SCAL@R shakes up traditional classroom instruction at Rice

This year an innovative new teaching approach has become a fixture on the Rice University campus and changed the way faculty members interact with students in the classroom.

SCAL@R, or Student-Centered Active Learning at Rice, is a teaching model for midsize to large survey courses. Rather than the traditional focus on delivery of information from faculty to students, SCAL@R promotes the active participation of students in the classroom setting. Students are placed in small discussion groups around tables instead of sitting in an amphitheater.

SCAL@R, or Student-Centered Active Learning at Rice, is a teaching model for midsize to large survey courses.

“Our goal with SCAL@R is to engage our students in the learning process and make them active participants in the classroom environment,” said Carlos Solis, manager of Educational Technologies at Rice. “This guided approach allows them to discover answers, rather than be given answers.”

“Survey courses have a tendency to be large, which isn’t really conducive to in-class discussion,” Dean of Undergraduates John Hutchinson said. “Our goal is to give large survey courses the feel of a seminar one by grouping students into small discussion groups.”

The idea to create SCAL@R was born following a 2011 Scientia conference held at Rice. The event focused on research and innovation in science and engineering education and included remarks by Robert Beichner, a professor of physics at North Carolina State University who was invited to speak at the conference by Hutchinson. At the conference, Beichner demonstrated his student-centered approach to members of the Rice faculty.

According to Hutchison, the demonstration generated considerable enthusiasm among faculty members, and many signed up to participate in this new teaching approach. One of Hutchinson’s own courses, CHEM 121 (General Chemistry), is the largest survey course in which the new approach is being used.

“Beichner’s data show that this is an extremely successful approach in achieving the purpose of these large classes,” Hutchinson said. “Students gain conceptual understanding of material, engage in intellectual conversations and are inspired to continue studying the subject. It’s also been especially helpful in retaining students in the physics and engineering fields.”

Rice piloted the program during the 2011-2012 academic year, but before SCAL@R could be implemented, the issue of appropriate classroom space needed to be addressed. Like most college campuses, Rice has many amphitheater-style classrooms, which are not conducive to the SCAL@R model of teaching.

Hutchinson approached the presidents of Rice’s residential colleges to see if anyone was interested in allowing their commons to be used as classroom space. Jones College was the first to volunteer, and its commons was retrofitted to meet the needs of a SCAL@R classroom. Since that time, classrooms in Duncan College and Brockman Hall have been added to the list of spaces available for SCAL@R.

Beth Beason-Abmayr and Liz Eich, biochemistry instructors and assistant directors for the Rice University School Science Technology Program, were among the first faculty members to embrace the SCAL@R approach of teaching.

“I was already using clickers (devices that allow students to respond to questions) in the lecture component associated with my advanced lab course, BIOC 311 (Advanced Experimental Biosciences),” said Beason-Abmayr. “We were in a traditional stadium-seating classroom, so the clickers made it more active than it had been, but there wasn’t much else we could do. Everyone was still sitting in rows.”

After hearing about SCAL@R, Beason-Abmayr thought it would be a great idea to incorporate it into her lecture and lab, where students were already working in teams of four.

Eich agreed, “This new approach forces them to be prepared for each class session, as they must discuss the information in their small groups,” she said. She and Beason-Abmayr said the teaching approach has approved student attentiveness as well as preparation.

“With 100 people in class, you can’t be standing behind everyone’s shoulder and telling them to stay on task,” Eich added. “With SCAL@R, they’re ensuring that each other is on task, asking questions, looking up information and solving problems together.”

For the most part, it’s been really well received, Eich said, and has improved interaction and discussion between the students. “It allows them to teach each other, and allows us to interact more with students during class,” she said.

One of Eich’s undergraduate teaching assistants, Sonny Nguyen, took the course when it was lecture-based. Now that he’s participating in the SCAL@R class sessions as a teaching assistant, he’s seeing firsthand the difference in how things are done.

“He’s remarked several times about how comfortable the students are with the material, and has told me that he wishes he could have taken the SCAL@R version of the course,” Eich said.

Beason-Abmayr said, “You can never please 100 percent of the people 100 percent of the time, but (the students) have been overwhelmingly positive and seem to really enjoy it.”

Following the program’s pilot year, Solis and his colleagues gathered student feedback about SCAL@R, which was overwhelmingly positive.

The feedback included comments from several students expressing appreciation for the cooperative approach to in-class activities. “I really like group work and being able to collaborate when trying to solve problems,” one student said.

Other students who were surveyed felt the group approach aided in grasping the new information presented to them. “The discussion sections and assigned projects helped me further understand the material and achieve the best learning outcomes,” another student said.

Over the past year, more instructors, including Margaret Beier, an associate professor of psychology, have adopted the SCAL@R model of instruction. She began using SCAL@R in fall 2012 and said she’s “really glad” to have made the transition.

“Group activities are very difficult in stadium seating,” Beier said. “I’ve always tried to incorporate discussion questions and small-group discussions, which is difficult with the traditional setup. You have a case where the structure of the room is interfering with what you want to do.”

With the new format, Beier spends less time lecturing and incorporates small-group activities like analysis of empirical articles and “speed dating,” where her students rate each other’s personalities.

She plans to incorporate a few more of these small, interactive activities as the class continues.

“I think the students are much more engaged, and they’re getting a lot more out of it,” she said.



About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.