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The GW Hatchet

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Some students resist as science classes ditch lecturing

Some students are struggling with a new class setup that forces them to teach themselves, using a professor as a coach, rather than a lecturer.

All introductory physics courses starting this month use a model dubbed “SCALE-UP,” in which students collaborate on class work instead of being instructed by a professor at the front of the room.

The change has injected more rigor into large classes, students and professors said, and the classrooms in Monroe and Tompkins halls have been destinations for GW tour guides to highlight innovative teaching. But some students say the switch is overwhelming and that professors offer little help.

Mckenzie Anderson, a sophomore international affairs major taking a SCALE-UP physics class this semester, said the class’s heavy emphasis on group work becomes “useless” because students aren’t prepared for it.

“Basically, for the two hours it’s the professor putting problems up on the board and students solving them in groups with very little guidance,” he said. “With this class, you pretty much rely on the book which makes it harder for students who aren’t as interested in the subject.”

The newly renovated rooms, equipped with audiovisual technology, usually hold about 80 students. About half of astronomy classes and some engineering departments also use the spaces.

Students said the classes lack structure and that coming to class under-prepared can mean an hour of feeling lost.

Junior Rachael Holbreich, an American studies major, said she’s been able to make the most of her physics class so far, but has seen others struggle.

“Realistically, there are students who come to class unprepared and have to play catch-up,” Holbreich said. “There’s definitely an adjustment to make if you’re used to lectures.”

For others, especially those who are studying technical fields, the model is a welcome change.

Freshman engineering major Daniel Soldau, who is enrolled in a calculus-based physics class, said the course was challenging, but more worthwhile than standard lectures.

“We might have been disappointed that we couldn’t go on Facebook, but we were glad that we were actually doing something with the time,” Soldau said. “From the people I’ve talked to, they like that the class is interactive.”

Teaching in SCALE-UP classrooms is a signature part of the University’s science and engineering plans. Some GW professors started using the model in 2008, and two years ago GW completed renovations to Monroe and Tompkins halls to carve out the more spacious classrooms.

Although most of the space in the Science and Engineering Hall, set to open in 2015, is dedicated to research laboratories, the classrooms in the $275 million building will follow the SCALE-UP model. The latest building plans call for two large SCALE-UP classrooms, and several smaller versions.

At GW, the switch was spearheaded by physics professor Gerald Feldman. The change has helped grow the University’s growing science and engineering foundation, he said.

The main draw, he added, is engaging students in working out complicated material themselves instead of relying on students to absorb the coursework in a lecture.

“If you have a lecture you have someone stand there and talk at you for 50 minutes. That has been proven to be almost totally ineffective. With SCALE-UP the instructor is much more like a coach. That’s the best analogy,” Feldman said.

He added that while the model helps both science and non-science majors, it could turn off students looking for an easier way to fill a general requirement.

“It makes you work harder for more gains, so I guess I can see that being why students complain,” he said. “The more you struggle, the more you construct your understanding.”

This article was updated Jan. 28, 2013 to reflect the following:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that the Science and Engineering Hall costs $275. It will cost the University $275 million. We regret this error.

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