Melissa Miller: With SCALE-UP, more effort means more reward

As an international affairs major, I’m required to take one to two science classes. And I know I’m not the only one who zones out when my professor starts talking about isotopes and the periodic table of elements.

But students aren’t alone. Professors have also begun to realize that traditional lectures are not as effective as they should be.

This discovery has been especially salient in the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – arguably the most academically challenging and rigorous departments in any university, in which 63 percent of professors use lectures as an integral part of their classroom, according to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education from October 2012.

But there’s a new class model that takes a less traditional approach: Students sit in small groups at tables and collaborate on problems, forcing them to actually participate.

Universities across the country – including GW – have started implementing these classes, known as SCALE-UP courses.

Traditionally, there has been an unspoken understanding that professors do the work in class by lecturing, and students wait until after class to prepare for exams and complete problem sets.

I enrolled in two SCALE-UP science classes my freshman year, and it was frustrating at first because it wasn’t possible to hide in the back row taking less than stellar notes. I realized quickly that I had to actually learn the material before class so I could participate effectively.

And while these classes might require more work, the positive returns are greater as well. Physics professor William Briscoe told The Hatchet in 2011 that the average grade on the first test of the semester was 10 percent higher than those from previous years. And a 2007 study by Professor Robert J. Beichner showed that “in comparison to traditional instruction, significant increases have been shown in conceptual understanding… [and] success rates.”

A large portion of each SCALE-UP class is devoted to group activities. Group work can be frustrating: Not everyone helps, you sometimes feel lost and there’s always one kid blazing ahead of everyone else. As a result, it means you suffer when someone nearby is falling asleep or surfing Facebook.

On top of that, students must answer questions from peers and the professor, solve math problems and make presentations regularly.

When the professor put up a word problem on the screen and asked us to make a calculation, you could see the panic in the students’ eyes. “Where did that problem come from?” they whispered.

But when I look back on it, I realize that the point of the classes was to leave students to grapple with the material on their own. If it were easy, then there would be no point in taking the class in the first place.

Did I feel frustrated? Absolutely. But once I began to put in a little more effort preparing for class, I was able to excel. Students just aren’t accustomed to doing that much work in a general curriculum class.

The easy solution? Come to class prepared.

This might mean skimming over material the night before, grabbing coffee to keep your eyes open or even putting your phone away for the duration of class. But you’ll benefit, and so will your classmates.

So before you judge the SCALE-UP approach, give it a chance and put effort into class time. You might be surprised at how good you get at chemistry.

Melissa Miller, a sophomore majoring in international affairs, is a Hatchet columnist.

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