Day-to-Day Life in the Scale-Up Room

March 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

My brother recently asked me to explain what went on in my Scale-Up class. He’s a middle school principal with more than serious interest in pedagogical innovation, technology, and student engagement. I realize that over the past couple of years of writing on it, I probably haven’t described what I do in the classroom very effectively.

For those who haven’t followed my adventures of teaching history in a Scale-Up classroom, I’ll give a quick overview. The Scale-Up classroom accommodates over 150 students at 20, 9-student tables. Each group of 9 works around 3 laptops in 3, 3-person pods. The goal of my class in the Scale-Up room is to produce a textbook and each table works on 3, 3000 word chapters over the course of the semester. The three chapters cover chronologically the Greek, Roman, and Medieval world and each table writes on either cultural, political, social, economic, or military history for each period. 

Of course, last nights class was probably not a model, but I can at least explain what I should have done (and what I did) to demonstrate that some things work and others do not.

I start most classes with a quiz, and like almost everything in the class, the prompt for the quiz is delivered by a powerpoint slide. Typically it’s a maintenance quiz that asks the students to demonstrate that they did something outside of class. Often, I ask the students to summarize a critique given to written work on the class wiki. I’ll prompt them with a simple powerpoint slide and say: “Having read the peer reviews of your chapter, what is the most important thing to revise in the coming week?” Or, in other cases, I’ll offer a quiz that will prompt them to demonstrate that they’ve done their reading for the week “Brainstorm 5 key issues or pieces of evidence relevant to your chapter.”

This week, I went a bit outside of the norm and let the group to brainstorm a bit on their topic before I asked them to take an individual quiz on the work of the group. I thought it would interesting to see how much student engagement there was. We’ll see when we have graded the quizzes this next week.

After some kind of quiz, I usually have a short lecture that frames the week’s work. Lately, for example, I’ve been troubleshooting problems with group dynamics so I tend to focus on ways that help groups work more efficiently. Usually I also offer some modest comments on content as well.

After this interlude (when student who take more time with their quiz can finish up), I usually move on to group work starting with the three-person pod. On my best days, the pod work builds upon the individual quizzes. If the quiz features an individual brainstorm, then the pod work asks the students to bring together their quiz answers into a synthetic list. Pedagogically, the goal is to have students discuss their answers with each other and toss out poor ones and build on the good answers. Realistically, some pods work better than others and some pods engage the process of compare and critique at a higher level than others. I offer little in the way of direction for these exercises.

As pod work is well underway, my GTA and I typically circulate the room constantly responding to questions by pods and tables. In most cases, questions at this point revolve around clarifying expectations or definitions. For example, students struggle to differentiate between social and cultural history, and since these are two chapter topics, they often request some guidance. Depending on how well a table works together, the pod work often develops directly into table level work.

The next step is generally bringing pod level work together as a table. This is when we move from collecting evidence as an individual and a pod to organizing evidence as a table. This is where my GTA and I have to work the most. Groups struggle to find ways to integrate the work produced by individuals and pods. At this point we usually emphasize the importance of  The most obvious struggle is that the table wants to both validate the work done by individuals and pods and use existing evidence collected by the pods rather than collect more evidence.

Most of our intervention involves critiquing the table’s thesis statements and helping groups organize their ideas into a cohesive chapter. In some cases, we provide nudge groups in a particular direction particularly if they appear to be heading off track or taking a tack that will be difficult for them. In other case, we make sure groups working on adjacent periods (e.g. the cultural history of the Roman Republic and the cultural history of the Roman Empire) or overlapping topics (e.g. the social and economic history of the Roman Empire) do not focus on the exact same areas.

As the semester has gone on, students have become better at organizing their workflow at the table, but not quite as good as I had hoped. Last night, for example, I did not dictate the move from pod work to table level work and found that tables struggled a bit to organize their activities. The biggest problem, this week was that without the definite prompt to move from pod work to group work, students did not stop and formulate a thesis. Instead, they created a list of ideas and then forged a crude outline that did not support a statement of historical argument. Since we’ve been pushing students to formulate a thesis consistently over the course of the semester, watching tables skip this step was disappointing. It also showed how dependent the groups remained on prompts from us to structure their work. 

Moreover, without the clear prompts from pod work to table work, groups tended to rush through their tasks and hurry to leave the room. The prompts helped the groups to structure their time and move through their work deliberately. Without the prompts, many groups left class a half-an-hour early. 

As we move toward the end of the semester, we will experiment further with removing prompts that structure the groups’ engagement with the writing process. In general, we had hoped to slowly move the groups toward a more independent, collaborative process. We’ll have to see how this goes. 

Scale-Up Midterm Report

March 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

This past week I finished grading the midterms for my History 101 class in a Scale-Up classroom. I also submitted a revised draft of the article that I co-authored with my T.A. last spring reflecting on our teaching in this room. So it seemed like a good time to stop and take stock of how my semester has gone and some thoughts on my future work in this room.

1. Midterm Evaluation. The students worked over 4 weeks on midterm exams. Each table produced, one 3000 word essay with sections on the Greek, Roman, and Medieval world. The most striking thing about the midterm exams came not from the exams themselves which were of slightly higher than average quality, but from a brief quiz that I gave hours before the midterm was due. The quiz asked them to reflect on their midterm exams and to identify one thing that they would change if they could.

I naively expected most of the answers to this quiz to focus on stronger theses, better use of primary and secondary source evidence, or even one more round of proofreading, and, indeed, students mentioned these issues. More surprisingly, however, were the number of students who commented on some aspect of process. Whether it was the way the group organized their workflow to produce the chapter, the time allowed between various drafts and revisions, or the distribution of work among members of the group. In fact, a number of students admitted to not working hard enough or contributing enough to the group’s efforts.

The frankness of the students’ self evaluation was shocking and refreshing. These were not anonymous. The students clearly recognized that how they worked as a group to write the chapter had a directly relationship to the quality of their work, and the changes that they offered were process oriented rather than simply outcome oriented. As this class has emphasized the close relationship of methods and processes in the production of knowledge, it was heartening to see that students have internalized this approach to learning.

2. Repetition and Learning. One the shortcomings of my previous class in the Scale-Up room was that we spent all semester writing a single chapter of a history textbook. This allowed us to spend a good bit of time managing research, structuring the chapter and revising the prose, but we only engaged this process one time through. There was no repetition to reinforce or refine the processes developed over the course of the semester, but the end result of our careful work was fairly refined.

The midterm quality was not nearly as good as the work from the final project last semester, but I’m hoping that the opportunity to reflect and revise their process will improve the final product at the end of the semester. It has taken a bit of discipline on my part to allow groups to find their own work rhythms and to turn in products that I know could be better with more time and revisions. At the same time, I think bringing a part of the class to an end and presenting a final evaluation has a kind of impact that revisions and other provision assessments do not have. In short, the students need the grade to establish their own sense of progress and performance in the class. 

3. Peer Review and Consequences. My students are terrible peer reviewers. In the most recent round of peer critiques I provided them with a template that asked them to award a grade to the paper that they peer reviewed. No matter how bad the paper was, how incomplete the ideas, and how poorly proofread the prose, my students found ways to give it a high-B or A. This astounding act of generosity promised to leave their fellow students buoyed with confidence at their progress in the class and free to spend spring break taking some well-deserved down time.

Of course, this kind of uncritical engagement with their fellow students’ work is not at all helpful to anyone. While the concerned pedagogue in me worries that the my criteria for grading are not clear or that the students have not internalized the key components of a good paper, the practical teacher sees these overly optimistic grades as a result of a reluctance to engage critically their fellow students’ work and a tendency to put a superficial loyalty to classmates over a longterm commitment to collective learning. The pedagogue’s concerns are fixed by articulating once again, and maybe with different words, the expectations for these papers; the teacher’s concerns are best resolved by some mildly apocalyptic penalties meted out to students who offer uncritically inflated provisional grades to their fellow students. Middle ground is probably best in this case.

———

With my first short article submitted on my experiences teaching in the Scale-Up room, I’ve begun to think about a follow up article or two. While I’m slated for sabbatical next year, I’m sorely tempted to ask to teach in the room next spring as part of a three year research cycle that focuses on three iterations of my class in this kind of learning-centered environment. That would be the topic of a second article of a trilogy. The third article would look at the relationship between learning-centered spaces and the changing architecture of higher education with references to online teaching, MOOCs, Scale-Up rooms, and traditional lecture bowls. This paper will take some research and more careful consideration, but as this blog has suggested, our growing interest in process and making “invisible learning” visible has clear echoes with 20th century modes of industrial educations that run counter to disciplinary tendencies to history (or the larger humanities project) as craft.

For more of my reflections on teaching in the Scale-Up go here.

Teaching History and Embracing Ambiguity in the Scale-Up

February 26, 2014 § 2 Comments

One of my favorite experiences of teaching history in the Scale-Up classroom at the University of North Dakota is watching students who are given substantial freedom to design their own projects tentatively approach the ambiguity that this entails. The Scale-Up

This past week, we finally got to the stage in my Scale-Up class where we began work on our textbook chapters. Each table received a time period (Archaic, Classical, or Hellenistic) and one of 5 or 6 different thematic topics (culture, social history, political history, economics, or military history). Each table was responsible for a single 2000-3000 word section that focuses on a particular issues.

I’ve asked the students to frame their chapters with a clear statement of intent and to then provide an outline that sets out what their chapter will say. The goal of this is to show both me and other groups how they intend to proceed with their analysis. In some places, chapters will overlap. For example, the social history of the Archaic and Classical period offers significant opportunities for overlapping content (at least as imagined by 100 level history students). Likewise, the Archaic and Classical economies could have significant overlap in the hands of generalizing undergraduates. To prevent this, I have suggested that the two groups interact and work to define their own boundaries.

It’s sort of remarkable to see how students respond to this kind of ambiguity.

Most students embrace it with a certain amount of enthusiasm. While intent on doing the “right thing,” they seem to understand that the structure of an argument is as important as the content and structure of the argument. I provide the students with multiple textbooks, a small selection of primary sources, and lots of tips and pointers how to find more sources. For example, I directed students working on the Archaic economy to Hesiod’s Works and Days and nudged students looking at the Classical economy to Xenophon’s Oeconomicus. In other cases, such as Athenian politics of the Classical period, sources are more readily obvious.

 In an introductory history course, I’m less concerned about students being “right” (whatever that means) and producing “accurate” historical content, than I am with them developing the confidence to explore a topic in an independent way, to formulate an approach to presenting what they learned, and to write a section of a chapter setting out their interpretation of the past.

It is interesting to note how students respond to this freedom of analysis.

1. Demand Definition. Some students demand that we provide them with more formal definition of their topics. Particularly troublesome to students are the borders between social, cultural, and economic history. While professional historians rarely set firm boundaries between these arbitrary categories of historical analysis, my students struggled to understand what topics might be “acceptable” in their chapters.

Some of this reflects a problematic understanding of such broad and abstract concepts as culture and social history (and my rather superficial explanations to the entire class were unsatisfactory). More important, it speaks to how students in this 100 level history class expect firm divisions within their own classroom experiences and in the production of disciplinary knowledge.

So as faculty and administrators continue to talk excitedly about “breaking through boundaries” and “escaping silos” that define our disciplinary knowledge and ways of knowing, our students continue to look for rigid divisions in disciplinary structure.   

2. Putting the Cart before the Horse. At the start of the  give students a little list of things that they should do, in order, to write their chapters. Here’s the list:

1. Collect Evidence
2. Concoct a Thesis
3. Develop Outline
4. Write Draft
5. Share Draft
6. Peer Review
7. Revise Draft
8. Submit draft

Despite this list, groups get eager to delve into the writing component of the assignments and will often start to write, get frustrated, and ask for help before even formulating a thesis or establishing an outline. With words staring at them from the page, they quickly become frustrated that they can’t marshal order from their hastily arranged ideas.  

Other groups, jump on the first three or four examples that they can find and attempt to force these into order. They then become frustrated when they can’t write a thesis that brings together combine randomly selected bit of information.

Managing student frustrations as they figure out how to push their way through these assignments is my biggest challenge right now. I am impressed by students’ willingness to dive right into a complex assignment, but I wish I was better at managing their energies.

3. Critiques and Revisions. One of the challenges that I’m looking forward to addressing this next week is getting students to provide critical feedback to their peers and taking this feedback constructively as they revise their drafts. Much like the ambiguity associated with the assignment itself, students often want a single body of clear directions in the revision process rather than a conflicting mass of suggestions from their peers. Getting the students to filter the peer reviews and focus their revisions is among the most challenging (and productive) aspects of the class.

So, the greatest challenge now that the chapter writing is underway is managing student responses to rather more open-ended assignments than they commonly experience in introductory level courses. Getting the students comfortable with defining fuzzy boundaries, slowing down and managing their frustrations, and critically reading peer reviews before making revisions are all parts of the same process of getting students to approach problems and tasks independently and with confidence.

For more on my adventures in the Scale-Up classroom, go here.

Some Notes on Teaching History 101 in the Scale-Up Classroom

February 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

Some of my regular readers have complained that I have not written as much about my teaching in the Scale-Up classroom this semester. This is mostly because I’m doing all sort of other things right now, but there are still exciting and baffling things taking place in the Scale-Up room

For those who are unfamiliar with what the Scale-Up room is and how it works, here’s a very brief summary. It’s a 180 student classroom with 20 tables for 9 students each. Each table has 3 laptops. The tables, then, constitute a group and the 3 students around a laptop computer constitute a pod. The basic organization of my history 101 class involves a short, individual quiz to encourage individual student engagement followed by work in the pod and work in the table. The goal of most days activities is an essay produced by the table and posted to a wiki in our course management system. The objective of the class is to produce a 100,000 word textbook made of shortish contributions from all the tables.  

Last spring, my course involved a long, slow feeling out period where I worked to acclimatize the students to the collaborative work environment (and to figure out how best to use the technologies available in the classroom). This worked relatively well in that the final results were satisfactory, but I felt like I could have done more to reinforce certain skills. I discuss the changes I made to the class here and here.

So this semester, I’ve intensified the class by introducing more, longer writing assignments earlier in the semester. I eliminated the individual midterm exam and replaced it with a series of three, 1000-word essay produced by each table. The essays cover the Greek, Roman, and Medieval periods and provide a broad overview of the material in the class while giving the students a good bit of flexibility in how they engage it.

This approach has had three interrelated side-effects:

1. Hard Work. Last semester, I had very few complaints about the class being too challenging. I had chalked this up to my easy going attitude and ability to encourage students to be their best. It may have been, however, that the class was not very hard. This semester, there is a constant low rumble of the course being too challenging. Students have begun to yearn for the warm and familiar experience of lectures and signs of resistance have appeared.

I am interested in determining whether the increased opportunities for student interaction in the Scale-Up room presents better opportunities for concerted student resistance. I am committed to recognizing many common forms of disruptive student behavior (laziness, apathy, disengagement, et c.) as forms of resistance and working both to accommodate these behaviors as legitimate expressions of student ideas without accommodating them entirely.  I usually attempt to take student behavior seriously and I am rare to dismiss it as a “student not ready to be in college” or to take offense. 

2. Group Breakdown. For example, there has become a relative stark division between individuals in the groups who want to work hard, grasp the material, and produce text, and those who are really into Flappy Birds. I’ve been particular fascinated by students who have just admitted to their groups that they are lazy and will not do the work. While, on the one hand, their honest is impressive. On the other hand, they have made their resistance to the learning process pretty obvious. This has not endeared them to their groups but it does provide me with a clear statement of intent (explicit admissions of laziness are far easier to accommodate than confusion, disengagement, or absenteeism).

Interestingly, the more engaged students in the groups seem far more concerned that “lazy” students will get credit for their hard work than the laziness of individuals within a group will effect the grades of the group as a whole. As a result, I spent a good bit of time reassuring groups that the hard work of some individuals will not benefit their more “lazy” classmates.

3. Late Work. Along with the break down in group dynamics, there has been a slow down in work production. Last semester, my course required relatively little work outside of the classroom. This semester, I have expected my students both to prepare each week for class and to complete group writing assignments outside the classroom. To be clear, this is not an excessive workload for a 100 level class and usually amounts to writing less than 150 words per week and reading fewer than 100 pages.

For the midterm assignment, I have provided weekly feedback on their group writing, but so far it has been a challenge to get groups to present their work promptly or in a sufficiently complete way that I can provide adequate feedback. Some of this is clearly because group dynamics have broken down, but some of this is also a simple act of resistance. In response, I both pushed the students to refine how their groups worked and gave them an extra week to complete the midterm.

Hopefully, I can find a balance between recognizing the legitimacy of student resistance (even if it, frankly, gets on my nerves) and the encouraging the class to perform more consistently.

I’ll update my readers as I move forward.

Three New Things about Teaching History in a Scale-Up Classroom

February 5, 2014 § Leave a comment

This week began my Spring 2014 Scale-Up adventures in earnest. I introduced the class to the first of three units new for my modified Western Civilization I class. Whereas last time I taught this class, I spent the first four weeks discussing historical methods, presenting various kinds of sources, and introducing the students to relatively narrow content areas. This year, I’ve moved in the other direction and dedicated three of the first five classes to a broad survey of Western Civilization with one class devoted to Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages. The last 10 weeks of the semester will involve the students writing more focused studies on various aspects of Greek, Roman, and Medieval civilization so these next three weeks are designed to set the stage both methodologically and in terms of content. Each of these three weeks has a specific exercise that will produce an essay. The three essays will represent a single grade that stands in for their midterm exam

The first of these three broad survey classes involves creating a timeline and essay dealing with some aspect of the Greek world. As we had just spent three weeks exploring how preindustrial societies were so very different from our own, I expected essays that dealt with Greece as a preindustrial society in some way. Floating madly from table to table, I was a bit surprised to see how many groups abandoned thinking about preindustrial societies as a phenomenon and decided to focus their essays on philosophy rather than more traditional political questions.

On the one hand, it is heartening to see students take their own directions and follow their own interests. On the other hand, it is quite strange to see student deviate from the larger thematic structure of the course which emphasized preindustrial societies. It does remind me that, despite my tendency to see our students as little materialists (i.e. “all about the Benjamins”), they retain a strong interest in the life of the mind and want to wrangle with abstraction more than get their hands dirty with the complexities of ancient politics or the economy.

The first time I taught the class, I started slowly and kept work that had to be produced outside of class to a minimum. Most of the outside of class work focused on reading. This year, however, I have set the class up so that class time is dedicated to conceptual and organization work which has to be executed fully outside of class time.

This has prompted more complaints about how the groups are functioning and has shown the logistical challenges of, say, ordering books or balancing individual expectations against the work of the group. The more work that has to take place outside of class time the more pressure there is for the group’s to function successfully.

For more on my Scale-Up adventures go here. 

A Revised Draft: Teaching History in a Scale-Up Classroom

January 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

Those of you who follow this blog know that I have been working with Cody Stanley on an article detailing our experience working in the Scale-Up (Student-Centered, Active Learning Environment for University Programs) classroom last year. The article was a bit bloated when we first submitted, and we were quite appreciative of the revise and resubmit that we got from the journal where we submitted it.

The result is a leaner and tighter article that has built on its strengths and removed some of the more distracting elements. Unfortunately, this involved me cutting some of my favorite paragraphs that looked at the Scale-Up room as a kind of panopticon where it became easier for the instructors to observe students learning than for the students to observe the instructor teaching. Such is life when wielding the editor’s pen.

You can check out the first draft of the article here and my various writing on the Scale-Up room here

Here’s the revised version:

A New Semester’s Scale-Up Adventure

January 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

Last night I started my new semester in a Scale-Up classroom at the University of North Dakota. I have tweaked the course considerably this semester trying to do a better job of meeting the student expectations half way. In terms of course structure, I organized the class to ensure greater coverage.

I also did a few things to try to get the students to accept the Scale-Up arrangement. I got to thinking about how I should position myself rhetorically to encourage students to embrace an environments that is likely to be outside their comfort zone. It’s quite remarkable that I’ve read a significant amount of pedagogical material on teaching in a Scale-Up room, and more or less understand the strategies recommended for successful learning outcomes, but I have not read nearly as much about the tactical aspect of class. There seems to be an assumption that students will buy into the new environment because the faculty member has embraced it. This, however, is clearly not the case and many of the conversations with my colleagues who teach in this room suggest that student buy-in, early in the semester is crucial to the class being successful. 

So this semester, I decided to be a bit more deliberate with the way that I introduced my class from a rhetorical standpoint. What adds to the difficulty level is that the Scale-Up room is a challenging environment to lecture in. Since there is no clear orientation to the room, difficult acoustics requiring a microphone, and obstructed lines of sight, students have about a 15 minute attention span. So my points had to be made quickly and clearly. 

1. This is not new, nor an experiment. Last semester, I led with the position that “this room is an exciting experiment in teaching.” What I got back from the class was: “This is NORTH DAKOTA. We experimented once in 1892. The crops failed. People died.”

So this semester I backed away from the “this is an experiment” and led with “everyone is doing this” hoping to get my class to see that change in education is the norm and classrooms built around the idea of active learning and engagement with the material are far more common than they might expect. 

2. Group work is the norm in life. One of the greatest challenges to students in getting students to accept working in groups. Last semester, this was one of the biggest complaints in the class. The remarkable thing was that students rarely complained that their group was dragging them down, but rather that their hard work was giving a lazy student an unfair advantage. While this concern it bizarrely egalitarian, it still revealed a certain hesitancy to see managing group dynamics internally (without getting me involved) as an important part of the course design.

This semester, I went on offense the first day of class, explaining to them that the “rugged individualist,” “lone crusader,” and “personal accountability” were myths promulgated by three millennia of heroic literature that had no grounding in reality. In fact, these heroic myths were a form of escape from reality and since this class was all about gaining skills to make students successful in the real world, we should dispense with mythical preoccupations that we can control our fate and get down to brass tacts.

The world works as groups. Companies are groups. Economies are groups. Democracies are groups. Societies are groups. Markets are groups. Social networks are groups. The most successful individuals in the world are those who can negotiate the experience of working with other people, gain personal benefit from it, and contribute to the performance of the other people in the group. Group work, like the active learning environment of the Scale-Up room, is not some experiment or exception, but the norm in life.

3. This is more fun than the alternative. My final rhetorical move of the evening was arguing that this approach to learning was more fun than the traditional history class. There was some risk here (more in my head, then in reality) that by being open to the existence of a “traditional history class,” I’ve given students the opportunity to imagine a different class and one that has the backing of “tradition.” 

At the same time, I’m banking on a general dislike of traditional lecture-style history classes especially among non-majors and an openness to an alternative that might be more entertaining. For the first class, I had the students create a list of rules to organize a society on a deserted island. The playfulness of the exercise opened the door to a larger conversation about the limits faced by almost all preindustrial societies.

The goal is not play for the sake of play, of course. Nor am I aiming for a kind of edutainment where I replace the “sage on the stage” with a romper-room, feel good, group work. Instead, I hope I can systematically reinforce these rhetorical points throughout the semester and to use them to undermine deep set student resistance to an unfamiliar environment.

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