Volume IV: What works, what matters, what lasts

Student-Centered Activities for Large Enrollment Undergraduate Programs (SCALE-UP)

An Interview with Robert Beichner

The work of Bob Beichner in reshaping the learning environment for large enrollment introductory STEM courses at North Carolina State University illustrates clearly how this generation of pedagogical pioneers grounds their efforts in cognitive science research, and— perhaps more important— how they are contributing to the knowledge base of what is known about learning, within and beyond a particular STEM discipline. The evaluation tools used by Beichner and his SCALE-UP colleagues include video and audio recordings, interviews and focus groups, pre- and post-tests, and student profiles. What they are finding is that the students' ability to solve problems is improved; that the conceptual understanding is increased, attitudes are improved and failure rates are reduced.

Project Kaleidoscope: What impression would a visitor have about student learning if he or she came into your classroom?

Robert Beichner: First, their impression would be that the learning space looks more like a restaurant than a classroom, or perhaps more like a banquet hall, because there is much noise from the visibly engaged students. Our challenge in redesigning the space for introductory physics was to achieve an environment that would promote the kind of active learning we wanted for our large enrollment classes (for us this is 100 students or more). What the visitor would see is the realization of our idea that social interactions between students and with their teachers is the 'active' ingredient that works for us. They would see nine students at a 7’ diameter round table— the size and shape of the tables are very important— working in groups of three or collectively as a table-group of nine. The faculty present interesting scenarios for students to study and then roam around the classroom, working with individuals and with teams, engaging them in Socratic-like dialogues.

Students spend time on "tangibles" and "ponderables," which means they are dealing with hands-on activities, simulations and complex problems. We have integrated instructional technologies into this learning space, and each table has at least three networked laptops (probably not like a banquet hall, but something increasing real for eating spaces on college campuses!). These notebook computers give students immediate connections to the resources of the world wide web. From our own experiences and from research on learning we knew that as students collaborate on interesting tasks they become deeply and personally involved with what they are learning. The doors of the closets and the walls of the classroom are covered with whiteboards— public thinking spaces— to help them share their learning with each other and their instructor.

So that is what the visitor would see. No “sage on the stage,” but a new version of the “guide by your side.”

What he or she would not see is how carefully we've assessed the impact on learning because of these redesigned SCALE-UP spaces (classrooms for Student-Centered Activities for Large Enrollment Undergraduate Programs). We've evaluated student progress along a wide assortment of paths, from conceptual learning to problem-solving, and even to success in later courses. In all cases, students learning in the SCALE-UP environment outperform their peers in traditional lecture halls.

Assessment Instruments
Normalized Gain, h = (pretest to posttest gain)/(possible gain) = (posttest score - pretest score)/(1 - pretest score)
Nat'l Avg = Hake's comparison of 6000 students in passive and active learning settings
FCI = Force Concept Inventory
FMCE = Force and Motion Conceptual Evaluation
CSEM = Conceptual Survey of Electricity and Magnetism
DIRECT = Determining and Interpreting Resistive Electrical Circuits Test

CCU = Coastal Carolina University
NCSU = North Carolina State University
UCF = University of Central Florida
UNH = University of New Hampshire
RIT = Rochester Institute of Technology
MIT = Massachusetts Institute of Technology