Concerned about TBL…

On 5 December, I hosted a Team Based Learning (TBL) ‘masterclass’ @UniOfBath. We had a useful discussion of concerns about TBL and how to address them. If you are potentially interested in applying TBL or other active learning approach, you may find the following useful…  

As is usual in my sessions, the participants learned about TBL through doing it – we had some pre workshop learning material, strategic team formation based on experience with active learning (ie distribution of assets), a 4 questions readiness assurance test which was done individually and in teams, clarification/mini lecture, a short application exercise (voting cards) and a longer one (gallery walk) – all with commentary and ‘meta debrief’ as we went through the process. It always delights me how much you can cover in under 2 hours using the TBL process.

By the way, if you don’t know what TBL is, there is a nice video on the TBL website that explains it and here is my motivation for transitioning to the approach.

I thought it worth blogging this for 3 reasons. Firstly, there were some great ideas for implementation. (this was addressed through a team discussion, flipcharts and a gallery walk for team to team discussion and feedback). For example, working in teams to identify the disease in a given case study. Or, in a less familiar field for me, identify the shared narrative structure of documentaries.

Secondly, it was interesting to know what the staff identified as key drivers for implementing TBL. I summarise these below:

DriversMy comments
Flipped learningYes, TBL is the only method I have used where students actually do the pre reading! In addition, I love the fact that we are actually using time in the classroom more effectively – I pretentiously call this harnessing spatial and temporal synchronicity (students in the same place at the same time). Didactic lecturing has its place, I deliver this mostly through pre recorded snippets (panopto desktop recorder) of 5-10 minutes. Also some carefully targeted mini lectures (5 mins) during the session when called for.
Peer learningKey here is the strong relationship built up within the teams, they start to trust each other. Students aren’t afraid of asking ‘stupid’ questions to each other but they would be inhibited to ask us, less still voice a question in whole class discussion. Inter team learning is at a different level, where the teams either debate and compete, or compare and support, depending on the application exercise design.
Team working skills important in industry (good preparation for ‘real world’)Yes, most employers (and for that matter accreditation bodies) will stress team working including harnessing diversity, conflict resolution and leadership.
Draw out implicit knowledgeA very insightful point. As I have developed my TBL skills in application design, I have got better at this.
Equalizing group dynamicIt is fascinating, and gratifying, to see the quieter students become more confident to speak out over time (they don’t want to see the team getting a tRAT question wrong just because they are being ‘polite’). Conversely, the dominant members realising it is good to listen sometimes!
Better recallYes, one of my students commented that with traditional exams he has forgotten it all, whereas with TBL he will “never” forget the concepts learnt (I’m sceptical about “never” but certainly the retention seems deeper and more long lasting)
Real world/applied tasksThis is key to good application design. I start with the question “what do you want students to be able to do” – and then design activities to deliver this.
Table 1: Drivers for TBL, as identified by workshop participants

Thirdly, and perhaps most interestingly, I asked the participants to identify ‘concerns’ about TBL, in the ‘Stages of Concern’ model (Hord et al 1987 Taking Charge of Change) sense. I was introduced to this model, incidentally, by Sheila Chauvin at last years’ TBLC conference and have found it very useful in my work disseminating TBL (or indeed any pedagogical innovation) to my colleagues. Most of the concerns, incidentally, were in stages 2-4 (personal, management and consequence – ie how will it affect me (stage 2), course logistics (stage 3) and the students (stage 4)).

ConcernsMy Comments
How to get students on board?  I run an orientation session with some warm up activities and going over the evidence for TBL. There are lots of techniques we can use – team folders, ‘concept check’ tick lists at the end of units, frequent 360 evaluations, instant feedback (tRAT), team charters, peer evaluation. Perhaps a subject for a follow up session! One caveat is that whatever you do, there will always be around 10% of students not happy with it.
Relationship between pre reading and exercisesI agree, this needs to be carefully designed and explicit to the students. One team suggested the use of unit evaluations – I have end of module 360 reviews (a module is about 2 weeks in my course), at which I gather student comments and feedback, make changes and (importantly) communicate back to them how I have responded. I do this (the communication anyway) within a week. This also helps gets students on board, and is an invaluable tool when you are starting out with TBL.
Won’t do pre reading  The iRATs, and social accountability, really help here and it is now rare that students turn up unprepared.
Don’t engage in a group/dominant personalities/ Strongest vs weakest students    This is always a challenge, but the structure of TBL makes it much less of an issue than traditional teaching. Good task design, plus team accountability will help. I find that teams evolve an effective dynamic over time (they start with voting and more onto more inclusive methods as the course progresses). tRATs have an interesting dynamic in that they encourage dominant members to listen to the rest of the team. Well designed application activities are solved by teams, not individuals.
Timing (for students)  TBL can adapt to fit pretty much any timetabling constraint. Amazingly, you can actually deliver MORE content through TBL than you can through traditional lecturing (I know, I was sceptical until I experienced it). Also the applications can go deeper than you traditionally would – for example in my project management course, I no longer ask them to do a critical path analysis (this is covered in a pre learning quiz and RAT) but ask them to tackle more sophisticated tasks such as resolving resource conflicts and crashing the critical path. In terms of student workload, preparing before class is new, but then they shouldn’t have to do as much work after the session. In addition, doing the team work IN CLASS is a really big win for them. So it should not add to student workload. In addition, getting rapid (in some cases instant) feedback from an early stage in the course is really helpful to them. 
Adds to (staff) workload  Creating a TBL course is pretty much like creating a course from scratch – so converting a course is a lot of work. However it does mean that teaching becomes rewarding and clearly more effective, even with over 100 students. There is also a great community of practice, with enthusiastic folks from around the world ready and willing to help out. An lightweight (ish) alternative is to convert a single lecture to a RAT with discussion – this fits neatly in a 50 minute slot and is a good introduction to TBL.
All get the same answerI don’t allow more than 30% team based work. For my current module it is 10% tRAT, 20% application exercises, 20% iRAT and 50% individual assignment (out of class – this could be an exam if your course is set up like that). The team elements (tRAT and application exercises) are weighted by a peer evaluation which is usually within ±25% (I had 4/70 students outside this range).  
No one engages in post discussion  For well designed application activities (eg provide a ‘bid price’ for a contract) there is quite a lot of engagement in post activity inter team discussion as teams defend their choice.
Group BalanceAs one team commented, using experience is very useful. I find it helpful to explain to teams the ‘assets’ I have used so they can see that every team has the requisite skills to tackle the exercises (for example, for Business Processes I said (truthfully!) that every group has at least one student that has been on placement, and at least one student that has studied a relevant subject for example A level economics). I gathered this by a pre course survey. I would caution against using grades to equalise the groups, this can be divisive and is not necessarily demonstrably relevant to the tasks. You can also use liabilities (eg (negative) attitude to team work, (lack of) interest in the subject) which should also be distributed equally.
Can forget the purpose of the exerciseThis is absolutely a danger and the best defence is well designed application exercises (I have some resources on this for those interested) that are constructively aligned to the ILOs. I also use an end of module ‘concept check’ to underline to the students how much they have learnt, even though it doesn’t always feel like it.  The teams physically ‘sign in’ at the end of the concept check and this gives a chance for the teams to indicate they are aware of (and happy with) any team member with unavoidable absence (eg sickness, job interview).
Table 2: Concerns about TBL, as identified by workshop participants. Responses are largely my own, but I have incorporated some comments from other teams that were contributed during the gallery walk.

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