Frequently Asked Questions

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What is SCALE-UP?

We promote active learning in redesigned classrooms for 100 students or more. Some people think the rooms look more like restaurants than classrooms. The spaces are carefully designed to facilitate interactions between teams of students who work on short, interesting tasks. A decade of research indicates significant improvements in learning.

The name really says it all. SCALE-UP stands for “Student-Centered Active Learning Environment with Upside-down Pedagogies.” (The name was originally “Student-Centered Activities for Large Enrollment Undergraduate Physics” but since then many different institutions are teaching a variety of courses of various sizes. The "upside-down" part is explained below.) The basic idea is that you give students something interesting to investigate. While they work in teams, the instructor is free to roam around the classroom--asking questions, sending one team to help another, or asking why someone else got a different answer. There is no separate lab class and most of the "lectures" are actually class-wide discussions. We carefully structure the groups and give them many opportunities to interact. Three teams (named a, b, and c) sit at a round table and have white boards nearby. Each team has a laptop in case they need web access. At NC State (the original site) classes usually have 11 tables of nine students, but many schools have smaller classes while a few have even larger ones.

Probably the best place for a quick introduction to the approach is to read the Chronicle of Higher Education webchat that Bob Beichner participated in. The Raleigh, NC News & Observer has a short description of the project. A brief introduction was published by AAAS. A early article describing the project is available in the Proceedings of the Sigma Xi Forum on Reforming Undergraduate Education. There is also a chapter in Oblinger's Learning Spaces book, published by EduCause.

What goes on during a typical class?

Most of the class time is spent on "tangibles", "ponderables," and "visibles." Essentially these are hands-on activities, interesting questions and problems, or simulations. There are also some hypothesis-driven labs where students have to write detailed reports. (This example is more sophisticated than most, but shows what the best students are capable of doing.) There is some lecturing, but that is mostly to provide motivation and a view of the "big picture," which is difficult for students to see when they are not familiar with the entire course content. If you are lecturing for more than 15 minutes, you are probably talking too much. Most students have hard time maintaining mental focus for extended periods of time.

What makes it work?

The social interactions between students and with their teachers appears to be the "active ingredient." As more and more instruction is handled virtually via the web, taking advantage of the relationship-building capability of the real people in brick and mortar universities becomes even more important. The most quoted study in all of educational research indicates that we probably have it right..."What Matters in College" are the relationships students build with each other and with their teachers.

What do you mean by "upside-down pedagogies"?

There are actually three aspects of the pedagogy that "flip" the traditional idea of instruction on its head. First, students become teachers. Most of the class time is spent with the students working together. As an individual or group figures something out, they naturally (because of the way the class and room are structured) tend to share what they've learned with others. And there is no better teacher for a student than another student. Second, things that used to take place inside the classroom, like content delivery, now take place primarily outside the formal learning space. It is the responsibility of the students to learn the basic material and start working with it before they ever get to class. They even do simple homework problems before the material is "covered" in class. (In fact, that's one of the ways to ensure their preparation.) The more advanced applications of the content, along with anything they don't understand from their preparatory work, is discussed in class where they've got the instructor and their peers nearby to help. You may have heard this called the "flipped" classroom. It was first described (as "inverted") by Lage, Platt, and Treglia in 2000. Lately it has been popularized by Sal Khan of the Khan Academy. The third aspect that is backwards involves the development of curricular materials. This approach has been advanced by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in their ideas about "Understanding by Design". Basically, you start developing instructional materials by thinking about the end product. What do you want students to be able to do? From there you develop means of assessing those newly-acquired abilities. Finally, you create lessons to impart those skills. That's the reverse of the usual approach, but once you get used to it, is is very powerful.

How do you know it works?

Rigorous evaluations of learning have been conducted in parallel with the curriculum development and classroom design efforts. Besides hundreds of hours of classroom video and audio recordings, different schools have conducted numerous interviews and focus groups, conducted many conceptual learning assessments (using nationally-recognized instruments in a pretest/posttest protocol), and collected portfolios of student work. NC State has data comparing nearly 16,000 traditional and SCALE-UP students taking physics. Their findings can be summarized as the following:

These results and the research behind them are described in a peer-reviewed chapter available online. A paper describing the findings of the very successful pilot project was published in the first issue of the Physics Education Research supplement to Am. J. of Physics.

Who is doing it?

At last count, there were over 150 institutions adopting or adapting the SCALE-UP approach. Information from these schools is available in the adopter's pages. We suspect there are many more (based on the fact that people keep contacting us two or three years into their implementations), so if you find someone (or are someone) teaching this way but not represented on the site, contact Bob Beichner!

What is being taught this way?

Physics, chemistry, math, biology, astronomy, engineering, and even literature courses use this approach. We've been told to expect a political science class soon. The teacher would pick some current event, say the Attorney General’s Congressional testimony. The “a group” at each table would see how CNN covered the event. The “b groups” would read the Washington Post coverage, while the “c groups” could find the Fox News website. Then they would compare and see what aspects were covered by all three and which things are missing is some. They might then be sent on a search to find the least biased presentation (perhaps by the BBC?). Whether the topic is current events or chemistry, the basic idea is the same. Students work while teachers coach. Note that this requires extensive preparation by the students. We make sure the chapter has been read and simple homework finished before students come to class to ask questions and work on interesting activities.

What content has to be dropped?

It is not necessary to change the amount of material being covered. Even though activities take more time than straight lectures, students have increased responsibility to come to class well prepared. Instructors don't need to spend time going over the basics. Instead, class time is devoted to having students work with the more difficult aspects of the material.

Does it only work for large classes?

We have data that shows this approach actually works even better for smaller classes.

How do I get help in setting up a SCALE-UP classroom?

You can contact Bob Beichner at NC State, or better yet, get in touch with someone teaching in a SCALE-UP classroom near you.

Why are you so picky about the room layout?

We've spent years of research on room design. We tried several different table geometries before settling on round tables. Once the shape was decided, we tried four different diameters before coming up with the 7' (or 2 m) suggestion. Smaller tables are cramped. Larger tables don't let you pack enough students into a room and lead to very noisy across-table discussions. We think the round tables are the most important technology in the room. For smaller classes, like those found in high schools, we are trying elongated "D-shape" tables made of a 5' square plus a 5' diameter half circle. This seats two teams of three, with an LCD monitor on a stand at the flat side of the D. Stay tuned to find out how well it works!

How do I get access to the website?

You can view any of the adopter's pages. If you want more detailed information (which must be kept from students because there are sample quizzes, exams, and problem solutions), contact Bob Beichner at NC State to become a registered member of the site. Then you will be able to view (and edit) an extensive set of wiki articles produced by adopters from around the world. You will be able to see some sample room layouts for 72 and 99 students, find details about making whiteboards, and access information on how we set up our student groups.

Can I visit a classroom?

See the answer to "How do I get help..."