Thoughts on Teaching History in a Scale-Up Classroom (Part XV)

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.

Scale Up Panorama

The Good

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.

Scale Up2

The Bad.

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. 

The Ugly.

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.

NewProvost

For more on my experiences in the Scale-Up room go here.

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