SoTL Showcase: Adopting ‘Scrum’ to give students choice in the classroom

Three Elon professors are showing how a new pedagogy they call “Scrumage” increases students’ agency and confidence in the classroom.

Each spring, the Center for Engaged Learning (CEL), the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning (CATL), and the Center for Research on Global Engagement (CRGE) join together to showcase research projects focused on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL). Due to COVID-19, we have shifted from our usual poster presentation session to an online version through a series of Today at Elon stories. Follow along each day as we share Elon scholars’ research on innovative teaching practices.

Shannon Duvall, associate professor of computer science

Software developers the world over have adopted Scrum, an agile project management framework that breaks complex projects down into bite-size chunks that team members collaboratively “sprint” to complete. The process empowers team members to take ownership over projects and make quick decisions about how best to complete the work. Associate Professor of Computer Science Shannon Duvall wondered whether she could adapt these ideas to pedagogy. She worked with two other professors of computer science, Duke Hutchings and Scott Spurlock, to transform their traditional teaching methods into something they call “Scrumage.”

In a Scrumage classroom, the students get to decide how they want to learn the course content and how class time is used. The professor offers choices: a lecture, readings or videos on new material, working through problems together, discussion of case studies, etc. The day before class, the professor asks students to tell them what they want (and need) to do in class the next day — and that becomes the agenda for class. Once all the students’ requests are done during the class session, then students have free work time, which gives the instructors a valuable opportunity to float around and check in with students to answer questions.

Duke Hutchings, professor of computer science

Spurlock explains that students will look through their assignments, figure out what they still need to learn, and ask for help on it. “It’s more like they’re pulling and less like I’m pushing, so I can talk about the same thing I would have talked about anyway, but they’re asking me to do it,” he says.

All three agree that this characteristic is the key to why the pedagogy works so well, and it’s similar to why Scrum works in the industry. Duvall says that students think like software developers. “I don’t need a manager to tell me what to do — let me do what I know I need to do,” she says.

Students are more active and engaged during class time, listening intently and asking good questions, she says.

Duvall, Hutchings and Spurlock worked with the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning (CATL) to figure out how it would all work. They had many questions: Would the benefits of Scrum translate to the classroom? Would this approach help students learn the course material better? Would it be manageable for the instructors? How could they assess student learning and attitudes?

Scott Spurlock, assistant professor of computer science

They experimented with the Scrumage technique in three introductory programming classes and were able to make comparisons with multiple sections of the same course that were being taught in a more traditional way. They administered two surveys: one of student attitudes toward learning and another standard metric for measuring learning in programming courses to assess their mastery of the content.

What they found was that students did master the content better in the Scrumage sections, and this improvement was most apparent and important for those students who may have struggled in a traditional programming class. A student who might have failed or needed to withdraw from the course was able to hang on throughout the semester. Duvall, Hutchings and Spurlock attribute this to the more marked finding of their research: students in the Scrumage classes had a profoundly different attitude toward the class. These students felt to a much higher degree that even though the course was difficult, if they put in the effort then they would be able to succeed. They felt more ownership over their own learning, and this agency translated to more reflection about (and then action on) what they needed to do to succeed in the course.

Scrumage has now been adopted in multiple courses, and Duvall, Hutchings and Spurlock have done workshops that have led to the pedagogy being adopted in other disciplines and at other universities. Many instructors might be worried that the method might not be manageable for them, but all three professors agree that it’s been enjoyable to teach this way.

“It’s not nearly as terrifying as it seems like it would be — it sounds like it would just be chaos as you get hit with all these requests, and you never know what you’re going to teach,” Spurlock says. “But it’s actually a lot of fun.”

They found that Scrumage really changed the dynamic in the classroom and improves both student engagement and the relationship between professor and student. “I love having that feeling in the classroom that we’re colleagues and we’re all pushing toward the same goal,” Duvall says.

Hutchings, who chairs the computer science program at Elon, emphasizes how this SoTL project fits in with the strong emphasis on educational research within the discipline. Computer science is viewed as a challenging subject to learn, and so there is a substantial amount of research done to figure out how to teach it better. Duvall appreciates how a SoTL project can give you evidence that how you’re teaching is effective and makes a difference in students’ success.

“The nice thing about doing a structured CATL project was having time and support,” she says. “You don’t have to feel like a SoTL expert from the start, you can get help as you go along.”

If you’re interested in Scrumage, please contact Shannon Duvall, Duke Hutchings or Scott Spurlock. They would love to talk to you about it!

This project was supported by the CATL Scholars Program, which fosters innovative and scholarly teaching and learning. Echoing the Elon Teacher-Scholar statement, the CATL Scholars program is designed so that participants both engage deeply with the shared goals of our academic community and develop “the unique gifts” that each individual Scholar possesses.