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Team-based learning summary

Shannon Mitchell

I would like to report on my experiences with one type of learner-centered teaching, team-based learning (TBL), in International Economics (Econ 329) during spring semester 2006.  Using this method, an instructor creates a set of activities that students complete in teams, and this constitutes the primary method of instruction.  Teams are formed at the beginning of the semester and are not changed over the course of the semester. 

I had been incorporating occasional group work into this course for several semesters because of a sense that students might learn more with interactive activities than with lectures.  These limited activities seemed to suffer because the teams were not permanent, so they always had high start-up costs, and there was little personal accountability for what happened in the groups.  Having read a book on alternative methods of teaching economics, and having attended some conference sessions in which team-based learning was discussed, I felt ready to attempt an “all-groups, all-the-time” class.  Having been tipped off by conference participants, I alerted my department chair of my intentions and the likely consequence that at some point in the semester he would be visited by groups of students complaining that I wasn’t actually teaching them anything, and hence, not doing my job.

The course grade was to be determined by quizzes, two exams, and class participation, the latter being measured by attendance and my own perception of their effort within their groups.  I was reluctant to see a student “punished” for another student’s shirking, so grades would not depend directly on the group’s performance on assignments.

Students were expected to show up having read the chapter or other readings.  To ensure this, they had to complete a short, easy quiz on blackboard (about 4 multiple choice questions) prior to class about once a week.  I provided a list of learning objectives for each chapter along and a series of problems or exercises for the group to complete in class.  I would circulate and answer questions and discuss issues with them as needed during class.  In constructing groups, I made sure each group had some econ majors in it so that their extra experience with economics could help lead the group.

The first few classes seemed a great success.  The groups appeared to be working well, with only a few whiners and a few shirkers.  But during the fourth class, as we got deeper into the material, a revolt occurred.  I took a “time out” to listen to comments.  Common student reactions were:

  • Is this what the whole class is going to be like?”
  • How do we know if we are right or wrong?
  • Why aren’t you doing your job?  You should be teaching us.  Why are we paying to do what we could do on our own?
  • What’s going to happen to my GPA?
  • Telling us to “think more about that” isn’t really that helpful.

There were also a few comments aimed a logistical issues that were more easily addressed.  Changes going forward from that point included a review of exercises by the instructor at intervals during class, with supplemental mini-lectures as needed.

My impression from this point forward was that people for the most part were working well in their groups.  I had my own concerns that the exercises I was assigning weren’t well-designed, but couldn’t pinpoint the problem.  People were breaking down the tasks into smaller parts and dividing up the work, which may have worked well to answer the questions but did not necessarily mean they understood the answers.  We were moving through the chapters very slowly, and I was only attempting to teach the very basics of the material—no fine points.

Around the fifth week of classes, the CTE brought Larry Michaelson to campus to do two presentations on team-based learning.  I could not go to either!  But I did become aware of his work and his book with Aletta Bauman Knight and L. Dee Fink.1 I read the book and learned what I was doing wrong.  Constrained by the original syllabus, I nonetheless returned from spring break with some key changes.

  • I divided the material into larger chunks—3-4 chapters. 
  • The individual online quizzes were followed by group quizzes in class.  This was so that the group could benefit from working together and getting input from everyone. I graded the group quiz and made that part of the individual’s quiz score.
  • Quizzes became more than just a simple check to see if the reading was done.  The questions began to have some substance.
  • I tried to design exercises that forced groups to arrive at a decision about something.  Sets of True/False questions were particularly good at this.
  • Each group’s answers were shared with the whole class on the board. This made their work more public and more important to them.
  • After posting every group’s answers, I would ask for volunteers to say why their group answered as it did.  I then allowed groups to change their posted answers after listening to the others.  This was a great way to uncover misperceptions, especially when students were making mistakes because they had confusion about terminology. I would discuss the correct answers only after time for thought. 

We moved much faster this way.  Michaelsen advocates grading groups on the in-class exercises to increase interest in making the right decision.  It was too late to do that for this class.  Nonetheless, it was clear that the stakes were higher and interest was higher once the groups’ answers were going to be made public.

I solicited student feedback on the final exam, grading them on the thoughtfulness of their answers (not on whether the comments were positive or negative).  Everyone received full points for this part.  I have listed key comments below.

  • Many suggested using a combination of group work and lectures.
  • Many noted that they felt very comfortable in class asking questions or speaking up. One student said coming to class felt “like coming home to family”.
  • There was lots of feedback relating to the first half versus the second half of the course, and most of it was positive.  They liked re-taking the quiz in their groups because it generated more discussion.  Some did notice that the quality of the exercises went up.  Most did not like having to take a quiz over 3 chapters at once in the second half.  Some confessed that early frustrations left a bad impression for the whole semester even though things improved later.
  • Some felt the class sessions were useless and that they learned more on their own.
  • Some commented that they really just wanted to “get the right answer” and did not really have an incentive to understand why it was right.
  • Some students were very positive about the experience, and they made negative comments about the fact that other students were not open-minded.  A couple of students explicitly encouraged me to keep using team-based learning.
  • Several students suggested that grading the output of the group work would solve some problems, such as not caring a whole lot about the answers.
  • Many commented that they learned much more from my lectures than from the group.  Indeed, students were begging for lectures.  There are many ways to interpret this—some obvious, and some not-so-obvious.
  • I did not realize until the end of the semester some behavior that I had interpreted as good-natured ribbing really represented animosity within one group. 

The level of learning shown on exams was very low; ironically enough, it was especially low on the final exam.  Teaching this way requires a lot of extra preparation.  Instructors have so much more experience thinking about the best way to present material than they do thinking about how to get students to discover material on their own.  Nevertheless, I am still undecided about what to do the next time I teach the course.  I think that I’ve learned some key lessons to improve the learning experience and learning outcomes using team-based learning.  I also feel strongly that it is good for students—and especially good for average students—to be forced to work more independently.   Students are much more comfortable being told answers than they are being forced to answer questions, and when students are uncomfortable, they will do their best to make their professors uncomfortable.  But some discomfort may be a good thing.

1Team-based Learning:  A transformative Use of Small Groups in College Teaching, by Larry K. Michaelsen, Arletta Bauman Knight and L. Dee Fink.  Stylus Publishing: Sterling Virginia, 2004.


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