Scaling-up /Scaling-back

Duke Football

I was able to develop a simple strategy that allowed me to create an engaging learning environment in which students were encouraged to ask questions, actively participate, and contribute to class content--a solution was a stress-free and very low-tech.

              In the first paragraph of my proposal for the Bacca Fellowship, I wrote: “I am very interested in the challenge of shifting from a seminar format to a larger lecture setting for one of my classes, ‘Religion and Sport,’ which I will teach in Spring 2022 for the second time.” Scaling-up a class from a seminar of 18 students to a lecture with an enrollment of 35 requires a different pedagogical approach and poses new questions. Because seminars are by definition small, the task to create a student-centered learning environment is easier. In a seminar, students are required to participate actively in the give-and-take conversations around content. They can lead discussions, present their work to their peers, receive extensive feedback, and, consequently, improve their work based on peer-review. In this scenario, teachers are seen more as facilitators of a process in which students co-create their own education. Since a seminar has fewer students, teachers also have more time to dedicate to them individually and to create assignments that are not only the means for assessing the students’ understanding of class materials, but also their process of learning.

When planning to scale-up my class, my major concern was to maintain these benefits of a seminar for the lecture setting. I especially didn’t want to lose the “voice” that a seminar allows students to have. But how to do that? What class dynamic is more appropriate to create an engaging educational environment in this setting? How to encourage active student participation and how to adapt assignments from a seminar to a large group format?

              When writing the proposal, my desire was to experiment with four different features of the course: 1) a format in which students actively participate despite the larger class size; 2) a digital space in which we could create a sense of community; 3) a platform to publish student work; and 4) digital applications that would facilitate critical thinking and writing. My first idea was to create a multimedia platform for this class in which students could record their reactions and insights about the weekly material, talk to one another beyond the classroom, post thoughts related to the current unit that they found relevant for our conversation, and publish their own work. It sounds good, right? Well, in reality, to scale-up my class, I had to scale-back my goals. The challenges that I assigned myself proved to be too ambitious. In this process, I failed to accomplish three of my initial goals, but I am happy to say that I succeeded very well in achieving one of them, the one that became more important for me: a format in which students actively participated despite the larger class size.

              But, first, let me explain what didn’t work. Creating a platform that worked as a collective digital place for publishing student work became an almost impossible task to manage alone. I could not come up with a digital format that offered the same egalitarian space to all students. From the perspective of the audience who would have access to the website, I could not devise a way that was easy to navigate amidst the work of 35 students. Moreover, I became apprehensive with the students’ right to keep their academic work private. I must say that I have not given up the task of developing this format and I still thinking about it. I also failed in adapting assignments from a small class to a larger class. I should have scaled-back the number of assignments and trusted more in the learning process that takes place in the classroom. Reading a large number of papers and giving the proper feedback that students deserve became a burden and a source of stress for me. It is enough to say that I spent my Spring Break reading 53 five-page-papers – quite overwhelming.

              However, regarding my success, I was able to develop a simple strategy that allowed me to create an engaging learning environment in which students were encouraged to ask questions, actively participate, and contribute to class content--a solution was a stress-free and very low-tech. Each week, students wrote two or more questions in “Discussion,” a forum post on Sakai related to the assigned material. Reading these questions doesn’t require a lot of my time and allows me to design the next class around their own questions and interests. The outcome of this simple pedagogical strategy has proven to work very well and I am very happy with the results. Despite the “lecture” format, student participation in ‘Sport and Religion’ emulates a seminar class.

              It may sound obvious or even like a sentence extracted from a self-help book, but we only fail when we stop trying.  The Bacca Fellowship gave me the opportunity to ponder my role and expectations as a teacher, and it made me critically review my pedagogical strategies. More than a workshop with peers designed to solve teaching problems, the fellowship became almost a “therapeutic session,” where I had a “me time” to challenge my own assumptions about what it means to succeed as a teacher. And for me, the fellowship was just the beginning of the process. I will continue to think about my syllabi and the task of creating the best learning environment that I am able to.

IMAGE CREDIT: Duke University

ABOUT THE AUTHORLarissa Carneiro is an instructor in the Religious Studies Department. Her recent scholarship focuses on the intersection of religion, technology, and science, exploring how scientific and technological progress have affected religious practices, discourses, and beliefs and vice-versa. At Duke, she has taught Harry Potter & Religion, Sports and Religion, Religion and Film, Psychedelic Religion, and Religion and Journalism.