Before Christmas I was looking into a group of educational techniques called SCALE-UP. This blog post gives a brief overview of the method and offers some thoughts in case someone wants to pilot the approach. Most of the information here is taken from the following 3 sources:
- Introduction to the SCALE-UP (Student-Centered Activities for Large Enrollment Undergraduate Programs) Project (2005) – https://projects.ncsu.edu/PER/Articles/Varenna_SCALEUP_Paper.pdf
- The SCALE-UP Project: Student-Centered Active Learning Environments With Upside-Down Pedagogies (2013) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rEMq9l11HYw
- Nottingham Trent University SCALE-UP Handbook (2018) – https://aclproject.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/SCALE-UP-Handbook-2017-18.pdf
Other information was hard to come by. The official SCALE-UP website is many years out of date and most of the links aren’t working any more. Nottingham Trent University is the main UK institution using the approach.
What is SCALE-UP
SCALE-UP stands for Student-Centred Active Learning Environment with Upside-down Pedagogies designed by Robert J. Beichner. It is a pedagogical approach which packages several educational techniques and gives them a snappy name. In the YouTube video Beichner mentions several problems higher education is currently facing, which SCALE-UP was developed to address.
- There are more students going to university than ever before and those students need more support than before.
- Those students are not making as much progress as we expect them to and they are also not always enjoying being at university.
- The students leave without developing sufficient communication and critical thinking skills which employers are asking for.
- Lecturing has been found to not be the most effective way of teaching
- Experts are not always the most suitable people to be teaching beginners.
Beichner also claims SCALE-UP leads to increased retention and progression rates for students over traditional lecturing, especially for female and BAME students. The claims seem legitimate as the various techniques that SCALE-UP uses (e.g. blended and active learning) have been explored and written about in the past, however I found the framing of the approach to be a little bit salesy and bombastic. There is a general lack of sources supporting it, or criticising it, but that may be because other universities choose to brand these kinds of initiatives differently. MIT calls their own approach TEAL (Technology Enhanced Active Learning) for example, which is strikingly similar to SCALE-UP.
The main components of SCALE-UP are the environment, groups and activities.
The first thing about SCALE-UP is its focus on the physical learning environment. The approach advocates to setup the room with round tables 7 feet in diameter. The tables should have enough room between them to allow the instructor to move freely. Each table sits 9 people divided into 3 teams of 3 people. There is one laptop with internet access for each team and a whiteboard for each table.
Students are divided into groups of 3. Each group has one low achieving student and one high achieving student. To motivate all learners a +5 bonus marks are given to every member of the group if the group average is above a certain mark. Students also write contracts together which stipulate how the group works, what is expected of each member and what the consequences are for not meeting expectations. Other methods can be used as well, but it is essential some motivation is given to the high achiever to help the other two members of the group, and some consequences for the other students so they don’t coast.
In the beginning it was essential to ensure that women or BAME students are paired up in groups. If only one woman was present for example, their input tends to be ignored and they feel isolated. This requirement can be relaxed further into the module once students understand the process and have some experience working together. The groups are dissolved and recreated after each major piece of assessment to ensure that strong friendship groups do not form as students were found to socialise too much during class if they knew each other well.
Most SCALE-UP classes feature an introduction to motivate and inspire the students, and summary to reiterate important concepts or outcomes. Most of the direct teaching is given to students as reading or videos, and students are expected to study before class in the blended learning model. During class the instructor helps students through Socratic dialogue/questioning style rather than direct instruction.
Students solving problems and publicly sharing solutions takes up the majority of the session. This way students use cognitive rehearsal to repeat what they have learned, solidifying their understanding, and other students get to see a range of learning strategies. There is a suggestion in literature that expert explanations are less effective for beginners than explanations devised by other more advanced learners (Visible Learning 2008), which SCALE-UP facilitates in this way.
There is a range of example activities in the paper and video but majority are Physics specific. There is a heavy use of homework with quizzes given each week, but only one group is graded each week determined randomly to minimise the amount of marking.
SCALE-UP seems interesting, leaning on well established educational psychology ideas and methods. The main strength of the approach as I see it over advocating individual techniques, is that it may be easier to convince lecturers to use this specific, named and apparently very effective methodology, rather than a bunch of small ideas. It’s a clever marketing approach, but that maybe selling it short and I would love to try it out to find out.
The main downsides to me is the lack of literature and lack of materials criticising the approach. Everything I found is full of praise and SCALE-UP doesn’t seem to have any flaws.
It would be very interesting to pilot the approach with a handful of modules, especially if they were taught in rooms suited to the approach. There is a fair amount of logistics in setting up groups, but the benefits may well be worth it.