Adventures in Learning — Part 12

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). Part 6-10 reviewed the first several weeks of classes. Part 11 wandered off into philosophy.

Where We Are Going

As is apparent from my prior entries, good group activities are crucial to the success of TBL. My overview of the intro and spreadsheet sections (see Part 6-10) also indicated some of the problems that can arise in crafting “good” group activities. Over the next several entries, I’m going to explore what makes a TBL group activity “good”. In this entry, we’ll start with the TBL literature.

Group Cohesiveness = Better Learning

Michaelson and Knight write about “Creating Effective Assignments” in Team-Based Learning: A Transformative Use of Small Groups in College Teaching ( (Note that they used the term “assignments” to discuss what I am calling “group activities”, not what I am calling “end of section assignments”.)

Relying on other literature, the authors equate group cohesiveness with enhanced learning and TBL success. Michaelson and Knight identify five conditions that promote group cohesiveness:

Individual Accountability: A major complaint about group assignments is that some members contribute a lot while others engage in “social loafing”— benefiting from the work of their peers. Group work that requires pre-work and input from all members enhances group cohesion. The RAP (iRAT, tRAT, appeals, and appeals feedback) mandates pre-work and input from all. It sets the tone for future group activities. To the extent possible, all group activities should do the same. In practice, that’s harder to realize, unless you plan to assign homework for each activities class (possibly quite a bit of homework if you plan, say, 10 short activities in one class).
Close Physical Proximity: Groups must interact to be successful. Leaving such interaction for non-class time inevitably runs into scheduling problems and uneven participation. For that reason, group activities should be mandated during class time, when the participants are collocated. This factor may be the main reason to emphasize—read: devote a high percentage of the grade to—class attendance and participation during TBL courses.
Discussion Among Team Members: Although a number of tasks can produce discussion, the surest way is to require members to “make a concrete decision based on the analysis of a complex issue”. Problem-solving tasks immerse students in information-rich, active discussions that render each member’s input valuable and require broad give-and-take.
Meaningful, Immediate, Unambiguous Feedback: Being compared to other groups’ work is particularly powerful. An “us vs. them” atmosphere between teams pulls members together to protect their public image. Simple-to-report, easy-to-compare outputs push immediacy and clarity. On the flip side, delayed feedback increases stress and splintering in groups.
Rewards for Group Success: Group work rewards should be highlighted both in class dynamics (compared to other groups) and in grading performance.

Viewed in light of these factors, many group assignments fail. Indeed, they undermine group cohesiveness and, not surprisingly, reinforce student notions that “group work” is painful, unrewarding, and something to be avoided at all costs. For example, a group term paper or presentation or project takes place over a long period of time, requires group scheduling and administration, generally involves asymmetrical communication, results in infrequent feedback (perhaps not until the semester is over), is composed of tasks (long-form writing, indepth creation, polishing of artifacts) that are easier to do individually, and can result in an adequate product if only one or two members perform.

The 4 S’s

Drawing from these cohesiveness-producing factors, Michaelson and Sweet present 4 S’s of group activities in The Essential Elements of Team-Based Learning ( The problems presented in these activities should be (1) significant, (2) same, (3) specific-choice, and (4) simultaneously reported.

Significant: The students must be engaged by the problem or they will consider it busywork. Focus on what students can do with their class learning and give them a chance to try it. That will clarify best what they need to know, rather than general notions of the knowledge they should learn. For example, “write a SQL query using an aggregate function and sorting” is not as engaging as “Your boss wants a list of the company’s best customers sorted by region. How would you go about making her happy so you can keep your job?”
Same: Group activities should promote discussion within and among the teams. Creating a common frame of reference allows the students to better compare their work and discuss their ideas. Although clear in theory, I’ve found this condition can get tricky in practice. “Write a sentence stating the purpose of the database to be designed” can result in widely different answers that are hard to compare. “Pick the best purpose from the following five choices” forces the teams to support their choice while simultaneously reasoning through the flaws of the other choices. As long as the choices are each supportable in some way, different teams will likely pick differently—readily leading to a good discussion.
Specific Choice: Learning is enhanced by higher level thinking. Cognitive complexity results when students are challenged by situations “from which they cannot escape except by thinking.” Complex information combined with a simple decision focuses on the context and application of the concepts. For example, a trial presents a wide variety of evidence in service of announcing a simple guilty or innocent.
Simultaneous Report: Sequential reporting colors subsequent reporting with prior presentation. Simultaneous reporting keeps the teams’ output uncorrupted by a slowly emerging and possibly erroneous majority view. Again, the nature of the question can undermine an attempt at simultaneousness. “Organize these 10 requirements in a list of most important to least important” results in output that can take some time to write on a whiteboard. In the meantime, the other groups can see how the list is rolling out. “Write the number (e.g., 9, 3, 14) of the top 3 most important requirements in order of importance” takes much less time.

More to come,
M Alexander Jurkat


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