Lessons from my First Class in the Scale-Up Classroom

Last night I survived my first class in our brand-new, Scale-up classroom here at the University of North Dakota. The first night of my 2 hour and 20 minute evening class introduced students to the syllabus, the room, and the basic format of my class. As I have noted earlier, this new classroom features 20, 9 person table each with a connection to a large, flat-screen monitor and three laptops. There is no podium to facilitate lecture and even if their was most students in the room face one another not the professor. This room organization supports a decentered teaching environment for a large class (180 students). 

As most Scale-Up classes, my course will focus on group work focused on the table or smaller pods of three students (i.e. 3 pods to a table of 9 oriented around a computer). My assignment for the first day began with individual student work. I asked each student to make up a list of 10 rules or laws to structure a community of 9 castaways on a desert island. The 9 castaways have a bag of seeds, a hatchet, and a copy of the Beatles “White Album”. Each day, 6 of the 9 castaways had to do agricultural work for the group to survive. I then asked the students to share these rules with their pod and come up with a composite list of 10 rules or laws. Then they were asked to synthesize these lists into a list of 10 rules for the table. The practical goal of this exercise was to get the student familiar with the structure of the class where I will move regularly from individual work, to pod work, to table work. The learning goal was more complex. Thinking about a desert island was the first step in getting students to reflect on how extremely limited resources impacted life in preindustrial societies.  The reading for week 2 develops these ideas more systematically.

After my first class in the Scale-Up classroom I can offer several observations and concerns:

1. Individuals took longer to complete their list (20 minutes) than it took for the pods to produce a common list of 10 rules (approx. 15 minutes). It took even less time for the tables to produce a common list of rules (12-15 minutes). This is a bit ironic for me because the purpose of individual work was the prepare students to contribute to their pods and tables. In effect, the preparatory work will take longer than the “real work”.  

2. While it will be easy enough to organize the class to give extra time for students to complete their individual in-class work, it will be more difficult to adjust the class for the reality that some students and groups took longer than others to complete the short projects. The predictable occurred with some groups getting bored and loud while other groups struggled with their work. As the course goes on and students begin the larger project slated to take up the final 60% of the class, I can tell groups who complete their work faster to work on their larger project. For now, however, I think I just need to remind groups who are done their work to be patient. 

3. When I designed the class, I had this idea that my T.A. could grade the individual in-class writing assignments very quickly during class time. These assignments were generally going to be simple in structure and content making them easy to grade efficiently. Rather than taking my very able T.A. 10 minutes to grade this first short assignment, it took him about 30 minutes to grade the list of 10 rules for the desert island on 5 point scale. So I need to factor this into my grade on the fly philosophy.

4. Using the room’s technology is simple and intuitive. I was concerned that it would be difficult to get the myriad of monitors (20!) and digital projectors (4) to work in a concerted way. It took my T.A. and I about 15 minutes to figure out how to use the room in a basic way meaning that we have more than enough time over the next few weeks to do bizarre and exciting things in the room.

5. The room is loud. I don’t like wearing a microphone, but it quickly became clear that I needed to do this to be heard in every corner of the room. Moreover, students needed to use the microphone to be heard by the other groups. More problematically, however, when all the groups were working on their projects, the room became loud. It wasn’t loud like a Who concert, but a din filled the room that I found pretty distracting. I need to admit that I live and work in a bubble where I control the sounds that fill my space. I wonder how I would function intellectually and academically in a room filled with noise?

So, my first day in the Scale-Up room was moderately successful. The students compiled interesting lists of rules and kept me entertained and impressed. I’ll keep the world up to date on my adventures right here as the semester moves along.

One Comment

  1. They should get Abbey Road instead. And I was feeling good about my (fairly traditionally taught) intro to Greek history class, too…


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