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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

TBL: Readiness Assessments

[Today (July 31) is the last day to complete the blog reader survey if you want to be included in the drawing for a free copy of The Intl Handlbook on Teaching and Learning Economics. Thank you!]

My last post outlined the basic structure of TBL. That structure can be summarized as a) students acquire basic concepts on their own, b) students are assessed to make sure they actually have acquired those concepts, c) class time is spent on application exercises that require they use that basic knowledge in more complex ways, and d) students assess their teammates and those evaluations are used to 'weight' the team portion of each individual's final grade. In this post, I'll talk about the first stages of the cycle, where students acquire basic concepts and are assessed on those.

Although there has been a lot of discussion recently about 'flipped classrooms', I'm wary of pushing too much content acquisition outside the classroom in classes like micro principles; I do think it can be done but honestly, it exhausts me just to think about how much work it would be (both to set it up and to get students on board). But I was willing to do it with the data class because all of the content that students need to "acquire" on their own is really stuff that they should already know from the prerequisite classes. I do not make exceptions to the prereq requirements and I make it super-clear to them on Day One that since they have already passed lower-division stats and MIS (info systems), I expect they already have acquired the basic statistical and Excel tools we will be using throughout the semester. I tell them that we will be spending minimal class time reviewing those tools so that class time can be spent on using them.

Assessment at the beginning of each unit
The data course is divided into four modules and at the beginning of each module (i.e., the first day of the unit), students come in and take what I call a Readiness Assessment (RA) [NOTE: In the TBL community, these are more often called 'RATs', short for Readiness Assurance Test, but I really didn't want to call them that, both because I try to avoid calling them 'tests' and because RAT just sounds kind of negative to me]. I provide a study guide with questions covering the necessary content and I tell students that if they can answer all those questions, they will be fine for the RA (I should note that many of those questions are also on a knowledge survey that students take the first week of the semester; that gives me and them some indication of how much review they will need to do). The RA questions are multiple choice and since the point is to make sure they have sufficient understanding of basic concepts, the questions are largely definitions and recall. For example, the third module is when we talk about correlation versus causation. In this class, we talk a lot about why two variables might be correlated without one causing the other, and what data we would need in order to actually identify real causation, but I don't spend any time on the mechanics of computing the correlation or regression coefficients; they should have already gotten that in their previous stats class. But obviously, they need to know what a correlation coefficient is and what a regression tells us, so  the study guide has questions like, "What does it mean for the correlation between two variables to be positive or negative?" and the RA has questions like:
The correlation between X and Y is -0.75. We can conclude:
A. when X increases in value, Y also increases
B. when X decreases in value, Y increases
C. when X decreases in value, Y also decreases
D. X causes Y
E. X does not cause Y
If the students can answer the study guide question about what it means for the correlation to be positive or negative, they should have no problem answering this RA question, but it does usually require that they go back and review their notes from (or re-learn) their intro stats class (there is no stats textbook for the class but I provide links on Blackboard to some online texts and other resources for review since the majority of students have not kept their stats books from previous classes). In a more traditional class, this really shouldn't be all that different from what most professors usually do, in terms of assigning readings from a textbook, but with TBL, students actually have to DO the reading, rather than having the professor repeat it all via lecture in class.

Team assessment ensures content knowledge
IF-AT formA key thing here is that the RA is NOT intended to test higher-level skills; it is to make sure students are ready to move on and start applying the concepts. So even if students don't do the review they should do, and do poorly when they take the RA on their own, the TBL process ensures that they will still be ready to move on because immediately after students finish the RA individually, they re-take the same assessment as a team. To do this most effectively, most TBLers use a special form, called an "IF-AT" form. IF-ATs are multiple-choice scratch-off forms (see picture) - they sort of look like scantrons but instead of bubbles, there's that gray scratch-off material, like on a lottery card. For each question, the teams decide on their answer and scratch off the corresponding letter; if they are correct, they will see a star. The cool part is that if they are wrong, they can try again and still receive partial credit. I give 3 points for one scratch, 2 points for two scratches and 1 point for three scratches; there are five answer options for every question and if they can't get it right in three tries, they get zero points. This process means that not only do students get instant feedback but if a team is wrong on their first attempt, they still have incentive to keep discussing the question so they can try again. The scratch-off form also creates a sort of 'game' atmosphere - it isn't unusual for teams to cheer when they see the star.

The way most teams do the team RA is they go around and everyone will say which answer they chose; if there is any disagreement, students then explain their choice and they try to convince others who might want to scratch off a different letter. Sometimes I'll hear weaker students say things like, "Well, I put A but I really was just guessing and have no idea," but even then, they will usually want someone else to explain why a different answer is right. I have never seen a team just give the IF-AT form to one person and have that person complete it without input from everyone else. So by the time the teams are done, students not only know the answers to all of the RA questions but they have discussed both the right and wrong answers, so they generally understand the concepts well enough to dive into the applications.

Student resistance to assessment process
It's probably not surprising that the individual RAs are generally the students' least-favorite aspects of TBL. In a future post, I will talk about the many things I do to get students to 'buy into' TBL but even when they 'get it', I still get lots of comments along the lines of "I don't like that we get tested before covering the material in class" or "I think Professor Imazeki needs to lecture more before the RAs". On the other hand, students tend to really like the team RAs. I'm still trying to figure out if there are ways to get student to 'feel better' about the RAs but I tend to think that this is just one of those things where I have to trust that I am doing the right thing, even if students don't see it.

In my next post, I'll explain how the team applications work...

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Team-based learning: The basics

[If you haven't completed the blog reader survey yet, please take a few minutes to do so (before July 31 if you want to be included in the drawing for a free copy of The Intl Handlbook on Teaching and Learning Economics). Thank you!]

Although I know I've mentioned the fact that I use Team-Based Learning (TBL) in my data analysis class, I can't believe I haven't written a series of posts yet to really explain what I'm doing and how it's working. So here we go... Keep in mind that the class is called Collection and Use of Data in Economics (if anyone's interested, you can get the syllabus here); it is an upper-division required course for all econ majors and they must have already taken Principles (both 101 and 102), lower-division statistics, and an Information Systems course that covers Excel and databases.

For those who know nothing about TBL, the basic idea is that students spend the majority of class time working in permanent teams (i.e., they keep the same team for the whole semester) on exercises that emphasize application, evaluation and other higher-order skills. One thing that differentiates TBL from other problem- or group-based approaches is that it is a "whole course" pedagogy - to get the full benefits of TBL, you really need to design the entire course, from day one, according to a particular structure. I thought the easiest way to explain that structure is to share the explanation that I put in my syllabus:

[After typical intro stuff about requirements, texts, etc.:]
We will be using a learning strategy known as ‘team-based learning’ (TBL); the majority of the work in this class will be done in teams that will be established at the beginning of the semester.

How does TBL work? You will spend most of your time working in teams, applying what you’ve learned from outside readings (and your own review of statistics). The course is divided into several units where each unit lasts a few weeks and follows the same structure:
1. Students read the assigned material for the unit. This will generally be readings in the Greenlaw and Klass books. There will be reading guides provided that are a series of questions that you should be able to answer by the time you come to class.
2. At the beginning of each unit, students will take an “individual Readiness Assessment” (iRA) in class to be sure that they have sufficient knowledge to work problems from this unit. Questions will primarily be over definitions or will be simple applications of facts and definitions. These will be multiple-choice (you will need scantron forms) and will be graded.
3. Immediately following the iRA, students will answer the same questions as a team, with a “team Readiness Assessment” (tRA). This too will be graded. All team members receive the team score.
4. Disputes over missed questions on the tRA can be appealed to the instructor. The appeal must come from the team, it must be written, and it must come no later than the beginning of the next class (detailed instructions for appeals will be distributed later and are posted on Blackboard). All affected students on the team will have their scores changed.
5. The instructor will address common errors on the RA to the class as a whole.
6. Over the following classes, teams solve real-world problems and answer questions that economists must answer as they do their work. Team Applications generally pose a question and ask each team to make a decision. Your team will need to poll each member, listen to each member’s ideas and their explanation of why their idea is the best, and then reach a team consensus. At the end of your deliberation, all of the teams will simultaneously report decisions. Then we’ll discuss the question as a class. Any member of your team may be called upon to explain your team’s response and points may be awarded to the team based on these responses. Several of the Applications also have an individual component that must be completed prior to coming to class. These assignments will involve reading chapters in the Maier book, or articles by other economists, and answering some questions, and/or getting data and doing something with it. That information will then be used to have deeper discussions and make better decisions with your team. In general, you can expect to have something ‘due’ almost every class.
7. At the end of the semester, students complete a confidential evaluation of their teammates, based on their participation in team activities (Did they come to class regularly? Were they prepared for the day’s activity? Did they contribute productively to the team? Respect others’ ideas?). There is a copy of the Peer Evaluation form on Blackboard; note that you will have to distinguish between your teammates. The peer evaluations will be used to weight the Team portion of your grade.
[end of syllabus text]

In the next few posts, I will explain exactly what I do in more detail and some 'best practices', as well as student response. If you have specific questions about TBL, feel free to leave them here and I'll try to answer them as best I can in future posts.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Who are YOU? Survey request

At the beginning of every semester, I have my students fill out an information sheet where I gather some basic background, like their major, hometown, other econ courses, personal interests, etc. I feel like I can be more effective if I know something about who they all are. Here on the blog, I have sometimes struggled as I write posts because I don't really have a good idea of who is reading what I write. I mean, I have a general idea - I assume you all are somehow interested in economics and/or teaching (well, aside from my mom :-)) - but that's about all I really know. It finally dawned on me that I should just ask (duh!). So, if you are a regular reader, will you please complete this short survey? By 'short', I mean it should take you about five minutes. I figured summer would be a good time to do this but I know that even for those few minutes, there are opportunity costs and some of you may need an extra incentive, so everyone who responds by July 31 will be entered in a drawing for a free copy of the International Handbook on Teaching and Learning Economics. I'd really appreciate your feedback. Thank you, and thank you reading!

p.s. If you aren't familiar with Google Forms, they are super-cool! This is the first time I've used them but can see lots of ways I might use them for classes. I'll likely post about that soon...

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

D-Boards vs. blogs vs. journals?

In the past, I have regularly used Discussion Boards (within the Blackboard LMS) to have students post reflections or questions related to assigned readings. But I've really only used the Discussion Board tool because there was no better alternative; I've never been a big fan of the interface. The threads just seem clunky and I don't think students actually read what other students post unless I specifically assign them to do so. So now that my university has updated to Blackboard 9, which has blogs, wikis and journals, I'm considering using one or more of these options instead.

While wikis are specifically for collaborative creation of a common product, blogs and journals allow students to write individual posts or comments. From what I can tell, the main difference between Blackboard's blogs and journals seems to be that journals are intended to be private; students write entries that are only visible to the instructor (although there is an option to make the entries visible to other students but without the ability to comment). With blogs, everything is public and you can create 'course blogs' (where anyone can post and comment), 'individual blogs' (where only the individual student can post but anyone can comment) and 'group blogs' (where only members of the group can post but anyone can comment).

In my Econ for Teachers class, I have had students write two types of discussion board responses that might be appropriate for blogs or journals. One involves a personal reflection in reaction to assigned readings. The prompts for these typically ask students to reflect on their own experience and relate that experience in some way to the readings or class discussion. For example, one of the prompts toward the beginning of the semester asks students how their economics courses have been taught (lecture, active learning, group work, etc.) and how that may have influenced their current understanding and opinion of economics as a field. The other type of discussion board response is student reflections on their experience with Junior Achievement. This is a required activity for the class, where the students go into elementary school classrooms and 'teach' the JA curriculum. They are supposed to write a reflection post after each visit, explaining the lesson they taught and what they learned from the experience.

For the readings reflections, blogs seems appropriate, since I would like students to read and comment on each others' posts. I just can't decide if it would be better to have one course blog where the prompt is the main post and students respond with comments, or for each student to have an individual blog where their posts contain their reflections. With the whole-course blog, I think students will be more likely to read what other students have written, since they will be part of the same screen as the original post; on the other hand, they may or may not respond to those comments (and if they do, it may or may not be obvious which comment they are responding to, since comments are not threaded). With individual blogs, other students could comment in direct response but I worry that we'll have the same issue as with discussion boards, i.e., students would have to specifically click on a separate link to read another student's post and they likely won't bother. The third option is to have one course blog and each student posts there (so each student generates a post on the same blog, rather than having their own blog) but I worry that will get overwhelming and cluttered (there are 40 students in the class). So I'm still thinking that through...

For the Junior Achievement reflections, a private journal would be fine, since I don't expect students to read and comment on each others' posts. But if I have them do individual blogs for the reading reflections anyway, then they could just post these JA reflections there as well so logistically, that might be easiest.

Five years ago, the very first time I taught the class, I had students create individual blogs on blogger.com but a) there were only 15 students in the class and b) because the blogs had RSS feeds, I could aggregate them and students could go to one central page that had the titles and first few lines of the individual posts, with links to the full posts. If I could do something similar in Blackboard, I would feel better about assigning individual blogs but I don't think there is a way to aggregate the individual blog posts so they are all visible in one list (from what I can tell, there is no RSS feed since the blogs are only visible within Blackboard).

Has anyone had experience with using blogs in Blackboard? I'd love to hear from you in the comments!