Unlock your students’ superpowers with team work!

Any comic book geek can tell you the value of teams. Sure, when we think of the “team” concept, many of us default to sports — football, baseball, etc. But I’m thinking of the Avengers, the Justice League, the X-Men: not only do these teams repeatedly save the world, but their success stems in part from their optimal mix.

Consider the Justice League’s Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. This mix involves not just their unique superpowers (invulnerability and strength; intelligence and stealth; magical weapons), but also their singular identities that can often clash, but still complement and complete each other (optimism and a clear moral compass; cynical skepticism and ruthless pragmatism; power and resolve informed by gender identity).

Teams can be powerful things. If done right, not only can they accomplish important things together that they never could individually, but the interactions of teams can help folks of diverse backgrounds, personalities and skill sets learn from each other by learning about each other. A confident consensus has built around the notion that collaborative opportunities are high-impact practices for deep student learning.

This assumes, of course, that the opportunities are designed and led in ways that are productive rather than self-defeating… because there are few things students loathe more than high-stakes projects involving a dysfunctional group.

I am super happy to have David Gooblar on the Augustana team. He teaches writing for us, and is a central player on Pedagogy Unbound, a great blog on great ideas for teaching. You should follow it. And read what he has to say on team-based learning (TBL).

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How—and Why—to Split Your Students Into Teams

July 23, 2014

Want more teaching tips? Browse the Pedagogy Unbound archives.

I hate to be the one to tell you this, but we’re coming to the end of July. That means that summer, which seems as if it just got started, is already past its peak and a new semester is just around the corner. If your term doesn’t start until September, you can go back to your cocktail and your Edan Lepucki novel (or, more likely, iced coffee and furious writing on the research you don’t have time to do while teaching). But for the rest of us, it’s time to start thinking about teaching strategies for the term ahead.

Now, before everything gets super-busy again, is the time to begin thinking about overarching ideas for the courses you will teach this fall, ways you might approach the structure of a course from top to bottom. One such systemic approach is “team-based learning,” first developed at the University of Oklahoma business school in the late 1970s and popularized by Larry Michaelsen. Building on research that suggested that students learn better when they collaborate with their peers, team-based learning has evolved into an elaborate system of best practices designed to get the most out of group work. The website for the “Team-Based Learning Collaborative” and, more succinctly, this 12-minute video from the University of Texascan give you a good overview of the system if you’d like to use it.

But if you’re like me, you’re a little reluctant to adopt a pedagogical system whole hog. I’m more likely to look to marry aspects of a number of systems, taking strategies from here and there, hoping to construct an approach that suits my style of teaching and the specific courses I have to teach. So I thought I’d share with you a couple of ideas worth taking from team-based learning (henceforth TBL) and importing into your own individual teaching style. This column will look at a smart way to form groups, or teams, and my next piece will look into a great way to make use of teams to help students learn course material.

So let’s talk about forming teams. The teams in TBL are permanent: They’re created at the beginning of the semester, and they persist throughout the term. Over time, the argument goes, team members get to know each other, lose their shyness, learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and begin to work better together. Of course, if you’re going to have the same teams throughout the term, you want those teams to be well-designed. That’s where the survey comes in.

TBL operates on the premise that team-based activities work best when the teams are equally strong, more or less. The way to make this happen is to first decide which characteristics would make a student do better (or worse) in your class. These might include a student’s major, her year in school, previous experience, and/or anxiety about the subject matter. Then you administer a survey on the first day of class to find out which students have these characteristics. You can then form groups—aiming to spread the “good” students out as fairly as possible—and make the groups as diverse as you can along the lines that matter to you. The idea should be to make groups that are evenly matched, but that also have members who contribute a variety of strengths to contribute to the group’s work.

Conducting a survey at the beginning of a course is a good idea whether you form your students into groups or not. Most of us want to try to learn about our students at the start of the term anyway; a survey is really just a formalized way of doing so. Many teachers already administer a basic survey on the first day of class as an icebreaker. Other instructors survey their students about their expectations for the course, or about their prior knowledge (and misconceptions) about the course topic. Why not expand the survey into something even more useful?

As the fall term nears, spend some time thinking about the kinds of skills and prior experience that would help some students do better in your courses than others. Think, as well, of the parts of your course that you could be flexible about—short or long answers on exams, for example, or whether you want to allow personal technology in the classroom. Think about the aspects of your teaching approach that have rubbed students the wrong way in the past. Some or all of these topics could be addressed on your survey. You can get a sense of how ready your students are for the course, tailor—to some extent—your teaching, assignments, and assessment to their self-reported strengths and weaknesses, and adjust your approach to suit the specific group of students in each class. Not every teacher is going to want to subscribe to something like team-based learning, I know. But I’m pretty sure that all of us can benefit from understanding who our students are, and what they’re bringing to our classrooms.

David Gooblar is the author of The Major Phases of Philip Roth, published by Continuum in 2011. He lives in Iowa City and teaches literature and writing at Mount Mercy University and Augustana College.

Find him on Twitter at @dgooblar.

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