Scale-Up Midterm Report

This past week I finished grading the midterms for my History 101 class in a Scale-Up classroom. I also submitted a revised draft of the article that I co-authored with my T.A. last spring reflecting on our teaching in this room. So it seemed like a good time to stop and take stock of how my semester has gone and some thoughts on my future work in this room.

1. Midterm Evaluation. The students worked over 4 weeks on midterm exams. Each table produced, one 3000 word essay with sections on the Greek, Roman, and Medieval world. The most striking thing about the midterm exams came not from the exams themselves which were of slightly higher than average quality, but from a brief quiz that I gave hours before the midterm was due. The quiz asked them to reflect on their midterm exams and to identify one thing that they would change if they could.

I naively expected most of the answers to this quiz to focus on stronger theses, better use of primary and secondary source evidence, or even one more round of proofreading, and, indeed, students mentioned these issues. More surprisingly, however, were the number of students who commented on some aspect of process. Whether it was the way the group organized their workflow to produce the chapter, the time allowed between various drafts and revisions, or the distribution of work among members of the group. In fact, a number of students admitted to not working hard enough or contributing enough to the group’s efforts.

The frankness of the students’ self evaluation was shocking and refreshing. These were not anonymous. The students clearly recognized that how they worked as a group to write the chapter had a directly relationship to the quality of their work, and the changes that they offered were process oriented rather than simply outcome oriented. As this class has emphasized the close relationship of methods and processes in the production of knowledge, it was heartening to see that students have internalized this approach to learning.

2. Repetition and Learning. One the shortcomings of my previous class in the Scale-Up room was that we spent all semester writing a single chapter of a history textbook. This allowed us to spend a good bit of time managing research, structuring the chapter and revising the prose, but we only engaged this process one time through. There was no repetition to reinforce or refine the processes developed over the course of the semester, but the end result of our careful work was fairly refined.

The midterm quality was not nearly as good as the work from the final project last semester, but I’m hoping that the opportunity to reflect and revise their process will improve the final product at the end of the semester. It has taken a bit of discipline on my part to allow groups to find their own work rhythms and to turn in products that I know could be better with more time and revisions. At the same time, I think bringing a part of the class to an end and presenting a final evaluation has a kind of impact that revisions and other provision assessments do not have. In short, the students need the grade to establish their own sense of progress and performance in the class. 

3. Peer Review and Consequences. My students are terrible peer reviewers. In the most recent round of peer critiques I provided them with a template that asked them to award a grade to the paper that they peer reviewed. No matter how bad the paper was, how incomplete the ideas, and how poorly proofread the prose, my students found ways to give it a high-B or A. This astounding act of generosity promised to leave their fellow students buoyed with confidence at their progress in the class and free to spend spring break taking some well-deserved down time.

Of course, this kind of uncritical engagement with their fellow students’ work is not at all helpful to anyone. While the concerned pedagogue in me worries that the my criteria for grading are not clear or that the students have not internalized the key components of a good paper, the practical teacher sees these overly optimistic grades as a result of a reluctance to engage critically their fellow students’ work and a tendency to put a superficial loyalty to classmates over a longterm commitment to collective learning. The pedagogue’s concerns are fixed by articulating once again, and maybe with different words, the expectations for these papers; the teacher’s concerns are best resolved by some mildly apocalyptic penalties meted out to students who offer uncritically inflated provisional grades to their fellow students. Middle ground is probably best in this case.

———

With my first short article submitted on my experiences teaching in the Scale-Up room, I’ve begun to think about a follow up article or two. While I’m slated for sabbatical next year, I’m sorely tempted to ask to teach in the room next spring as part of a three year research cycle that focuses on three iterations of my class in this kind of learning-centered environment. That would be the topic of a second article of a trilogy. The third article would look at the relationship between learning-centered spaces and the changing architecture of higher education with references to online teaching, MOOCs, Scale-Up rooms, and traditional lecture bowls. This paper will take some research and more careful consideration, but as this blog has suggested, our growing interest in process and making “invisible learning” visible has clear echoes with 20th century modes of industrial educations that run counter to disciplinary tendencies to history (or the larger humanities project) as craft.

For more of my reflections on teaching in the Scale-Up go here.

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