Adventurers in Learning — Part 7

What Has Gone Before

In Parts 1-5, I discussed the Team-Based Learning methodology (TBL), course design for an undergraduate INF 202 Introduction to Data and Databases class, and drew parallels between TBL and roleplaying games (RPGs). In Part 6, I reviewed the first week of classes.

Where We Are Going

The first week of classes composed the first section of the course: an introduction to the subjects to be covered and the TBL methodology. This entry, and several that follow, explore the first full TBL section of the course: spreadsheets.

Section Design

Nearly every “database textbook” out there starts by explaining what’s so great about databases. By “databases,” they mean relational databases. In establishing “great,” they spend much of their time trashing file systems. Although file systems and spreadsheets are not the same, in effect, the impression is given that spreadsheets (and all other individual documents) are rife with problems.

In my view, this does an introductory student a disservice. In the “real world,” 80% of data analysis is done via spreadsheets. A working knowledge (even expertise) with Excel will take a business user far in advancing the enterprise (i.e., impressing your boss). Given that, any course purporting to “introduce” data and databases should spend some time rehabilitating spreadsheets from the database-textbook trash heap.


As you may recall, a TBL section consists of readings, RAP (Readiness Assurance Process), activities, and final assignment. The readings set the knowledge basis for the entire period. That material provides the students with the foundation for their performance in the RAP, for their reasoning, decision-making, and justifications during the activity classes, and for their work on the final assignment. Needless  to say, it’s pretty darn important.

Following with my goals for the tone of the section, I was delighted when a fellow INF 202 instructor discovered Excel as Your Database by Paul Cornell, Jr. (Apress 2007). Although a bit long in the tooth, Excel hasn’t changed that much since 2007. As the backcover blurb says, “If you want to spend less time learning fairly powerful data analysis techniques, or if you have a limited budget or limited set of computing resources, this book shows you how to quickly and confidently use Excel as a robust data management system.” Even better, he spent nearly 50 pages running through an abbreviated system development cycle called “Define Your Data.” To that, I added sections on formatting data, LOOKUP functions, sorting/filtering, functions, and pivot tables—all the most used Excel aspects for data analysis.

After speaking with the students, a downside emerged. The book is written as a typical technical instruction manual: lots of checklists and algorithms, choppy, step-by-step. Unless you are a programmer or a games nerd (like me) highly familiar with rules sets, the process of parsing through such dense text is challenging. I’m almost positive that I won’t be able to find a text that covers the same ground from the same perspective, so I don’t see addressing this problem by switching texts. Next semester, I will try to do a better job preparing the students for this type of reading. (Great, something else to pack into the first week’s chock-a-block schedule.)


Having settled on the material to be covered and the text appropriate for that mission, the RAT (Readiness Assurance Test) follows along in a fairly straightforward process. The test (and the larger process: iRAT, tRAT, appeals, review) imposes a meaningful consequence for a student’s failure to prepare by doing the readings, measures their accomplishments in completing the preparation, highlights the aspects of the readings that the instructor feels are most important, and alerts the instructor to the sections of the materials that the students are struggling with. All in all, a lot is packed into this instrument/process.

As well as all the above missions, TBL theory invests in the RAT an exploration of levels of cognitive development. It suggests that RAT questions vary according to Bloom’s Taxonomy of learning objectives. This is a robust, variegated series of cognitive exercises from the fairly simple (information gathering) through the more challenging (evaluation, analysis, synthesis) through the highest levels (creating). A recall question—what did the author say about X—tests the basic level. An application question—draw a diagram categorizing the following fact pattern according to the author’s theories—is much more taxing.

Thanks to the insightful and generous folks at the St. Edward’s University Center for Teaching Excellence, a powerful visualization of the depth and intricacy of the taxonomy can be found here.

In sum, not only does an instructor need to determine the learning objectives of the section, to find materials that adequately lay the foundations for those objectives, and to create a 10-question test reviewing those materials, he or she should also vary the taxonomy approach of the questions. Yikes.

I spent some time thinking about the taxonomy of my questions during the creation of the spreadsheet RAT. After a while, I realized that getting the RAT done in time for it to be copied for class was the primary objective. I decided that I would work to master the taxonomy over time. For now, getting the questions done was more important.

More to come,
M Alexander Jurkat


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