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Q&A: Active Learning in Biology: New Research on the SCALE-UP Approach

How effective is a “Student-Centered Active Learning Environment with Upside-Down Pedagogies” in biology? Dr. Gokhan Hacisalihoglu explains.


Gokhan Hacisalihoglu, PhD

Professor of Biological Sciences, Florida A&M University in Tallahassee

PhD in Plant Biology, MS in Seed Biology; member of American Society of Plant Biologists

Twitter @drhacigreens

As a research professor in plant biology, Gokhan Hacisalihoglu, PhD, has published dozens of studies on various flora. As the recipient of numerous teaching awards, this innovative educator recently decided to apply his investigative approach to a specific sort of fauna: college students.

“I am very interested in how people learn,” says the biology professor at Florida A&M University, one of the foremost historically black colleges and universities in America. To that end, Hacisalihoglu, along with Desmond Stephens, Lewis Johnson, and Maurice Edington, studied the impact of an active-learning strategy called SCALE-UP, which strategically combines technology and a flipped classroom approach to bolster student engagement and performance.

Course Hero recently interviewed Hacisalihoglu to learn what exactly the acronym stands for, his insights on adopting the approach, and the compelling results of his research.

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“Student-centered learning is more than just the classroom setup. Research shows that it’s not really the room that improves learning. It is the in-class activities that really make it student-centered.”

— Gokhan Hacisalihoglu, PhD

Course: BSC 1010 General Biology I (cellular/molecular)

Course description: General biological principles and cell function for biology and other health science majors.

Hacisalihoglu’s insights on his SCALE-UP study

In the spring of 2018, Hacisalihoglu and his colleagues published results of a study on PLOS ONE under the title “The Use of an Active Learning Approach in a SCALE-UP Learning Space Improves Academic Performance in Undergraduate General Biology.” Below, he goes into detail on the approach, how and why he began using it, and how SCALE-UP students performed in the study when compared to those in a traditional classroom setup.

Course Hero: Can you give us a breakdown of the SCALE-UP acronym?

Gokhan Hacisalihoglu, PhD: SCALE stands for “student-centered active learning environment.” It is an active-learning classroom setup with educational technology. The UP in SCALE-UP stands for “upside-down pedagogy,” which is another term for a flipped classroom, where what was done at home happens in class, and what was done in class happens at home.

In the SCALE-UP system, everything starts before the students ever come to class. There is a before-class assignment to complete, which could include watching a video or reading from the textbook. There is no traditional full lecture, because students watched the lecture on video and did the reading at home. Students are quizzed on that material in the first five minutes of class; generally, the time in class is used to activate knowledge and explore the material.

Can you tell us more about the environment of a SCALE-UP classroom?

We have round tables with six students, divided into two groups of three, at each table—but students don’t always sit at the same table for the whole semester. We switch them from table to table, to change the table/student combination. Every table has its own digital board, laptop, or desktop computer, or students use their own devices. There are multiple digital boards. There is no “front” or “back” of the classroom, and everyone is on one level, so no one can hide. There’s no real teacher’s desk. The instructor doesn’t sit—and instead is everywhere.

When and how did your department adapt to the SCALE-UP approach?

We moved to SCALE-UP after receiving summer faculty training funded by the National Science Foundation. We spent some months during the summer making a common syllabus of the course, with contributions from everyone who was teaching the SCALE-UP sections. We would pick activities, put them together, select the best ones, and put them on the syllabus. We also decided what specifics would be covered, what the homework would be, what the exams would be. In [the General Biology course], everyone has to give a critical-thinking test, pretest, post-test, pre-quiz, and post-quiz. As a result of all this collaboration, the syllabus is much more organized, structured, and detailed than the original syllabus.

Do other educators interested in this approach need to redo their room?

The room setup plays a part in its success, but student-centered learning is more than just the classroom setup. It is the in-class activities that really make it student-centered. There are still some lectures, but they don’t fill the class—not from beginning to end. Classes are not delivered in a one-way direction; they are two-way or three-way or more directions. There are student-to-student interactions. There are group activities. Students write, do activities, discuss with their neighbors, discuss everything with the class. The SCALE-UP room setup helps accomplish all that, but you can still do student-centered learning without that.

What should educators know about planning in-class activities?

In-class activities must be carefully planned to reinforce critical concepts and enhance critical thinking skills through active-learning techniques, such as the one-minute paper or think-pair-share. Of course, writing is an important part of active learning. Not extensive writing, but summarizing, creating concept maps, reading case studies, and assigning student presentations. These are all part of the list of possible in-class activities.

More specifically, what might a typical class period look like?

Teachers may give a clicker quiz in the first five minutes of class. During class, there may be a group activity, or sometimes more than one. There is a mini-lecture and discussion. Teachers may assign a one-minute paper at the end, which is the same as an exit ticket, where students are asked to write three things they learned and what was hard for them. We often include an after-class activity that could be homework. It’s usually an online version of some assessment that students do after class to refresh what they learned.

Regarding your research on SCALE-UP, what did you hope to learn?

For many years, I taught a regular lecture-based auditorium class using a traditional teaching approach. The study compared that type of class with SCALE-UP to see if there was a difference, even as the classes covered the same topics, took the same assessments, and completed the same homework.

We studied the efficacy of SCALE-UP and what SCALE-UP does for students. Does the SCALE-UP classroom improve student learning? Does it improve student learning significantly? How does it affect student engagement, test scores, and passing rate?

What were the results of the SCALE-UP study?

For one thing, we found that attendance was better in the SCALE-UP sections, because they know that every time they miss a class, they miss out on points that are given in class for participation. SCALE-UP students also reported more engagement than students in the traditional class, and students said in the exit survey that their experience was positive.

A few other key findings:

  • Students’ pass rate was up.
  • Passing grades were 22% higher in the SCALE-UP class.
  • There was improvement in terms of ABC grade percentages (summative).
  • There was improved gain of knowledge (by 19%), as measured by pre- and post-tests.
  • We received positive student feedback responses.

Because SCALE-UP provided the tools together with active learning opportunities, students recognized the value of interactive learning, active communication, and productive class time.

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