Last spring, while serving in my last semester as a Graduate Teaching Fellow at Brooklyn College, I attended a workshop introducing faculty to Team-Based Learning (TBL), a pedagogical approach that has been gaining steam in the academy over the last couple of decades. I had just completed my first few years of university teaching, during which I had tried—drawing on piecemeal sources and largely following my own intuition—to find alternatives to the “sage on stage” teaching model with which I was most familiar. Although I thought that I had had some successes in restructuring many components of my courses to promote a more participatory environment, I still felt frustrated by the concentration of participation among a relatively small number of students, and by the haphazard-seeming quality of some of my group activities (not to mention the outright hostility with which some students reacted to group projects).
Kasia’s recent post discussed the concept of “flipped” classrooms, in which students get their initial dosage of “content” outside of class and then spend in-class time doing the higher-order cognitive work of applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and discussing the material. The same basic philosophy underpins TBL, although the touted benefits of highly structured teamwork are obviously a key aspect of the latter. According to the TBL literature, the worst teams typically outperform the top students in TBL classes.
There are four key design principles to TBL:
- Strategically formed, permanent teams: Instructors form teams of five to seven students and distribute the class’s strengths and weaknesses evenly among them. This can be achieved by administering a survey early in the course that asks about work experience, previous course work, number of credits being taken concurrently, intercultural experience, etc. Groups work together for the remainder of the course.
- Readiness Assurance Process: As with the “flipped” approach, students are expected to acquire the foundational knowledge for each class unit before it starts, usually through readings. Students’ preparation to engage closely with the content in subsequent activities is tested at the beginning of each unit. First, students do a short multiple-choice test individually; they then do the same test in teams with the Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique—a type of “scratch-and-win” card where students keep trying until they uncover the correct answer. Teams are then encouraged to appeal some of their wrong answers with evidence from the readings. The process concludes with a mini-lecture by the instructor to review particularly difficult concepts.
- Application Activities: Activities in which the course content is applied are supposed to take up the majority of class time in TBL courses. Application activities are guided by the “4 S’s” principle: they should heighten student interest by focussing on a significant problem; promote inter-team discussion by assigning all teams to the same problem; ensure comparability between team answers by requiring a specific choice; and require simultaneous reporting of answers by all teams—this can be done with voting cards, or now with numerous technological aids—as a way for both the instructor and students to gauge contrasts in student thinking and use them as starting points for discussion.
- Peer Evaluation: One of the most significant drawbacks to group work is that one or two better-qualified students often end up carrying the group while others get a “free ride.” While the collaborative structure of TBL application activities is supposed to eliminate the possibility for individuals to do all of the work, integrating peer evaluation into the grading scheme will also help motivate students to contribute to their team.
My main concern with TBL at this point is about how to include an emphasis on developing communication and writing skills in the course structure. The FAQ on the Team-Based Learning Collaborative site is unequivocal in its stance on group writing and presentation projects:
In many ways using “good” in relation to “writing assignments for groups” is an oxymoron.
It goes on to say that while group presentations might be somewhat beneficial to the groups doing the presenting, they don’t foster dynamic learning for the whole class the way “4-S” activities do, and are therefore, it is implied, out of step with the overall approach. I agree with TBL advocates that much of the group work we assign students is little more than individual assignments requiring minimal student coordination. But surely there is educational value in having students build “lengthy products,” something TBL philosophy proscribes. Of course, it’s not like entire departments are switching over to TBL en masse, so plenty of opportunities remain for implementing writing and communication strategies in other courses. But are substantial written assignments and oral presentations really incompatible with teamwork, as TBL guidelines would have us believe? Is the only way to include these important educational aspects in a TBL course to disrupt the conventional course design—and potentially compromise its pedagogical benefits—to make room for them? Learning about TBL made me look forward to getting back into the classroom to try it out, but working in a communication institute makes me wonder if TBL needs to be adjusted to meet broader academic goals.