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Rethinking the college classroom

Ask students and teachers what they like least about their classes, and you’re likely to get the same answer from both: the lecture.

At NC State, physics professor Bob Beichner is working to revoke the classroom lecture’s status at the center of American higher education.

Since 1997, Beichner, Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Professor of Physics, has led the Student-Centered Active Learning Environment for Undergraduate Programs (SCALE-UP) project. The project’s focus has been on transforming large-enrollment classes from lecture-driven, one-way exchanges into fully interactive environments where professors and students spend time applying knowledge.

The key to doing that, Beichner said, is changing the classroom itself. SCALE-UP classes left behind large lecture halls for more intimate spaces where students sit at round, nine-person tables that encourage more discussion.

“The class looks like a restaurant,” said Beichner, who is also director of NC State’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education Initiative. “In the same sense that a waiter needs to be free to get to everybody, the classroom’s designed so that the faculty member can get to everybody.”

Beichner's SCALE-UP program aims to replace traditional lecture halls...

SCALE-UP classes have also left the lecture behind. Students are responsible for digesting content outside the classroom, by reading textbooks, going online and doing simple homework, Beichner said. That preserves class time for applying the information and interacting with faculty members.

“That frees up the instructor time from what I call the ‘tyranny of content delivery’ because we don’t need to do that anymore,” Beichner said. “They can go around and help the students use the materials that they’ve been studying.”

...with restaurant-style classrooms where students and professors interact more.

More interaction yields stronger relationships between faculty members and students. That’s important, Beichner said, because studies have shown that good academic and social relationships are the single biggest factor correlated with student success.

And SCALE-UP classes get results. Students show marked improvement in problem-solving and conceptual understanding. They also have higher attendance rates than students in traditional classrooms, even though SCALE-UP classes generally don’t have attendance policies.

That success has drawn national attention. Funding for SCALE-UP research has come from the U.S. Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, Hewlett-Packard, Apple Computer and Pasco Scientific. In September, Beichner received the 2011 Harold W. McGraw Prize in Education.

Nationwide, more than 100 universities are adapting SCALE-UP, to varying degrees. The University of Minnesota recently completed a building with classrooms designed for SCALE-UP learning. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, more than 90 percent of physics instruction occurs in SCALE-UP classrooms.