Team Bridges…

This appears to be the time for conferences, as my twitter time line is awash with hashtags and images of powerpoint slides. Reading through the tweets I like to see and hear people’s views and practices. Tomorrow I will be attending our faculty away day at a local hotel with the theme of building bridges. Bridges, as you are aware, join two places together usually across some sort of barrier whether this be a river, chasm or transport system. Within universities there exists many faculties and although the chasm between these is limited to the confines of the university buildings, it is always beneficial to establish links between faculties in order to share not only resources but also practice. Last Tuesday I received a ‘bridge’ in the form of an email from the Dean of the Faculty of Arts to attend a session about Team Based Learning. Being keen on any form of learning, I quickly rearranged my calendar in order to attend – so what is my opinion about Team Based Learning (TBL)? Well, that is what this waffle is all about…


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The session was delivered by Simon Tweddle who has implemented this form of learning at Bradford University. Before the session, in true flipped classroom approach to learning, we had reading to complete and optional videos to watch. Before you read further, especially if you do not understand the TBL approach, you might want to do a quick internet search to ascertain the principles since I will not be talking about the approach in detail here, mainly since I do not consider myself an expert. Also, if you do want more information, I’m sure Simon would be happy to answer any specific questions on the approach. I, since I practice what I preach, did complete all the reading and did some extra research as well – what a good student I am! What follows are my own opinions on the approach and whether I will be implementing it into my own practice in the future.

  • Reading before the session…– I am a great advocate of the flipped classroom approach to learning acknowledging both the advantages and problems about the approach. Some of these I waffled about previously (Flipping – one year or less) and I was interested how the TBL approach dealt with some of the ‘difficulties’ which can arise from the flipped classroom approach. TBL uses what it called a Reading Assurance Test (RAT) to almost assess whether the activities have been completed before the session and also how much of the information contained within these has been internalised. These ‘tests’ are completed both on an individual basis as well as a group/team level (more on these teams later). These tests are basically a comprehension test, asking the learners to demonstrate their understanding of the resources at the lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. These tests also have the added importance that the results, both the individual and team, contribute to the learners’ final summative grade. When teaching, whether within the primary sector or now in higher education, I will always focus the learners’ reading by stating what they will need to gain from the article. Although I do hope that they will gain more understanding, the initial focus questions will help to support some learners as well as providing a starting point for others. If the learners knew that they were going to be asked questions on reading, then I am sure that they would, if they turned up for the session, engage with the resources – which can only be seen as a positive. I might be naive in my philosophy here, but I would always want learners to read and engage with the resources before the session in order to further their own learning, rather than because they were going to be tested on the content. The TBL approach has definitely proved itself as an approach which engages more learners. The incentive of the test/contribution to their summative grade obviously encourages the engagement with the pre-session reading, so maybe I need to look at the motivation to ensure the reading is engaged with, whether this motivation be intrinsic or extrinsic.

  • Team formation – As suggested by the title, the TBL approach relies on the learners working in established teams throughout the module. Within these teams, the learners are responsible for the engagement and participation of the whole team, with evaluations providing the opportunity for feedback on each individual member. The teams are formed based on ability, demographics or gender with the learners having no input to their formation – no friendship groups allowed. The approach has documented evidence that it has improved academic grades, although this is particularly apparent within the lower quartile of the ability range. When still working within the primary sector, I had the title of ‘Leading Teacher in Intervention’ with specific focus on what we called the AG&T children (Able, Gifted and Talented). Since starting to work within HE I have continued to think about how my teaching/support contributes to the whole ability range but particularly the ‘top quartile’ of ability. It might be that the support within this group of learners is not needed as much, due to their independent learning and intrinsic motivation to learn. Although theorists such as Vygotsky might suggest otherwise, I am not always supportive of ‘mixed ability’ groups – not subscribing to the philosophy of the higher ability learners consolidating their understanding by supporting the lower ability learners (maybe a possible theme for a future waffle). Although I acknowledge the benefits of a team based approach to learning, when implementing this into my own teaching, I would want to group the students into almost ‘ability’ groups (waits for the shocked mumbles to subside). When completing the initial activity within the training session, I really wanted to be grouped with people who had read the article, rather than, within the team approach, supporting those who hadn’t. Although the ‘test’ just assesses the basic understanding of the resource, if this was quickly established then there would be the possibility, within the group test, to start the discussion of the points at a higher level of Bloom’s taxonomy. This would therefore promote the critical analysis of the initial text, a skill which we want all our learners to engage with. Although I am hypothesising here, would it be possible for learners who have not engaged with the prior reading to be ‘carried’ through the activities by the other learners? This would, of course, be reflected in their individual ‘test’ results but would their contributions be as valid and supportive for the whole team?

  • Learning Environment – Technology continues to impact on the pedagogy, andragogy and even heutagogy within higher education. As these impacts continue to manifest themselves the existing learning environment paradigms will be challenged and adapted. When considering TBL it is essential that the learning environment is created in such a way as to promote the team interaction. The ‘setup’ which was shared within the training session supported and even promoted the approach. Within my own sessions, the students tend to sit around tables of six, similar to the primary school classrooms. The introduction of the ‘tear shaped’ table within the TBL approach would be a welcome addition to be classroom. Coupled with this was the addition of a computer and monitor on each table as well as a microphone to promote and support interaction with the whole group. Within the TBL approach the group sizes are larger – similar to our full cohorts. Although the existing groups I work with are smaller, between 30 – 40 students, the implementation of this classroom set up would be beneficial to both teaching and learning. The only addition which I would like to be added would be enough power sockets for the whole team’s electronic devices.

  • From my initial comments, it might appear that I was completely against this approach to teaching and learning. This is not true and, if it comes across like this, then I apologise for my overly critical views on it. The whole approach is based on the flipped classroom, something which I completely agree with and support. Although my views about mixed ability groups maybe differ from others, I acknowledge and engage with the positives of a social constructive form of learning. Using applications such as Socrative, I will implement a system to gain an understanding of the resources which the learners have been asked to read and, as in the flipped classroom approach, use these to inform discussions and activities. At the current moment in time, I will not be able to implement how the outcomes from the reading impacts on the summative assessment for the module, although I do think that that some sort of score feedback would present important information which would reflect the engagement of the learners. The team responses suggest an link to gamification within the sessions and I definitely would implement the ‘group evaluation’ for individuals in the future.

    Unfortunately, due to restricts on existing module validated documentation, I will not be able to implement the ‘full’ TBL – something which Simon commented on that you need to do in order to see the benefits of the approach. As with all approaches, I hope that my own personal reflections will allow me to adapt and implement aspects which support and compliment my own approach to teaching and learning – as for the impact of these, well maybe come back next year to hear the results…

    I look forward to hearing your comments and ideas, please add them in the comments below or send them to me via Twitter(@iwilsonysj), Facebook, Google+ or email.

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    Have fun and I’ll catch you later