History Class shows advantage of team-based learning

Jennifer Ebbeler

Editor’s Note: This column is the first in a series by associate classics professor Jennifer Ebbeler on the changing nature of higher education at UT-Austin and other institutions. Look for Prof. Ebbeler’s column in the Opinion section of this paper every other Wednesday.

At the start of the semester, each student in assistant professor of classics and archaeology and Adam Rabinowitz’s CC 301: Introduction to Ancient Greece class was assigned to a permanent team of seven students.  These groups work together on structured in-class activities each Friday and also produce a group project at the end of the semester. 

Every Friday morning, the students find their assigned seat near their teammates, pick up their team folder and get ready for the day’s activity. This past Friday, the topic was the date and effect of the eruption of Thera in the Bronze Age. 

In preparation, the class had watched a PBS documentary and also read scholarly articles presenting various theories about the possible role of the eruption in the disappearance of Minoan civilization. At the start of Friday’s class, students took a short i>clicker quiz on their own and then took the same quiz in their groups, using a scratch-off “lottery” card. Once the group agreed on an answer, they scratched off that space. They kept going until they got the correct answer, marked by a star. The classroom was loud as students debated one another, working to persuade their group members but also learning to be more sensitive to the limits of their own expertise. Most of all, though, they were reminded that their peers are an important source of knowledge. “Almost invariably,” notes Rabinowitz, “the group scores are better than the individual scores.”

Using the feedback from the i>clicker quiz, Dr. Rabinowitz briefly clarified points of confusion and common misconceptions and then turned the groups loose to work together on a more challenging discussion question. The groups were asked to adopt a position and defend that position with evidence-based arguments. For instance, one available position in Friday’s class was, “The decline or collapse of a complex civilization or social order is most often the result of a major natural disaster, and is most likely to happen fairly quickly (in the space of a generation).” 

Once the groups had had time to decide on their position and arguments, the class came together and each group was asked to hold up a card indicating its position. Dr. Rabinowitz then called on groups to present their case. Frequently, other groups weighed in with correctives or additional arguments. The result was a spectacularly rich, deep and thoughtful discussion of a complex issue. 

Rabinowitz’s approach to his class draws on the principles of team-based learning, a method of instruction that is well studied and has proven to be extremely successful in university classrooms.  It is clear from watching Rabinowitz’s enthusiastic and engaged students and listening to their perceptive analyses of a complicated historical event that his approach is working — and it is working at scale (CC 301 enrolls 225 students each semester) with non-majors who have rarely had previous exposure to the subject matter. 

The current form of the class is the result of several cycles of evolution and was very much shaped by the feedback Rabinowitz received from previous classes. For instance, he has created a detailed rubric and decreased the work required for the final group project (an addition to the Geo-Dia spatial timeline designed by Rabinowitz); and has developed a formal procedure for groups to “fire” members who are not pulling their weight.

Still, using the techniques of team-based learning in such a large course has not been without its challenges. Perhaps the most significant one is logistical: how to arrange students in groups in an auditorium that was designed for lecture (FAC 21)?  The solution was assigned seating, which necessitated the creation of a seat map — something that had not previously been done for this classroom. Similarly, it took a lot of time and a dash of creativity to figure out how to manage the distribution and collection of materials for the groups (the solution was numbered folders).  Perhaps the biggest challenge for Rabinowitz was the sense that he was trying to problem-solve in a vacuum. “Both staff and faculty were willing to share ideas and solutions when I asked,” Rabinowitz said, “but I had a hard time finding people who were trying these methods in large classes. When I did, I realized that sometimes they had already developed resources that I really could have used — I just didn’t know they were out there. I’d like to see some sort of central place emerge where we could share our tools and experiences.”

When I asked Rabinowitz why he decided to incorporate elements of team-based learning into his large enrollment course, he explained, “I feel very strongly that students learn best when they can take ownership of information, not just passively consume it. Explaining ideas to someone else, defending a position, building an argument — that helps you internalize what you’ve learned. Team-based learning is a way to get students learning by doing in a big humanities lecture course where we don’t have labs.”  

Lecture nevertheless has a prominent place in the course. Monday and Wednesday class meetings are structured around lectures that review content. “On one level, I see myself in this class as a tour guide for a visit to a place that’s both familiar and strange. It’s like taking the students to a foreign country, though this one happens to be distant in time as well as space,” Rabinowitz said. As he lectures, however, Rabinowitz regularly pauses to ask and answer questions. Frequently, lectures morph into interactive discussions. Attendance in this large enrollment course is regularly more than 200 students and, not unexpectedly, in the fall 2012 version, grades on midterm exams and in the course were noticeably higher than usual.  

From what I observed in Rabinowitz’s class, his approach is working, but we need to hear more from UT students themselves. Have any students taken this class or another class that utilizes team-based learning? What experience did you have? Did you think it helped you to learn the course material better or more efficiently? Was it too much work? What is the value of team-based learning? Drawbacks? 

These are all questions we must answer going forward, and I am interested in hearing student responses. If you are interested in sharing yours, you can reach me at [email protected] 

Ebbeler is an associate professor in the department of classics from Claremont, Calif. Follow Ebbeler on Twitter @jenebbeler.