By Dr. Sarah Wallace, Assistant Professor of Speech-Language Pathology at Duquesne University
“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much” – Helen Keller
For all the hurdles that Helen Keller overcame, she was acutely aware of the value of teamwork. It may not be so obvious to the rest of us until we see the results.
My first professional introduction to the value of teamwork was during my time working in a residential rehabilitation facility. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to collaborate other speech-language pathologists and with the occupational therapists, nurses, physical therapists, and many other professionals to help my patients reach their full potential. However, I didn’t realize at the time how much these experiences would shape my future work. Now five years into my role as an assistant professor, this quote from Helen Keller highlights for me the bridge I see between my research and teaching goals.
I believe the success of my research program is in part due to my desire and excitement about working in teams. I currently collaborate with numerous researchers and clinicians from all over the world from many different professions. I am energized by hearing my team members’ unique thoughts and ideas. So during the 2012-2013 academic year, when I was seeking a pedagogical approach to breathe some life into my Capstone in Evidence-Based Practice course, it was unsurprising that I was drawn to Team-Based Learning (TBL).
TBL had everything I was looking for – it promised to encourage students’ active and self-directed learning, and the highlight for me was that it would likely increase their skills related to working in teams. Skills needed for collaborating with a team of colleagues are critically important to the students who graduate from our program in speech-language pathology. Our national organization requires that we graduate students who can maintain and foster interprofessional and intraprofessional relationships. However, little evidence exists for how best educators can teach these skills to our students. I saw TBL as one possible strategy and prepared to implement it in my graduate level speech-language pathology course.
TBL has traditionally been implemented in business and medical school courses. Fantastic resources related to TBL are available through Team-Based Learning Collaborative (http://www.teambasedlearning.org/refs); I highly recommend readers sign up for the list-serve. I used this evidence base, combined with my previous experience teaching this course, and developed new course materials. Many variations of TBL exist; in this blog I will share how I modified TBL components to fit the course goals, available resources, and needs of my students. Four principles guided my course development (Michaelsen & Sweet, 2008, p.8).
- Team composition will be determined by me based on pre-set criteria
- I will provide timely and frequent feedback to students
- Assignments will be designed to promote both learning and team development
- Students will be held accountable for the quality of their individual and group work
First, I developed criteria for sorting students into teams. I had the benefit of already teaching these students for three prior semesters during their graduate program, and my familiarity made this process easier than it would otherwise be. My criteria included those that I believe would most influence student performance on the course activities so that I could distribute the students with the greatest skills in these areas.
Team Formation Criteria
(a) students in the process of completing a thesis
(b) students who assisted in research projects
(c) students who typically work together on class assignments
(d) students currently at the same clinical externship site
Students with these characteristics were randomly assigned to separate groups whenever possible. Each group had four or five student members.
As is true of most TBL courses, I planned for students to stay in these teams for the entire 10-week summer semester, so they would have time to learn skills critical to team development and sustaining team relationships.
I developed four TBL modules to address the four primary topics in the course. I reasoned that I shouldn’t use TBL as my only instructional approach and that by doing four modules, the students and I would gradually adjust to this new method of teaching. I also developed a practice TBL module to give students (and myself) experience with TBL prior to graded assignments. Each module had four parts:
- Individual preparation activities (readings with guiding questions, PowerPoint slides)
- Individual Readiness Assurance Test (I-RAT)
- Group Readiness Assurance Test (G-RAT)
- Application Activity
My use of preparation activities followed a “flipped classroom” approach to instruction. That is, much of the rote student learning took place outside of the classroom. Then, in the classroom they first took a 10-question multiple-choice quiz about the information (I-RAT) before completing the same 10-questions with their team (G-RAT). In this way, students worked through some of their initial questions or misunderstanding during their group discussions.*
Students defended their answers, considered other points of view, and filled in each other’s knowledge gaps as I walked around and monitored the groups. Finally, as a large group, we discussed the correct responses and I elaborated on any points that were confusing for students. Following the quizzes, the students worked in their assigned teams to complete a related application activity. For example, during the Pseudoscience module, students investigated and evaluated various potential pseudoscientific treatment methods and presented their information to the class.
I spread the four TBL modules throughout the course. Students completed a peer and self-evaluation after the first two modules and again at the end of the course. Only the final evaluations were counted toward their grade.
The lessons I learned from this first experience with TBL are vast. Here are a few of the most important:
- Provide multiple opportunities for students to practice new ways of learning.
- Students need opportunities to do self-directed learning prior to the last semester in their program.
- Be prepared to provide your rationale for everything. Encourage student feedback and be willing to modify course work based on their feedback when appropriate.
- Students often dislike providing critical feedback and grades for their peers.
- Use of a flipped classroom approach is benefited by strategies such as I-RATs and G-RATs that hold students accountable for their learning.
- Most students prefer that preparation activities do not take more time than what students are usually expected to spend preparing for a class.
- Similar to other implementations of TBL, students’ scores were higher on G-RATs than on I-RATs. Additionally, although the level of difficulty did not change across TBL modules, scores on G-RATs increased throughout the course. These changes suggest that students developed effective team working skills. Students’ confidence in working within teams also increased after the course.
Author’s Note: Dr. Laurel Willingham-McLain was my gracious mentor through this process. Our work was supported by a mentorship award through the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (Advancing Academic-Research Careers Award 2012-2014).
*Many TBL implementations use the Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique (IF-AT). I felt this tool did not meet the course needs so instead I developed a six-point system. Each multiple choice question was worth six points that could be distributed across any of the four response choices. This system encouraged discussion and debate about the correctness of each response. However, I encourage interested readers to check out the website for information about this tool (http://www.epsteineducation.com/home/about/). If the future, I may also explore the use of electronic rapid response systems for the G-RATs.