Student Responses to my History Class in the Scale-Up Room

This spring, I wrote a series of blog posts about teaching historian in the University of North Dakota’s fancy new Scale-Up Classroom. The room was so new that it had “new classroom smell” and I was the first person from the humanities to teach in it. As part of the program that got this room up and running, we conducted a more comprehensive survey (complete with IRB approval) on our students in this class to assess student reactions to the room and how we each used it. I only have access to the result from my class, but with over 120 responses, I think it is a meaningful sample of student attitudes.

Scale Up Panorama

First some basic descriptions of the class: 53% of my class were freshmen and the rest of the class was evenly distributed between sophomores, juniors, and seniors. 83% of the class had never taken a course in a Scale-Up style room.

56% thought that they would get an “A” in the class. While this seems pretty high, I gave 37% of the course “A”s and when we eliminate students who earned Ds and Fs, we come pretty close to 50% of the class earning As. This is much higher than usual and probably reflects my own lack of confidence in assessing the work of students in this new classroom setting as the students willingness to take the course seriously.

With that baseline information, it was interesting to look at student responses to various prompts. The first part of the survey involved a series of questions about how effective the course was in accomplishing some key learning and social goals. The students were asked to respond as “strongly agree”, “agree”, “disagree”, and “strongly disagree”. 

Part of my goal in teaching in the Scale-Up room was to improve student engagement, attendance, and retention. Some of the strongest positive survey responses appeared in these areas. For example, 40% strongly agreed and 45% of the students agreed that the Scale-Up room promoted discussion. 75% percent agreed or strongly agreed that the room encouraged active participation. And 71% agreed or strongly agreed that the course encouraged them to communicate effectively.

The survey suggests that this classroom and my course had a positive impact on the social environment of learning. 79% agreed or strongly agreed that the course helped them develop confidence working in small groups. 87% agreed or strongly agreed that this room helped the students develop connections with their classmates. This presumably provided a social environment for the critical engagement with their classmate’s work as 74% claimed that the class helped them examine how others gather and interpret data and assess the soundness of their conclusions.

Finally, the 78% students responded with agree or strongly agree that the classroom facilitated multiple types of learning activities. Presumably this promoted student engagement. 

I also began coding some of the free text responses. In general, when the prompt was negative (e.g. “Please describe one situation in which this room DID NOT WORK WELL for you. Provide as many details as possible), the responses tended to focus on group work and the usual student griping about being dragged down by their classmates. Students also complained about the class size and that my T.A. and I could not rapidly respond to their questions.  

Students also complained that they did not get to learn about every period in history. The “uncoverage” model that we used in the class asked students to concentrate on one period and produce a substantial chapter on that one period for a collaborative textbook. While I’d like to think that students learned the skills to read, write, and study history critically, the students themselves seem particularly committed to certain basic assumptions about how an introductory history course should function. In more open-ended free-text prompt (“What are your overall thoughts about the classroom in which you are taking this course?”) students continued to suggest that this room was not ideally suited for a history survey course with 18% of the students making that specific complaint. The selective response section only 58% percent of the students agreed or strongly agreed that this room was appropriate for this kind of class and nearly as many strongly disagreed (24%) as strongly agreed (26%).

In the free text response section of the survey, many of the students who made this complaint stated that they prefer the coverage provided by a lecture style class. Some, however, responded to both the negative and more open-ended prompt by saying that the class was too big and that they did not get enough personal attention. So, it appears that the design of the classroom has already shifted what students expected from a faculty member in an introductory level survey. Surely this would not be a complaint or an expectation in a traditional lecture style class.

To end on a  positive note, 45% of the responses to the open ended prompt were positive and only 33% were negative (although 18% suggested that the room was inappropriate for this kind of course) about their experiences in the room (16% were ambivalent). This at least suggests that continuing to work on teaching history in that room has some positive outcomes. 

For more on teaching history in a Scale-Up Classroom, go here.

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