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

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.

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