An interview with...

An interview with… Michaela Borg

Michela Borg is the Educational Development Manager in the Centre for Academic Development and Quality at Nottingham Trent University (NTU). She has been involved in our SCALE-UP work from the beginning. As they embarked on a pilot of the approach (2012/13), she worked with Jane McNeil (Executive Dean of Learning and Teaching) to recruit and prepare colleagues for teaching using SCALE-UP and she led the evaluation of the work.

In 2017, Jane led a successful bid for Catalyst funding, with partners Anglia Ruskin University and University of Bradford, to increase the use of active learning pedagogies at the three institutions as a strategy to address attainment disparities. She two roles in the project:  she is the evaluation lead for the project overall and she leads NTU educational development support for SCALE-UP.

What inspired the SCALE-UP project?

Back in 2012, Jane visited the United States on a study tour with several other senior colleagues from NTU. She met Physics Professor Robert Beichner at North Caroline State University and returned with great enthusiasm for an approach he had named SCALE-UP.

SCALE-UP offered a number of benefits: it enabled the use of enquiry-based learning with larger cohorts through the careful design of both the learning space and the activities; it challenged the dominance of the lecture, providing an accessible framework for tutors who wanted to take a more active, collaborative approach to their teaching. Finally, it was underpinned by a rigorous evaluation that evidenced impact on problem-solving skills, engagement and attendance, reduction in failure rates—particularly for gender and ethnicity—and, better performance for ‘at risk’ student on later modules (Beichner et al 2007).

What are the main elements of SCALE-UP?

SCALE-UP stands for Student-Centred Active Learning Environment with Upside-down Pedagogies. It is an active, collaborative mode of learning in which lectures are replaced by problem-solving and enquiry-based activities that are carried out in strategically-assigned groups. To foster collaborative learning, the re-designed classroom environment incorporates circular tables and technologies to enable students to share their work in small groups and in plenary. These elements are supported by rotating group roles and ‘upside-down pedagogies’ such as flipped learning and peer teaching. The shift away from lectures frees up class time for students to focus on challenging aspects of the material, to work at their own pace, and to receive on-the-spot feedback on their work from peers and the tutor.

What do you think are the biggest challenges when implementing SCALE-UP and what advice would you give for tackling them?

From the beginning, our introduction of SCALE-UP at NTU has been very strategic so while developing the estate and thinking through implications for timetabling are challenging, I’m going to pick course planning and redesign as the biggest challenges. Academic colleagues who adopt SCALE-UP need to get their heads around how the approach works and is different to what they do already. Then there is the redesign element—introducing new tasks into teaching and perhaps rethinking how the module is assessed. In our experience at NTU, we have found that this works best when a course team have considered how SCALE-UP will be used on the course—which module (and preferably more than one), who is teaching it, etc. This increases the coherence and support for students and helps them to see that this is a considered approach to their learning. It also provides support for colleagues using the approach and for new people joining the teaching team.

How can universities help students understand the benefits of SCALE-UP?

I think on one level the answer to this question is simple—talk to them! Of course, it isn’t really quite that simple as for many of our students, this form of enquiry-based learning which centres on groupwork and problem-solving tasks is quite a break from what they have experienced in their past learning and not what they may be expecting of study at university. So, we need to articulate the benefits of SCALE-UP, both in terms of their performance while at University and in terms of the skills that they will hone that will support their employability in the future. We need to help students to understand that while it may be more challenging and a little strange early on, their persistence and engagement will be rewarded.

Is there a specific piece of feedback/statistic you have that would encourage a member of staff to adopt SCALE-UP?

I’ll choose feedback—a quotation from a lecturer who wonderfully articulated the benefits that we intended for SCALE-UP:

“The main thing with SCALE-UP is capturing how students learn because I think years and years of evidence have shown that students do not learn the way we teach so what we need to do is to start teaching the way they learn and that’s what SCALE-UP does”

We are working on establishing an evidence base at the moment as our Catalyst funding includes a substantial evaluation. We are looking at a range of areas: how SCALE-UP impacts on the unexplained disparities in student progression and on student engagement, how it is experienced by students and their satisfaction with the approach, and, which elements of SCALE-UP tutors are most commonly using (or not using) when they use the approach.

If universities could invest in one furniture/ technology to promote active learning, what would you suggest?

Without a doubt I’d recommend round tables. I’m a complete convert and have learnt a lot over the years as I’ve had to explain (and at times justify) their importance in a SCALE-UP room. I think that anyone who has sat in a meeting knows that rectangular tables can make eye contact and conversation a challenge—you end up talking to the people opposite you or at the end of your table rather than those sitting either side of you. And don’t get me started on sitting in rows! It isn’t just something that I care about—students and module leaders involved in piloting the approach were also very positive about the tables. One lecturer commented:

“For me the real positive was the room and Professor Bob Beichner was dead right when he said the most important technology in the room was the round tables, the round tables worked really well for discussions”

Interestingly, Prof. Beichner evaluated the impact of different shapes and sizes of tables on student interaction (Beichner and Saul, 2003). They tested tables of 7, 8, 9 and 10-foot diameter and found that although students preferred the larger tables, these didn’t facilitate communication between the groups. They concluded that 7-foot tables were the best compromise between giving students enough personal space without reducing communication with students who were further away. At NTU, as our estate is at a premium, we had to go a little smaller than 7-foot but the principles remain important.

If you could change one thing about HE in the UK what would it be?

As many people reading this will be aware, there are unexplained disparities in attainment and progression for particular student groups, even when you control for grades on entry. At NTU we are working hard to ensure that all of our student have an opportunity to excel in their study and to reach their potential—to transform themselves and their lives and to contribute to transformation in our wider society. Our work to close these gaps has led to a range of creative projects and innovations that support student success. However, this is an on-going challenge.

Who was your favourite teacher at school/university and why?

I studied Geological Sciences in University of Birmingham for my undergraduate degree and we had a professor who taught quaternary studies and palaeontology, Professor Russell Coope. He was a wonderful teacher—funny, thoughtful and had the most infectious enthusiasm for his subject. All of my best experiences were in his classes. I remember washing beetle wings out of sediment to better understand paleoenvironments and, probably best of all, carefully cleaning the bones of a newly-discovered woolley mammoth. It was such a privilege and a thrill that has always stayed with me.

Beichner & Saul (2003)
Beichner et al (2007)

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