Monday, June 30, 2008

"Team-based learning"

We've struggled here at ISW with the question of group work in the past, so I thought I'd draw everyone's attention to a suite of articles by Larry Michaelsen and Michael Sweet in the NEA Higher Education Advocate. The authors describe a method of group work they call "team-based learning" that strikes me as elegantly simple and potentially useful in the philosophy classroom. There's some jargon-y stuff in the articles, so I'll try to simplify or distill their main points here, and invite discussion about how this could work in more specific contexts.

First, instructors create fixed, heterogeneous groups for the whole course.
Strategically forming teams requires determining what student characteristics will make the course easier or more difficult (for example, previous coursework in the discipline or anxiety about the subject matter) and ensuring that those characteristics are distributed fairly across teams. Further, groups need time to overcome the rocky, early stages of their social history. So, once the teams are formed, keep them together for the entire course.
Second, students are given assigned readings to be completed prior to a given meeting and then given a short multiple-choice test at the beginning of the meeting.

Third, students are then given the same test but this time they complete the same test as a group, seeking to reach a group consensus on the responses. Only after groups have completed the test are students given the correct answers, with instructors providing clarification concerning the questions groups tended to miss. Michaelsen and Sweet suggest allowing teams to appeal in writing any question they get wrong, with instructor decisions on those appeals to come later (by e-mail, e.g.).

Some caveats to this team-based learning method:
  • In all likelihood, all of this needs to be for credit, raising questions about how to evaluate individual students in the context of a group performance
  • One challenge here is how to evaluate these tests quickly during class. Classroom 'clickers' or other technology would probably help here, since you don't want to have students sitting and waiting for the results of their group tests. On the other hand, perhaps they could grade themselves?

But there's clearly a lot to be said for these methods:
  • It makes students accountable for their preparation more to their peers than to the instructor.
  • It will encourage deeper collaboration: A quiet student who encourages a group answer that turns out to be right will gain confidence and be listened to by her peers, whereas a student who's overconfident or pushy will learn to be more circumspect.
  • It also functions as a classroom assessment: After the group tests are discussed, the instructor has a better idea of what material should be addressed in the rest of the class and what material students have already mastered.

Finally, a nice observation: "Effective assignments require groups to produce decisions." I hadn't thought of it, but this makes sense. Many students don't approach group work with much urgency, but the group test ensures that they need to produce a relevant decision.

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