Thursday, 12 January 2017

the influence of TBL in my teaching

Last term was a gong show for me. Not that things didn't go well - they did go well. I simply chose to implement or tweak too many things in my courses. Thus the reason for so few posts (two!?) last term. In the Fall term, I taught three courses: a 4th-year course (History & Theory of Biology), a third-year course (Biochemistry: Intermediary Metabolism), and a second-year course (Molecular Cell Biology).

The history and theory course I have been teaching since the late-1990s and it chugs along just fine. I have always taught this course with the students taking an active role in the teaching of the course. I hadn't realized when I began teaching it in 1998 that I was trying to implement active learning. In this course, students are assigned journal articles from the history and philosophy of biology and are required to write a two-page double-spaced response to the particular day's article in preparation for class. In addition, a student is designated as the seminar leader and leads the initial portion of the class in a consideration of the implications of the article in light of what has been discussed prior in the course and also in terms of their own experience with biology in their previous three years of our biology program. The remaining half of each class consists of me mopping up the discussion and ensuring that what I consider to be the salient connections are discussed by the entire class.

This worked ok for a few years until the class began to grow in size from an initial enrollment in the 1990s of five or six students to now typically 18-22 students. One of the things I found was that the student-led seminars became really boring for the class because student seminar leaders were simply presenting what students had already read. So in the mid-2000s I began asking student seminar leaders to direct a class conversation rather than doing a formal presentation. This worked until the class became larger than 15 students. At that point, it became difficult for students to manage the class conversation.

A few years ago, I began implementing Team-Based Learning in my courses and this experience influenced the structure of my history and theory course. What I learned from implementing TBL in other courses is that student conversations work well in groups of 4-7. Smaller or larger than that and the conversation suffers: students are either too shy or there are too many voices. So, in the 2010s I began splitting my classes into groups for the student-lead seminars. After a couple of iterations, I realized that it is most effective if the teams are stable throughout the term. This is such a simple tweak with its effectiveness established in the TBL literature and I really don't understand why I didn't start doing that sooner. This made a huge difference in the quality of the student-led conversations resulting from students being more comfortable with their team-mates and also as a result of the peer-pressure to produce a good seminar for team-mates. In addition, the stress of leading a seminar diminished because it was a presentation to the team rather than to the entire class.

I have not completely implemented the TBL structure into this course: it does not have RATs or formal Apps. But it follows the spirit of how a TBL course is delivered: The teams are randomly constructed by me transparently with the students on the first day of class; although there are no RATs, students are held accountable for their pre-class preparation through the required written responses to the assigned reading; although there are no formal Apps in the TBL sense, I do have students consider my questions after the student-lead seminars to ensure that what I consider to be the salient points are raised for students before the end of the class.

My friend and colleague Paula Marentette who also uses TBL in her classes and was one of the people who suggested that I try implementing TBL in my own courses; she explained to me a few years ago that for her, implementing TBL in her courses transformed her approach to teaching such that even now when she teaches a course without TBL, she finds that she still uses elements of TBL in all of her classes. I find the same to be happening with me. For many people, TBL is too constraining for them. For me, I have found it to be a great structure in which to begin implementing active learning and learner-centered teaching in my courses. As these approaches to teaching and learning have soaked into by being, I am finding that I may no longer need to formally implement TBL in my courses and instead pick and choose those elements to use when the need arises for my students' learning.


Haave, N. (2014). Team-based learning: A high-impact educational strategy. National Teaching and Learning Forum, 23(4), 1–5.

Farland, M. Z., Sicat, B. L., Franks, A. S., Pater, K. S., Medina, M. S., & Persky, A. M. (2013). Best Practices for Implementing Team-Based Learning in Pharmacy Education. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, 77(8), 177.

Wieman, C. E. (2014). Large-scale comparison of science teaching methods sends clear message. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111(23), 8319–20.

Weimer, M. (2013). Learner-centered teaching: Roots and origins. In Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice (2nd ed., pp. 3–27). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint.