More thoughts on the Scale-Up Classroom

Last night I had my second class meeting in the brilliant new Scale-Up classroom, and I think that I finally get what people are talking about. (I also realize that admitting this after my second class risks hubris!). At one point, my T.A. and I observed that well over half the class was meaningfully engaged in examining texts and making arguments. For a 150+ person 100-level history course this was pretty remarkable. (For more on my experience with this room read these posts, here.)

Despite the first flush of success, I am still a novice in using this classroom. So my schedule from last night had a “training wheels” feeling to it. It was composed of four parts: a short diagnostic quiz (20 minutes), a short (30 minute) lecture, a list-building assignment done by the “pods” of three students (25 minutes), and a writing assignment for each table of 9 students (20 minutes). This schedule seemed to work well for the class, but I have discovered some new challenges. 

Scale UP

1. Getting the Class to Calm Down. When I first entered the room, I was greeted by a remarkable din this evening. Maybe the myriad tvs invoke a sports bar or students really found my pre-class music choices inspiring, or maybe it was the large roundtables that make the room look like an old college dining hall. Whatever the reason, it was energizing right up the point when we had to get down to business.

Then, I couldn’t make the din stop. This was a problem because the first exercise of the night was a short, individual quiz. Even after telling the students to work quietly on their quiz, I found that some students were still chatting about the readings and generally ignoring the exercise. This is really quite unusual, but I suspect the architecture of the class which directs student toward one another and away from a single source of authority makes it more difficult to get their attention. 

2. Timing Exercises. Last week, a colleague with more experience organizing student group work suggested that I introduce formal time limits to various group exercises. This had good results. In general the pods finished around the same time; most completed the 20 minute assignment in about 25 minutes. The larger groups were able to produce a substantial text from the outlines produced by the pods after about 20-25 minutes.

I do feel like the set up of the room and the class led to more wasted minutes than a traditional classroom and this is becoming a concern to me. While I expect the students will become more familiar with the routine soon enough (and I recognize that I will have to change up the routine some to prevent smarter students from discovering ways to game the system). As I noted in my first point, simply getting their attention away from group work took time as did the required set up and wrap up of in class exercises.

In a one day a week class that is already shorter than the standard day-time class, this is a particular difficult. At UND a night class is 10 minutes shorter than a standard 50 minute, 3 days a week class; as result, we lose a week of the semester from the start. Each additional 10 minute delay per class sacrifices another week of the semester.

3. Letting Students Teach Students. On the second day of class, I had to figure out a way to accommodate around 20 late adds to the course. My first move was to seed them in groups to replace students who had dropped. I then told the groups to bring them up to speed on the mechanics of the class. For about 20 minutes, I figured “that was that”, but after some additional reflection I decided to do a more proper introduction to the class during a short break. Maybe this was unnecessary, but it make me feel more part of the process of my own course. Maybe I just needed to feel my own authority after the somewhat rambunctious start.

4. Stopping the Class. Once the students started on their pod-level work, I began to get the same questions over and over from groups around the room. So I stopped the class and addressed these issues to the group as a whole. It took a few minutes to get the students’ attention (see above), but once I did, it was easy enough to iron out difficulties with the assignment.

5. Accepting Unconventional Outcomes. Once I stopped the class, I realized that I have to use this amazing ability (supported by the cordless microphone!) sparingly. I think that I’m going to get some unconventional outcomes in this class, and I need to develop more flexibility to my expectations. Moving from group to group reminded me of archaeological fieldwork where most of my job as project director involved moving from trench to trench, trouble shooting problems, and assessing progress. After a few exhausting days in the field, I came to realize (with my more experienced co-directors) that we have to let our trench supervisors and excavators do their jobs, make some mistakes, and come up with their own interpretations and analyses. Short of digging every trench all the time (and knowing what is under the surface), archaeology has taught be that I can’t control all the variables. With a room of 150+ students with varying degrees of ability and preparation, I need to get better at accepting a range of valid outcomes in the course both in terms of the approaches to material and the knowledge produced. 

I have just a few more reflections to offer, none of which may mean anything: At one point, when the battery in the cordless microphone died, I simple used my “outdoor voice” to get the class’s attention. The class immediately fell silent. I attribute this to my voice clearly emitting from my body. With the cordless mic, it usually took then a minute or so to focus on my disembodied voice droning from speakers in the ceiling. Water reaches its own level in most of the groups where I have already observed certain individuals taking on leadership roles. It is striking to see how quickly students have adapted to the classroom and the assignments. I wonder if the instability and variety in undergraduate teaching methods has made students more flexible in their expectations. 

One Comment

  1. Bill,

    I’m so glad that you are posting about this classroom. It is excellent to see the benefits and the drawbacks of such a space. At UMBC, where I am a lecturer in Ancient Studies, we are having a continuing conversation about classroom types. We are especially interested in rooms which move from the so-called ‘sage on the stage’ model toward more active learning environments. Your posts are just perfect for our discussions. Thanks for sharing!


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