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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

TBL: Summing up

[See previous posts for TBL basics, readiness assessments, team applications, peer evaluations/team grades, and student responses]

For those who have been following along with this series, I hope it's clear by now that TBL is pretty dramatically different from traditional chalk-and-talk. After teaching this way, it's actually really hard for me to stand up and 'lecture' in any class for more than about ten minutes. For those who are curious to find out more, the absolute best place to start is the Team-Based Learning website. The book by Michaelson, et al, is also a good starting place. To wrap up, I thought I'd address some of the questions that I think folks might have if you're considering adopting TBL...

How do you get student buy-in?
As I mentioned in my last post, I think it's crucial for students to understand why we are using TBL. One thing I do on the first day is ask the two questions in this article in The National Teaching and Learning Forum, "First-Day Questions for the Learner-Centered Classroom," by Gary Smith:
Thinking of what you want to get out of your college education and this course, which of the following is most important to you?
A. Acquiring information (facts, principles, concepts)
B. Learning how to use information and knowledge in new situations
C. Developing lifelong learning skills.
Of these three goals, which do you think you can most easily achieve outside of class with your own reading and studying, and which is best achieved in class, working with your classmates and the Professor?

Typically, answers to the first question include a couple of students who answer A and the rest split between B and C. We talk a little about how A, acquiring information, is a necessary step before you can get to B and C, but when I emphasize that the question asks what they want to get out of their college education, most students agree that knowledge alone isn't that useful if you don't know what to do with it. In response to the second question, students immediately see that acquiring information is easiest on your own and from there, explaining why I use team-based learning is pretty straightforward.

Would this work in really large classes with fixed seats?
My own classes have been maxed out at 75 students and I taught one section, my first semester using TBL, in a classroom with fixed seats. Since then, I've requested rooms with movable seats because I think it's a lot easier. I'd certainly suggest starting with smaller classes if possible but with movable seats, I really think TBL could work for a class of pretty much any size. Of course, hopefully if you have hundreds of students, then you also have at least a few TAs who can help with walking around and keeping the groups under control. With fixed seats, you need to be super-clear about where each team is seated; I think it can work OK if each team is together in two rows so the students in the front row can turn around and talk with the students behind them. It isn't ideal but it's do-able. The TBL website has some videos that show TBL in action in some really large classrooms.

How do you create good teams?
Some TBLers create the teams in class but I always create the teams myself (just seems easier to me). On the first day, students fill out an information sheet and I collect some information from them that I then use in creating the teams. The main things I'm concerned about are having a mix of gender, 'ability' and laptop availability on each team (for the data class, each team needs laptop for a few classes so I try to have at least two people per team who say they are 'willing and able to bring a laptop to class'). I measure 'ability' by asking the students if they took the lower-division stats course more than once and if they have ever tutored for economics or statistics. I also check that the non-native English speakers are distributed somewhat equally across teams, and that there were no teams that might have cliques (e.g., members of the same fraternity or sports team). I now use a spreadsheet called the Group Rumbler, created by a guy at Harvard and available for free; that has made my life a lot easier and I'd highly recommend it for anyone who wants to create groups based on specific characteristics. Although I do think my approach has helped ensure that all the teams are roughly 'equal', some TBLers will tell you that it doesn't (or shouldn't) matter all that much. Doing it totally randomly might mean that one team ends up with four or five slackers while another team ends up with four or five 4.0 students, but if you have well-designed applications, the TBL structure should mean that all students have equal incentive to contribute.

I'm not sure I'm ready to adopt TBL whole-hog but would like to adopt certain parts. How can I get my feet wet?
I think there are big advantages to adopting TBL as a whole-course approach but I also think it's difficult to do because you really need to step back and re-design the entire course. I think a good way to build up to that is to start with 4S applications. If your typical approach is to assign problem sets that students do as homework, think about converting those to 4S applications and having students work through them in teams during class. Of course, you may need to reduce lecturing time in order to make time for that, but you may find that you can condense your lecture and have students discover some of the same information on their own as they work through the applications. For upper-division courses, I also think establishing teams and having them do readiness assessments would be a good way to get students to review material from Principles and to do pre-class reading, even if you still spend a lot of time lecturing.

I hope this series has been useful to folks. If you have other questions or comments about TBL, feel free to leave them here or email me directly!

1 comment:

  1. Jennifer,

    This has been an extremely helpful & interesting series -- thanks heaps for putting it together!

    I'm hoping to convert to TBL for next year, but am already incorporating readiness assessments and some in-class group problem solving. My max class size is 33, so it seems like TBL should work well.

    Peter Summers
    High Point University, NC


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