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Jennifer Johnson, Forum Communications , Published November 18 2012

In new UND classroom, students learn by teaching

GRAND FORKS – Five ecology students at the University Of North Dakota watched Tuesday as Alex Knudson, 21, stood at a marker board, drawing blue arrows from one slip of paper to another.

His group, among several in class that day, was creating a diagram using Post-Its to explain the way relationships work within the ecosystem. Using the arrows, Knudson told his group how sunlight, for instance, promotes photosynthesis.

“Couldn’t respiration be part of photosynthesis?” asked fellow student Sarah Virnig.

Ten minutes later, the group milled around the vast new classroom in O’Kelly Hall’s first floor to critique the work of others.

Surrounded by flat-screen monitors lining the walls and large projectors, instructor Brian Darby’s students are some of the first at UND and in the state to use a SCALE-UP classroom – Student-Centered Active Learning Environment with Upside-down Pedagogies.

Intended for larger classroom sizes, SCALE-UP is a setting where students teach each other with some discussion by instructors.

Despite the absence of lectures, Darby’s students have been learning more, with the grades to prove it – in the past two exams, the number of A’s has nearly doubled since last year, he said.

At first, Knudson didn’t think he was really learning. But after results from the first test came back – one he thought he’d performed horribly on – he found he got 89 percent correct.

“I never study enough, but I felt like after we’d taken the test, I felt like I knew more than I would have if I’d just sat down in a lecture bowl,” he said.

How it works

On Tuesday, the SCALE-UP classroom was in full swing. Students worked as teams for the entire period or in groups of two to three, while instructors floated around the room to help. Small round tables were set up restaurant-style around the room, which can hold as many as 180 students at one time.

A North Carolina State University professor first came up with the method and classroom design to reform physics instruction. It has since been used at more than 100 schools, including the University of Minnesota, according to NCSU.

A brief quiz usually starts the period, followed by group discussion and problem solving, usually done on whiteboards. Sometimes students will have to look up online scientific sources to make an Excel graph or short PowerPoint presentation, said Darby.

Successful personalities

Concerted thought by instructors was put into the formation of student teams, which plays a big role in student learning.

Using a scaled-down version of the Myers-Briggs personality test, instructors grouped students according to strengths such as judgment and sensitivity to make a well-balanced team.

Later, students were re-shuffled into groups with varying academic strength levels that still represented the same personality strengths. This has worked well for UND, said Lori Swinney, director of instructional and learning technology.

“Research shows at the end of the semester, the person that actually learned the most, had the most significant increases, was the better student,” she said. “The better student had to teach, so then it really made significant increases with the other two.”

Quick activities

Frequent interaction among students is required. Class activities last up to 15 minutes. The short time period has generated some student criticism.

Instructors underestimate the time actually needed to complete activities and rush students, said Knudson.

“In a lecture bowl, a teacher can control the lecture; they know how long it’s gonna take,” said Cal Potter, 20. “In here, it’s up to us.”

Students felt mixed about the SCALE-UP class, with several recognizing kinks to be ironed out and that they weren’t accustomed yet to this new style of learning.

“I think it makes time go faster to be working on problems, and it makes you think more,” said Myranda Beckmann, 20. “I think the one downfall is if you end up at the wrong answer, then that’s what’s stuck in your head. Then you have to go back and re-learn things.”

Instructors note the method is effective in getting students the information they need to know by using the skills they need to know – communicating with others, using computer software.

While group work can provide a fertile ground for cheating, with weaker students relying on the stronger ones, Darby found that not to be the case.

“If they’re engaged in the group work, it shows up later, if they’re disengaged, that shows too,” he said.

Jennifer Johnson writes for the Grand Forks Herald