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.

References
Beichner & Saul (2003) http://www.ncsu.edu/per/Articles/Varenna_SCALEUP_Paper.pdf
Beichner et al (2007) http://www.per-central.org/items/detail.cfm?ID=4517

Nottingham Trent University Logo

SCALE-UP Expert Class (@Nottingham Trent)

Nottingham Trent University (NTU) is a UK leader in the use of the SCALE-UP approach (Student-Centred Active Learning Environment with Upside-down Pedagogies). SCALE-UP combines an active mode of learning with a bespoke, technology-rich environment. Lectures are replaced by collaborative problem-solving activities carried out in strategically-assigned groups. The specially designed learning environment incorporates circular tables, shared network laptops, whiteboards, and large screens to which student work can be projected and shared. This is supported by an upside-down or flipped pedagogy, where content is encountered outside class, and sessions are devoted to ‘public thinking’ and the application of knowledge.

NTU was the first HE institution in the UK to introduce SCALE-UP (originating in Physics) across multiple disciplines and we now have over 200 academics delivering through the SCALE-UP approach. Our SCALE-UP expertise was recognised when, in 2017, we won one of 17 national collaborative projects in the HEFCE Catalyst programme: Addressing barriers to student success. Our project, led by Jane McNeil, Director of Academic Development, is exploring institutional barriers to widespread adoption and the extent to which the benefits of this form of enquiry-based learning can reduce disparities in progression and attainment at scale. The project will run until February 2019.

An interview with...

An interview with… Kris Roger

The fourth interview in our series is with Kris Roger, who, with his colleague, presented an interesting and informative lecture on the transformation of learning spaces at LSE at the second BILT annual symposium, which launched our new theme, ‘ReThinking Spaces’. Kris’ is a Senior Learning Technologist at LSE and his expertise includes flipped learning, learning spaces design, active learning methods and educational use of digital media. 

What benefits do students experience through a better understanding of learning spaces?

With appropriate learning spaces design we can enable teachers to embrace pedagogical approaches that are based on student activity and experience rather than transmission of information. Appropriately designed spaces will create opportunities for students to engage in activities where they are making, discussing, and analysing collaboratively. Such spaces allow teachers to move around the room while they observe, listen and guide their students through the construction of their own knowledge. It is also possible to design flexibility into such spaces to allow for those occasions where there may need to be some transmission of information required or to consult online content while in class. Some institutions are establishing or switching to programmes of study founded on student-based active approaches to learning, such as team-based, problem-based and flipped learning. Designing social learning spaces that students actually want to use will also encourage students to stay on campus and hopefully instil a sense of belonging to the academic community of an institution.

How can Universities help students to understand these benefits?

One of the key ways we can help students understand these benefits is to fully involve our students in the design of social or informal learning spaces. This isn’t always easy, we sometimes need to make the benefits of contributing to the design of such spaces clear. We need to help students feel a sense of ownership over their spaces – it’s an opportunity to shape and create their own work and study environment. In addition to being involved in the initial design, this sense of ownership can be encouraged through making those spaces flexible and giving control over certain aspects of the environment – such as lighting and placement of furniture. In terms of understanding the benefits of the design of classrooms it’s more important that students understand the approach to learning enabled by flexible learning spaces design. This is more about setting clear expectations for active learning so that students see the value in actively participating and engaging. Also, if spaces designed for active learning are primarily used for lecture-based teaching then students are unlikely to see and understand the benefits of such classroom designs. Therefore, it is key that we work with our teachers to help them understand the possibilities enabled by modern learning spaces.

What are the most common problems you tend to observe with current learning space design?

As education professionals we are interested in all potential learning spaces that our students use – from bedrooms at home or in halls, to the local coffee shop. However, we can only really influence the design of our own spaces on campus – such as classrooms and spaces where students work independently of their teachers. Space is a critical part of shaping learning and teaching and one challenge that we face is to ensure that these learning spaces are fit for the learning and teaching needs of our students and teachers. What does that mean? Many classrooms and lecture rooms continue to be built around a traditional teacher centred approach, without interrogating alternative pedagogical approaches. Students are arranged in rows, for efficient space planning, or in a horseshoe, with all eyes on the teacher at the front of the room. Is that the best layout if the curriculum demands that students partake in collaborative activities in class? Extending this line of questioning, do universities provide sufficient space for students (and staff) to collaborate in groups outside of class. Often, the library is the place to go for independent study where the expectation is silent individual study. Additionally, students value workspace proximity – they like their independent workspaces to be near to where they will be attending class. We therefore need to create attractive modern workspace environments wherever we can find space on our campuses, ranging from those that enable a short stop between class to spaces for working in groups for an extended amount of time.

In terms of design, we often face a number of tensions. How do we enable pedagogical needs to have primacy over other requirements, which are often the first considered, such as the need to maintain the capacity of a particular space? How do we define value for money? Sometimes when we are asked to cut costs or “value engineer”, these initial savings result in a fatal compromise in the design of a space. Also, limited attention is sometimes given to the environmental properties of learning spaces – light, colour, textures, temperature and noise. Our learning spaces need to be engaging, inspiring and comfortable.

Finally, we need to ensure that we design spaces in collaboration with students and teachers. Too often new or refurbished spaces are created as copies of existing spaces without consultation with those people that will be using the spaces. This requires an institution wide collaborative approach that involves multiple stakeholders including educational development professionals, learning technologists, estates, timetables, technology support and more.

What is your favourite learning space in your university?

My favourite learning space at LSE is actually a collection of spaces in our Clement House building. It is the project that I feel closest to, as we had full creative control over a variety of space types. The idea was to create a set of experimental spaces in response to student demand for more independent and collaborative workspaces, where they could charge their devices, work, eat (without having to buy something) or simply chat with friends. The spaces range from comfy armchairs designed for reading to a space with little in the way of seating, but the walls are covered in writable surfaces. We also created individual identities, based on global cities, for each space. Outside of term time, I even use some of the spaces myself when I want to work away from the office.

What inspired you to first start looking at learning spaces and advocating change?

My interest in learning spaces, as a learning technologist, started with my involvement in creating a “Flipping the Classroom” staff development workshop. In the workshop we would discuss various alternative classroom activities with our teachers and they would always ask “How can I do this group discussion activity in a lecture theatre where the seats are fixed and nobody can move around easily?”. So, with our head of learning technology, I grew my interest and involvement in transforming LSE’s ‘traditional’ teaching and learning spaces.

What one film/book/resource would you like to share with the academic community?

A good place to start is Diana Oblinger’s “Learning Spaces” book published back in 2006, available as a free PDF download. While some of the case studies are now a little out of date, it provides an excellent outline for the rationale behind the movement to rethink teaching and learning spaces in higher education. It was probably my introduction to the field of learning spaces design and I’d say my favourite chapter is “The Psychology of Learning Environments” by Ken Graetz.

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

Like others I’m deeply wary of the increasing marketisation of HE in the UK and the unintended consequences of measuring things that are difficult or impossible to measure. But, I am keen that reward and recognition for teaching be given a higher priority in (some of) our institutions.

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

My favourite teacher was Jim Fanning who taught me history in my 1st and 2nd years at secondary school. He showed immense enthusiasm for the subject, took us on many field trips and always taught with a great sense of humour. He truly conveyed the idea that we would understand the subject if we could imagine how it felt to be a particular person at a particular point in time. It wasn’t about learning dates and facts, it was about actively experiencing history, as far as is possible.

500 Words

Pipe cleaners, pick’n’mix and colouring in – active learning goes back to basics!

Author: Andrew Doherty

School/ Centre: Centre for Applied Anatomy, University of Bristol

Andrew Doherty discusses his use of unusual teaching tools in his anatomy undergraduate classes and their impact on learning.

There’s a phrase from the media that comes to mind while wandering around the campus … young people are ‘buried in their phones all the time’. This may well be true – students do spend a lot of time on their phones. I’m not entirely sure what they’re doing half the time, but the modern digitally native student seems to be lost without one. Mobile phones are after all a font of all knowledge – an information centre with an endless library of books, articles, lecture notes, videos … and that’s before we get to the social media sites with Facechat and Snapbook …. I think!

This has given rise to the notion that students of today prefer to use digital media for their learning and that as long as we can provide our learning materials via the web, all will be well because they can all learn digitally. I’m not convinced that this is true and, while I am very interested in providing engaging and interesting digital resources for our students, I also take the view that hands-on, practical activities can sometimes provide the best tool for deep learning of complex information. The interaction between hands and brain is as crucial for learning now as it has ever been.

So, when myself and a colleague, Dr Jo Howarth, were given the job of re-designing the first year curriculum for the Neuroscience programme, the chance was there to re-think what we teach – and more importantly, how we teach it. We have introduced a raft of new hands-on workshops ranging from making pictures from pick’n’mix sweets, building models with pipe cleaners, drawing pathway diagrams with coloured pens – and yes, even using those ubiquitous smartphones to make stop-motion animations to illustrate network dynamics. After all – why shouldn’t learning be fun? We try to engage students in the process of making things themselves to help them synthesise their own knowledge and to encourage them to learn for themselves. Students seem to like what we are doing and, more importantly, are learning the information we want them to learn.

All the activities we have introduced also have an element of personal research to help students gain skills in selecting relevant and appropriate information from the ocean of stuff that sits out there in the big wide world – and the evaluations we have carried out have led to some surprising results. For instance, in providing students with a range of digital resources to learn about aspect of spinal cord anatomy, ranging from you tube videos to manipulatable 3D computer models, what resource did they choose? The good old text book – that’s right – the paper one that sits on the bookshelf!

So, are our students ready for the digital world? In their social space, indeed they are – but when it comes to learning materials, the hands-on approach still has a long way to go before it runs out of steam – pipe cleaner makers, be warned!

pipecleaners.png

Figure 1. Examples of activities used in the re-design of the 1st year neuroscience curriculum. A range of hands-on activities have been used in the revised teaching on the neuroscience programme. These range from (A) using pick’n’mix sweets to make an image, (B) using pipe cleaners to create models, (C) drawing pathway diagrams with coloured pens. Each image has been created by students studying on the neuroscience programme.