This semester, I converted one of my courses to Team-Based Learning (TBL). I’ve dabbled with TBL (or parts of it) in previous semesters, but this was the first time I’d tried it in this class. If you’re not familiar with TBL, the first thing to note is that TBL does NOT just mean using teams in class. It’s a specific process as follows:
- The course is broken up into 5-7 modules that each take about 2-3 weeks.
- Each module starts with a Readiness Assurance Process (RAP) that requires pre-reading and holds the students accountable for it on the first day. To assist in this, I give out a reading guide that includes key questions for them to consider. The rest of the module is spent on in-class application activities.
- Students are assigned to persistent, diverse teams for the entire semester.
The RAP includes an individual test (iRAT), team test (tRAT), and clarifying instruction. What I’ve found from this semester’s experience is just how critical the RAP is to the success of the module and the course as a whole. While module 1 went decently (it’s always expected to be a transition), module 2 was a disaster. No one had done the readings ahead of time, so they weren’t prepared to use the concepts on activities. The blame for this falls solely at my feet. I didn’t adequately explain the process.
So I took a mid-semester break and showed them this flow chart:
I also gave them these pieces of advice for completing the readings:
- Start by reading all questions, get a feel for terms
- Skim the reading assignment to identify where to find information
- Try to answer SOME questions on a scrap of paper
- Read the assignment in a bit more detail, checking answers
- Propose an answer to a single question
- Monitor others’ responses and verify their responses
- ADOPT SKEPTICISM BY DEFAULT
- Ask follow-up questions for questions you doubt
To me, these seemed like no-brainers. CS textbooks are, in general, awful. They are dry, boring material. They have mistakes or opinions masquerading as facts. They are not necessarily written with scaffolding and conceptual reinforcement in mind. And yet, many students had been approaching them as novels, reading the chapter from beginning to end.
Since giving out these tips and explaining the process in detail, the turn-around has been dramatic. In fact, the midterm grades for this group far exceeded those of previous years. But for that to happen, they must understand the process. Just putting it on the syllabus and hoping for the best won’t work.
From this observation, I’ve come up with an idea to try in future semesters: Have a module 0 that serves as an introduction to the course. Include a custom 2-page reading assignment with multiple pages and clearly marked terms and sections. At the start of the second page, include a statement such as the following:
If you read the first page in its entirety, you should reconsider how you approach reading assignments. If you would check the reading guide, you’ll notice that none of the material from the first page is mentioned in the questions.
If you are considering a flipped classroom model, it is critical that you work early in the semester to train your students to follow the process. If you don’t, you will experience disastrous modules and/or courses.