable platform for encouraging students to take the writing process seriously. The students approached the outlining process with a seriousness of purpose that was remarkable. Most took their task of writing the first draft intentionally and over the past two weeks worked hard to address critiques and produce thoroughly revised drafts. All the chapter got better and all the groups seemed committed to understanding and revising their papers in a way that I could never manage to encourage in a traditional, lecture style classroom. The Scale-Up room is better at focusing students on process because it provides them with the tools (laptops) and the space (round tables) to collaborate on the frustrating, if rewarding, task of writing.
1. Management versus Pedagogy. My greatest challenge this semester was balancing my pedagogical goals with my need to understand and managed the new classroom space. Students sat around 18 tables with 9 seats and 3 laptops each. It was impossible to lecture for more than 10 minutes in the decentralized space of the room. As a result, I had to make sure that I had activities to keep the students occupied and focused through the entire 2 hour, 20 minute class period. To do this effectively, I had to figure out how to break down various academic processes into small, manageable activities with assessable outcomes. I spent considerable time trying to figure out how to make something like producing a timeline into a collaborative activity. At times, though, I began to reflect that my need to manage this strange new classroom began to trump the actual pedagogical value. A great example of this is that I ran out of projects for students to do before the semester was over. As a result, I spent a good bit of time concocting ways to encourage students to work on revising their projects.
2. Collaboration versus Combination. One of the main tricks in managing the collaborative writing project is moving students from working on sections of a project and then combining them to actually collaborating to produce an integrated single product. The challenge was getting students to transfer their “ownership” of a particular section to “ownership” of the entire work. The most interesting thing was watching the group cut a student’s sections that did not fit into the larger project. Only best groups were able to make this decisions and many of the groups continued to see the final chapter as a combination of discrete sections authored by individual students rather than a cohesive whole.
3. Content versus Method. The first issue that most of my colleagues note in how I’ve taught my History 101 class is that the students do not get the full content of a traditional 101 class. This is in keeping with a practice known as “uncoverage” among historians that seeks to shift the focus from content to methods in the history survey course. The argument goes that most students are unlikely to remember particular bits of historical “fact” but they can learn methods that will allow them to organize and critique facts encountered throughout their lives. So we should shift our emphasis from teaching facts to teaching methods. This is a great approach, but rarely does a student come to the field of history because they love the methods. In an survey class at the introductory level, we are hoping to instill a passion for history and the past. Teaching students about the past involves some treatment of content. I will have to continue to defend how I draw the line between content and method in my Scale-Up experiment.
1. Citation and Sources. I had this hope that the students would primarily use their textbooks as sources for their chapters. To support that I ensured that each table had 7 different textbooks represented. Of course, the predictable happened. Students ignored the textbooks and went uncritically to The Googles like moths to the light. Then as they wrote their chapters, they became flummoxed by citing their rather motley assortment of online sources. Because I did not anticipate students going so quickly online, I did not develop any exercises to encourage critical reading of online sources and had to cobble together a method for having them cite these sources in their chapters.
I was similarly struck by their approach to primary sources. I gave the students my existing primary source reader and nudged them to use the primary sources provided in this document for their chapter. Most of the groups, however, charged off to Google and brought to the table a new group of primary sources. I was not familiar with most of them and struggled to develop easy to understand rules to guide the students through citing them.
I need to simplify and streamline this system.
2. Peer Review. I struggled to get students to take peer review seriously. I keep hoping that by encouraging them to critique their fellow students chapters they will refine their ability to read their own work critically. In fact, what happens is that the students offer facile and weak reviews of the other chapters, groups flail around in any effort to use these peer reviews to fix their works, and – worst of all – they see no connection between their lack of real effort to peer review and the mediocre quality of peer review. On the flip side, they seem my thorough critiques of their work as revelatory. I need to figure out a way to get the students to peer review better. This will probably involve modeling peer review more seriously for them and making their peer reviews worth more points.
3. Disembodied Voices. The most challenging thing about the room is that the combination of a decentralized arrangement of the classroom and the wireless microphone makes it very difficult to lecture or even instruct for more than 8-10 minutes. While I understand that the room is not designed for this, it nevertheless makes it difficult to even give students instructions for a complex assignment. Students get restless after about 5 minutes of my talking. Similarly, there is no way that student groups can present their work to class using their table microphones. The set up of the microphones ensures that the class activities remain decentralized.
There is a final issue that I’m curious to see develop. That is the use of this classroom as a showcase for the university’s commitment to innovative teaching. This is great, of course, but right now we have only one Scale-Up room and the work in this room is not representative of either the spaces or the kinds of innovation in teaching across campus. So while it is great to see photograph of the new provost in the Scale-Up room, it is more important for the university to continue to support innovative teaching in all forms across campus.
April 24, 2013 § 1 Comment
Last night I had my second to last night of the semester teaching History 101: Western Civilization in the University of North Dakota’s fancy new Scale-Up classroom. The course is deigned around the idea that 18 groups of 9 students will produce a chapter for their own textbook. Over the past three months we have walked the students through the conceptualization, organization, and finally writing of a 5000 word textbook chapter. The groups have, generally, taken the task seriously and worked hard.
The greatest challenge has been to balance course learning goals with issues of classroom management. Some nights, I get the balance right and the students work as focused teams to address particular historical problems. (Other nights, of course, the wheels come off.) Last night was a pretty good night. The students worked for almost two hours on their projects without interruption.
1. Authority and Revision. The final third of the class has focused on peer review and revision of chapters. The first step was a superficial reading by myself and my graduate assistant. We then asked tables to peer review other table’s chapters. We hoped that these two steps of peer review would produce sufficient critique for students to make meaningful and substantive revisions of their chapters. In the end, this process produced mixed results.
In general, students were ambivalent about revising their chapters based on these peer reviews, and instead of taking the peer reviews seriously as points of departure, most chapter lay dormant. This was a problem because many chapters remained poorly organized, riddled with typographical errors, and with only spotty citation (and some egregious incidents of plagiarized text!). Despite these issues, the groups seemed lethargic and at loose ends.
So, over the last few days, I wrote up close to 10,000 words of critique on each chapter and posted them to a wiki with an estimate grade as a prompt to get students to revise their chapters thoroughly. I posted these comments yesterday and the students found then right before class. Needless to say, my specific comments girded by my additional authority made the groups come to live. The tables worked for close to 2 hours straight last night. Their questions for me and Cody (my super competent graduate assistant) were direct, specific, and clear. I am actually excited to see their revised chapters.
2. Student Resistance. Before class last night, I talked to Cody about my theory of student resistance. I’ve explored these topics here, here, here, here, and here. In short, I argue that some ways that an explicit need to resist motivates some student efforts to confound faculty expectations. The increasingly streamlined and “corporate” environment of university life has led to student resistance in myriad of subtle ways. The most obvious of these is a general carelessness toward writing and proofreading. The work necessary to correct niggling proofreading issues is never high and the stakes tend to be relatively low. As a result, it provides a useful environment for students to express their own identity against faculty efforts to prepare them to be cogs in the machine. Like a slave might damage equipment or neglect a daily task, students refuse to follow the rules of capitalization, persist in using contractions in formal writing, and ignore paths of least resistance.
The Scale-Up room seeks in part to undermine this resistance by giving students greater control over their own fate and work rhythms. They have to work together to accomplish tasks and the decentered arrangement of the classroom occludes the faculty presence. I’ve come to think that the genius of the Scale-up room is that it promotes the possibility of faculty observation (à la Foucault’s panopticon) as a way to mitigate student resistance. The carrot is, then, that students have more control of how their production; the stick is that the faculty may always be watching. Some days I feel like Google or Amazon (.com) as I wander the classroom listening to students working and offering helpful (and more or less unprompted) suggestion.
3. End Game. With one class remaining, I have started to reflect on the mechanical, managerial, and pedagogical mistakes that I’ve made this semester. The most obvious one right now is that some of my failed efforts to encourage peer review and open ended revisions led to a few lost weeks. As a result, I am not going to be able to add the level of polish to final product as I had hoped. Some issues will simply have to be left unfinished like organizing the bewildering array of primary and secondary source citation, maps and images, and even formatting issues. The students are really interested in many of these issues, but I feel the obligation to keep them focused on content. Next time I teach the class, I will work to streamline aspects of the class to produce a better final product.
This is the thirteenth installment of my reflections on teaching History 101 in a Scale-Up classroom. Go here for the rest.
April 10, 2013 § Leave a Comment
This is my 12th week teaching History 101: Western Civilization in the University of North Dakota’s new Scale-Up classroom. So far this semester, there have been weeks where everything works flawlessly and then there have been weeks like this week. At present the students have prepared drafts of chapters that they are writing for a new Western Civilization textbook. This “flipped” textbook approach has dragged the students through the intricacies of conceptualizing, organizing, and writing a textbook chapter. Each 9 student table is responsible for one chapter.
Over the past week, the students prepared two peer reviews of other chapters following a fairly simple template. In class, I simplified this template a bit further and asked them to bring their reviews together as a table. Once the reviews were circulated, I asked each table to respond to the reviews that they received.
The results of this exercise have been pretty ordinary. It reminds me of three issues with asking students to peer review.
1. Students don’t know how. They have no idea how to provide feedback to other students. They seem fixated on giving positive feedback and allergic to any sort of substantial critique. As a group, they contradict themselves, stumbled over obvious issues, and rarely produced anything approaching a cohesive criticism. Despite my efforts to push the students to prioritize their critiques, it was not entirely successful. In general, I think their peer reviews were just barely helpful.
2. Students struggle to embrace iterative work. In general, I have found that students like the idea of writing drafts, but they rarely enjoy or embrace the process. I suspect that too many courses in their academic careers treat graded assessment as the final result of their efforts rather than part of the process. As a result, students do not regularly engage with comments and see them as a way to improve a work. This rather alienated attitude toward comments undermines the fundamental ideas of peer review and the process of working iteratively through drafts.
3. Value. Most scholars are motivated to write good and thoughtful peer reviews because they have received and benefited from good and helpful reviews. Moreover, most of us buy into the larger project of academia in which peer review is a key element. Students rarely have experienced the benefit of peer review (and many of them may not even read the comments on their work) and certainly do not buy into many of the basic commitments of academia.
Knowing these three things, I still failed to incentivize the peer review process and the results were predictable. The exercise was treated as perfunctory and the results were uneven. More than that, an exercise that I anticipated would take 40 minutes per chapter (i.e. 80 minutes over the course of the class) took about an hour total. I had to scramble during the second half of class to keep the tables moving forward in editing their chapters and, for the first time all semester, I had to ask the students to fix work that they produced in class.
The solution to the peer review issue is, as always, carrot and stick. The stick is making the peer review a major part of the student’s grade. The carrot is to encourage students to buy into the peer review process as an opportunity to understand the strengths and weaknesses of their work and fundamental to academic life. Last night, I missed on both.
For more on my adventures teaching in the Scale-Up Classroom, go here.
April 3, 2013 § Leave a Comment
I just completed my tenth week of teaching History 101: Western Civilization in the University of North Dakota’s new Scale-Up classroom. I feel like I am still figuring out both pedagogical and classroom management issues despite the over 20 hours of teaching in the room. The overarching idea behind my class is for each 9 student table to produce a chapter of a textbook. As of last week, each table has produced a revised draft of their chapter and the next two weeks will involve setting it aside and working on peer review.
1. Taking a Step Back. Over the last three weeks, students have worked hard to write and revise their chapters. I have urged them to consider five major issues with their work (1) coherence, (2) organization, (3) primary sources, (4) citation, and (5) proofreading. The first two issues involve ensuring that the chapter is more than just a litany of facts or content, and the last two involved copy editing type work. I’ve given the students wide latitude on how to integrate primary sources into their chapter.
At our pre-class meeting, my GTA observed that the students may need some critical distance from their chapters. As a result we decided that the next two classes will focus on peer reviewing other chapters in order to give the students a chance to study closely how other groups have approached issues of organization, argument, and structure in their work. The goal of this is explained in point 2.
2. Guided Revisions. One of the great challenges this past two weeks is getting the large groups to revise their chapters without telling them exactly what to do. The groups received feedback after an initial draft and worked on revisions over the past week. The results were mixed with some evidence that the students did not understand the comments that we made on their chapters, some evidence that they did know how to make the necessary changes, and some evidence for predictable student resistance and laziness. The goal of the next two weeks is to encourage students to peer review other group’s chapters and to begin to think of their own work more reflexively. Hopefully this will open the door to more careful and thorough revisions as students will be better able to communicate to each other the kinds of changes necessary than I will be able to communicate to them.
3. Energy and Intensity. I made a bit of a rookie mistake tonight. The students worked hard to write short introductions and to plan revisions for their work. There was a tremendous amount of energy in the room and a flurry of activity at every table as the groups organized their approaches to their revisions and working on writing short introductions to their chapters. As the momentum surrounding this activity began to crest, I introduced the next phase of activities for the week. This involved some lower key list building and more structured group work.
It felt like I had thrown an anchor out of speeding boat when the class dissolved into a morass of distraction. In the future I need to be a bit more careful about how I combine assignments in the classroom so that the groups can maintain momentum and not be driven to distraction.
4. Minding the Gaps. One thing that is fascinating is how students have shifted from worrying about students who aren’t pulling their weight in the group to adopting strategies that allowed the group to succeed without the work of the slacking or absent students. Having observed this transition, I suspect that the best approach to entirely understandable concern by students about the equitable distribution of work in the group is just letting it play itself out. Over time, students will understand that a good final product will benefit them more than they will be hurt by the under performance of their classmates and rally to the cause.
Four more classes this semester and I’ll report back on them here. For my on my adventures in Scale-Up teaching click here.
March 27, 2013 § Leave a Comment
This is my 11th week teaching History 101: Western Civilization in the University of North Dakota’s new Scale-Up Classroom. The goal of the class was to introduce the students to the major aspects of the historical method, to get them to organize a substantial writing project, and to develop some skills necessary to collaborate in a group. To do this, we tasked each table of 9 students to write a chapter on a particular topic in Western Civilization. These chapters will come together to form a textbook.
Last week the students presented first drafts of their chapters. Many of the students are now getting excited as they see both their chapter take shape and the textbook take shape across the room. Several students have even asked whether they could get a copy of the book when they were done!
The chapter drafts themselves and the process of revising these drafts gave me a chance to think about how the class worked to produce historical knowledge with a body of assessable text in front of me. Here are my observations on student writing, process, and my writing:
1. Narrative vs. Thematic Approach to History. One of the main successes of my class is that students are clearly struggling with the tension between narrative history and history of institutions or trends. This is mostly an issue of organization and figuring out how to move within the chapter from the presenting a specific and detailed historical account to treating institutions or even “structures” that shaped pre-industrial society. Some of the more ambitious groups have begun to think about how they can integrate primary sources into the mix and move from the very specific bits of historical knowledge to larger synthesis. To my mind, this emphasis on the specific and the general is a key aspect of the study of history.
2. Students and Textbooks. The chapters were remarkably decent. There were the predictable issues with organization, some niggling grammar problems, and some need to clarify citation. There were remarkably few factual problems, intermittent episodes of good analysis, and solid evidence for student effort across the board. What is interesting in their imitations of textbook chapters is the almost total absence of coherence and continuity between the various historical factoids present. I got to thinking whether their imitation of textbook chapters represented the way that they read textbooks. In other words, do they read textbooks like long strings of relatively unrelated facts?
3. Managing Unstructured Time. Getting students comfortable with actual dynamics of collaborative work is among the most difficult parts of teaching in the Scale-Up room. Over the course of the semester, students have become better and better at figuring out how to manage open-ended assignments (e.g. revise your chapter) and unstructured time. Last night, for example the class featured two big blocks of unstructured time. One at the start when the students produced a blueprint for revising their chapter and one toward the end where the students began revisions and devised the best approach to making their blueprint for revisions actionable. While I still wish the students would take better advantage of time toward the end of class, I also realize that a two hour and twenty minute class is a long time for sustained work, and it is clear that students are getting better at using time to its fullest extent.
4. Peer Review. The big step in the next few weeks is going to be peer review. Right now, when groups engage each other it is still pretty perfunctory and tentative. (It was cool to watch the students fan out across the room to present their chapters to other groups.) Over the next couple of weeks, we are going to work to increase student engagement in the peer review process. Some written reviews and some reflections on how the structure, quality, and content of chapter differ will help students to see how writing a peer review can help their own work. We will also have to think about ways to get students within the groups to reflect on the distribution of the work on the chapter.
5. Writing the Scale-Up. I’ve begun to write an article length reflection on my semester teaching history in the Scale-Up room. It’s my first real effort at writing Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL). I’ve long thought that those who can’t do, SoTL, but I also want to provide a basic record and guide to what I learned from doing this. So I am thinking in terms of writing my Scale-Up experiences as an exercise in archival work along the lines of G. Stanley Hall’s Methods of Teaching History (1896). (Some of my reflections on this are here.) More on this work soon…
For more on my adventures teaching in the Scale-Up room, check out these earlier posts.
March 20, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Last night the students in the History 101: Western Civilization class that I’m teaching in the University of North Dakota’s snazzy new Scale-Up classroom submitted the first draft of their chapters. Those of you who follow this blog know that the core feature of this class involves “flipping” the textbook and making each of the 18, 9-student tables responsible for producing a chapter. The week before spring break saw each table prepare an outline for their chapter drawing on their careful work over the first 7 weeks of the semester. This outline not only organized their chapter but also set out which students were responsible for each part of the chapter.
Watching the students work together to produce an outline and bringing their work together into a chapter was pretty remarkable. In general, the students approached these tasks with a seriousness of purpose. In the process of circulating from group to group, I learned a few things about classroom management:
1. Student Managed Groups. Students get annoyed when some of their group members don’t show up or pull their own weight, but, in general, the tables have done a remarkable job managing their groups. Most groups clearly could work together and handled the distribution of tasks in a pretty efficient way. While many of the Scale-Up pundits recommended formal ways to ensure tasks rotate at the table, I’ve yet to see any real issues with students dividing responsibilities evenly across the group.
2. The Three Computer Problem. One issue, however, is that each table only has three computers for nine students. This was an intentional feature of the Scale-Up room to facilitate student interaction and collaboration. The issue is, of course, that the laptop itself is not designed to accommodate multiple users. In fact, the basic design of the laptop is to create an intimate space between user and the tool. While it is possible to project the work from the laptop onto a large flatscreen monitor assigned to each table, the round table shape means that some students at the table can’t see the monitor without moving to a different position. None of this a deal breaker for the Scale-Up room, but it makes certainly kinds of exercises – like looking for images or sources on the web, writing anything longer that short texts, and any kind of formatting work – less than ideal in the Scale-Up setting. In effect, the three laptops become tools useful only in short bursts. And, since my class involves some sustained work during class time (e.g. writing an outline), most tables now have more than the three laptops running.
3. A Little Something Extra. Last night was the first night that the groups completed the assignments faster than I anticipated. Most of this is owing to the increased efficiency of the groups. Tasks that involved significant planning at each table at the beginning of the semester now happen without the need for organization. Students have accepted certain tasks and get to work quickly.
What this means from a course management standpoint is that exercises later in the semester have to be more complex and more densely scheduled. So when they ran out of work last night, I had to dip into my reserve of ideas to keep some of the more efficient groups active and moving forward.
4. Keeping Momentum. Most groups had completed the tasks set for them this class and appeared to have momentum in terms of editing and working on their chapters. So I suggested that they take the last half hour of class to plan for the rest of the week. This instantly caused 70% of the class to leave. Apparently, there is a balance between giving the students open-ended tasks (prepare an outline) and giving them time without a clear objective (plan for future work). The former capitalizes on rapport and building momentum; the latter stops a class dead in its tracks and causes people to leave.
5. What’s Next? As I look ahead toward the final part of the class which will focus on peer review, I have to convince the students of three things that are, frankly, not native to their species. First, they have to read other people’s work critically and make substantive comments. Next, they have to recognize the value of taking this work seriously not only for their own benefit but because it will benefit their classmates. And, finally, they have to stay on task and continue to assess and edit their own work.
For more on how my History 101 class has progressed in the Scale-Up classroom, check out my earlier posts.
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.
February 27, 2013 § Leave a Comment
This week we returned the midterm exams and embarked on the second part of our three part experiment in teaching History 101: Western Civilization I in the Scale-Up Classroom at the University of North Dakota. The goal of the class is to introduce the students to historical analysis by dividing the class into groups and having each group contribute a chapter to a Western Civilization textbook. If the Scale-up room involved “flipping the classroom”, my history course complemented that by “flipping the textbook.”
1. Looking Back. The midterm exam was a challenge for me. First, since I’ve been teaching online for the last few years and do not assign a midterm or any “closed book” assessment it took a minute to adjust my expectations to an in class assessment. Next, I have general taught my course as content focused meaning that the midterm evaluated the students’ grasp of a focused body of material from the first half of class. In my Scale Up class each group is working on a different chronological period making the midterm an exercise in method rather than material.
In other words, this class upset my expectations for what a solid 100-level history exam should be. In the past, I could expect a basic mastery of material, but with this exam, I had to accept that my students were still novice potters producing rough and ill-shaped bowls. Unlike the more limited, skill-based exercises that we conducted week-to-week (e.g. built a timeline of primary sources or prepare a list of significant institutions and individuals for your chapter), the test asked the students to integrate these smaller skill sets into a larger historical argument. The results were, predictably, uneven and will likely only make sense in the context of the final project where we can determine whether the students improved their ability to craft pots over the course of the semester.
Most students clearly understood that there should be a relationship between the models that we use to understand the past and a body of historical evidence, but making this leap from lining up models and evidence side-by-side and reflecting on the tension between evidence and interpretation is probably something that will develop only over the course of the semester.
2. Looking Ahead or Clamoring for Contracts. As the students process their test grades (which were just a bit better than average for a 100 level history course) and look ahead to the final project, you can feel the tension rise in the room. Students who had been committed collaborators with their less engaged peers have begun to worry that with the midterm complete, the next major assignment depends almost entirely upon their collaboration with classmates. While this is a real world experience (working with academic collaborators can often be a frustrated process!), students also need some reassurance that they don’t end up carrying the more lackluster efforts of weaker students to the detriment of their grade.
As a result, I am going to institute a contract for each chapter produced by the table of nine students. The goal of the contract is for students to negotiate the intricacies of actually working together to write the first chapter draft which which is due the week after spring break. To do this, they will work up an outline that will serve as the basis for a contract. The contract will involve word counts, a due date, and an author. A preliminary draft will be compiled and edited during class the Tuesday after spring break. Students will receive grades based on their contributions and the overall structure of the chapter keeping with our practice of interleaving individual and group grades.
3. Driven to Distraction. The past month has seen the gradual creep of distraction into the classroom. Some of this is my fault. For example, yesterday I asked all 18 groups to present a 2 minute elevator pitch for their chapters. While 2 minutes is not too much to ask even the most distracted undergraduate to focus, 2 x 18 (almost 40 minutes) of listening to one another present material pushed the class too far and led to a growing distracted din. In the future, I’ll only ask half the tables to present on any given day and will group tables with related topics together and ask them to present on the progress of their larger projects.
The other form distraction comes from having laptop computers on each table. Last night I observed students watching some kind of ice hockeying contest (who knew the that NHL still existed… I almost felt guilty telling them to stop watching) and the game cast of the Minnesota v. Indiana college basketball game. What made this particularly annoying was the most distracted also tended to underperform.
I had a chat with a colleague the other night about dealing with the distracted and distracting students. Generally, I have a laissez-faire attitude toward student behavior and figured that students will largely self police and some small doses of public humiliation (i.e. calling a student out for admitting to watch the NHL at all…) sucked the air out of the transgressive thrill of being obviously distracted before a major insurrection could break out. I think that I have the situation under control, but only time will tell.
For more on my adventures in the Scale Up classroom, go here.
February 6, 2013 § Leave a Comment
This was the fifth class for my History 101: Western Civilization course in University of North Dakota’s new Scale-Up room. So far I have introduced students to some of the basic tools for the historian: historical models, primary sources, chronology, agency, and (next week) space and place. The students have used a series of exercises on these large, but central topics to historical analysis to organize and analyze a smaller, chronologically and topically cohesive body of historical material. The goal is to shift attention away from the vast body of content to the ways in which historians organize, interpret, and analyze material. Each table is responsible for part of the historical narrative and the combined efforts from the 18 tables of 9 will produce a textbook. So far, the course has gone well with the students accepting the flipped classroom environment, working decently well with their colleagues, and dutifully absorbing both the basics of the historical method and the some key elements of a particular time or set of issues that I have assigned to each table.
Tonight was the first night that I felt like the class was a bit frayed at the edges. I will probably have to change up the routine some so that the students still have some sense of adventure. Fortunately, the midterm exam is on February 19th and next week, I will bring the course together for a summary and recap of the main points in the first six classes in the semester.
The second half of the class will also involve some new classroom management methods. I want to encourage peer review between groups, make sure that good quality work is happening in the 3 person pods, and try to establish some new ways to evaluate individual student performance.
So now is as good a time as ever to express some concerns:
1. Setting the bar. I’ll be honest. I am thrilled that the students have engaged the material as well as they have, but my expectations were rather low. Having spent the last decade teaching lecture style class and online courses, I am usually satisfied with 25%-30% of the class “getting” the material in a sophisticated way. In this class, I have seen hints that closer to 50% of the class have some of the key concepts under control. While I wonder whether I was too conservative in my expectations for this class, I do suspect that limited the amount of content that the students were expected to command gave them an opportunity to concentrate on the larger conceptual framework useful for understanding that narrative.
2. What is a midterm? I decided to include a midterm exam this semester as an intentional nod to traditional courses. I also thought it would give me a break from teaching on one night and serve as a tool to assess individual learning after the first 5 weeks of class. The challenge of the midterm is that I have to write a series of questions that can be plausibly answered using almost any period and subject matter. Fortunately, I have attempted to stress the use of specific evidence and primary sources to support historical arguments so far this semester, so my hope is that I can ask relatively open ended questions that draw on the basics of the historical method. The questions will ask students to use the specific evidence from their period to support an argument.
The biggest challenge, of course, is to set a standard for where the students should be at this stage of semester across a range of content. As my next point will make clear, teaching history may have shifted their emphasis from content to method, but content still matters. Some content and historical questions are simply more complex than others and require more creativity, nuanced analysis, and sophistication to unpack.
3. Groups and Challenges. One of the most interesting experience that I have had so far is that the topics assigned to each group (and I’ve included a list of my chapters at the end of this post) require such different sets of analytical skills. Groups that have particularly challenging topics have come to embrace the challenge. For example, the group assigned to study the Bronze Age Aegean has to deal with a period with no narrative textual sources (and one group, the Minoans, lacking textual sources at all), but a wide range of archaeological sources. This group has embraced this challenge and interrogated the existing sources with a much greater degree of enthusiasm and rigor than groups with much better documented periods.
Here’s my chapter list for the class. Since the class did not enroll 180 students, I had to combine Chapter 1 with Chapter 2 and Chapter 12 with Chapter 11. Tables of 9 students will collaborate to produce a 5000-7000 word chapter on each of these subject area.
1. Prehistory I: Pre-Bronze Age Near East (combined with Chapter 2)
2. Prehistory II: Bronze Age Near East (Mesopotamia and Egypt)
3. Prehistory III: Bronze Age Greece and Aegean (Mycenaeans and Minoans)
4. Archaic and Classical Greece (Athens and Sparta)
5. Greek Society and Culture
6. Hellenistic Greece
7. Roman Republic
8. Roman Empire
9. Roman Society and Culture
10. Roman Religion and the Rise of Christianity
11. Late Roman Empire
12. Byzantium and Islam (combined with Chapter 11)
13. Early Medieval West (Carolingians)
14. High Middle Ages I: Feudalism and Manorialism
15. High Middle Ages II: The Imperial Papacy
16. High Middle Ages III: The Crusades
17. High Middle Ages IV: The World of the Town
18. Later Middle Ages I: The Black Death
19. Later Middle Ages II: The 100 Years War
20. Later Middle Ages III: The Decline of the Papacy and Rise of Kings
Check out more posts on my experiences in the Scale-Up room here.