Team Based Learning (TBL) sounded like a fantastic way to promote independent learning, mathematical thinking, and confidence in our students. We found, however, that the logistics of introducing this approach with a cohort of approximately 200 students produced outcomes that differed from our expectations.
I teach on an engineering and applied science foundation programme. All of the students who enrol require maths for their chosen degree course but they don’t all want to study maths. The teaching team have observed many instances of maths anxiety, and the growing cohort size led to concerns that highly maths-anxious students were able to disengage intentionally from the maths module until they sat the final exam. Last summer we were looking for a way to help our students improve their mathematical self-efficacy, and this is where we felt TBL could be beneficial.
TBL is an approach to learning and teaching that develops problem solving skills through application focused engagement with taught content. Briefly, TBL involves students engaging with content prior to a taught session, then during the taught session students take readiness assurance tests both individually and in teams, and instructor feedback is given to clarify misunderstandings. Teams then move on to apply their knowledge through application focused assignments. This is a simplified overview but you can find a more detailed explanation of the approach on the Team Based Learning website, and Michaelsen et al. (2014) provide a fantastic overview of TBL in contrast to similar pedagogical approaches.
Our approach followed the framework of TBL; students were encouraged to access the online textbook prior to attending the timetabled sessions and worked in their allocated teams to complete a set of online questions during the taught session. We were able to see the responses to these questions in real time, thus we could gauge when we needed to intervene and address misunderstandings. At the start of the term we discussed the aim of this approach with the students, explaining that teams were required to work together to ensure that all of the members understood the content, and that teaching staff would be present to facilitate learning where necessary.
The plan vs the reality
In reality we were required to adapt early on in response to student feedback, resulting in a teacher led ‘recap’ of the content at the start of the taught session. We continued to monitor the approach and at the end of the first term (coinciding with the end of the module) we decided that this approach was not delivering the benefits we were aiming for. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and during the term we learnt a great deal about our own, as well as our students’, expectations. So while I am proud of what we set out to achieve, I would approach the same situation differently in the future based on what this experience has taught me.
Expectations of learning
Going into this we were aware that students have expectations of what studying at university is like, and we attempted to manage student expectation vs. the reality of the learning experience we were creating. We found early on, however, that some students strongly resisted a student led approach to learning in the classroom, and I learnt not to underestimate the impact on classroom dynamics of student expectations of learning and teaching.
Student perceptions of success
Through observations and informal conversations with our students, we saw a range of perceptions of success across our cohort, these appeared to influence an individual’s buy-in to our learning and teaching approach. Where students were focused on the final grade as the sole measure of success, they appeared to spend less time understanding the maths, both individually and across their team, being more concerned with the team getting a good grade rather than all members being competent and confident. This was seen when some students admitted to marking absent team members as present in the taught session in order for them to gain marks (this also meant that we were unable to identify students who disengaged through absence), and through some teams’ use of social media to gather the correct answers rather than having a face-to-face discussion. When we wanted to get our students talking about maths, this was not quite what we had envisaged.
As a new educator this experience taught me to be brave in the classroom; trying something new and learning from the experience is an important part of my role as well as that of my students! I still believe that TBL could be hugely beneficial, but I have learnt that my implementation strategy and the readiness of the cohort are key factors in enabling the success of this approach.
We were really excited about introducing TBL into our maths module, but this experience has taught me that not all teaching innovations are instantly successful in all contexts. It has also encouraged me to share my experiences of approaches that don’t work as planned as well as those that do.
Have you tried TBL or other innovations in your teaching? What were the outcomes in your context?
 Maths anxiety is described by the Maths Anxiety Trust as “a negative emotional reaction to mathematics, leading to varying degrees of helplessness, panic, and mental disorganisation” that may arise when someone is faced with a mathematical problem.
Links to references in post:
Michaelsen, L. K., Davidson, N., & Major, C. H. (2014). Team-based learning practices and principles in comparison with cooperative learning and problem-based learning. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 25(3&4), 57-84. Available at: https://www.lhthompson.com/uploads/4/2/1/1/42117203/team_based_learning_-_group_work.pdf
Team Based Learning website: http://www.teambasedlearning.org/
Maths Anxiety Trust website: http://mathsanxietytrust.com/
Rebecca Broadbent and Thomas Davenport shared their work in a presentation at the Advance HE Teaching and Learning Conference. Find out more about Advance HE's development programmes, conference and events, with many similar opportunities to share ideas and best practice.