How Prof Barnette Uses Team Based Learning to Amplify Engagement

How Prof Barnette Uses Team Based Learning to Amplify Engagement

Ohio State University’s Professor Debra Barnette takes a unique approach to teaching her Pharmacology and Therapeutics classes. In an effort to move away from the one-way-conversation style lecture towards more interactive and engaging instruction, Debra approaches her classes through a team based learning model.

Team based learning is a pedagogical model that helps students form self-supported, collaborative and cohesive learning groups.

The team based learning approach is based on the premise that interactive group collaboration improves the quality and resonance of students’ shared learning experiences.

Students collaborating in teams develop both analytical and empathetic skillsets which provide practical and valuable advantages for life after university.

How team based learning works

Debra’s approach to team based learning was pioneered by Larry Michaelsen who has been writing about and practicing team based learning in his university classes since 1982 (1).

The effectiveness of team based learning as an instructional strategy is based on four principles:

  • long-term learning
  • learner accountability
  • incentivized collaboration
  • frequent learning application feedback

One of the main pivots team based learning makes from traditional teaching models is from an emphasis on communicating core concepts to a focus on ensuring that students know how to use these concepts.

The learning experience transforms students from passive information receivers to active collaborators working with each other to learn how to use concepts and course material in practical situations. Instead of a focus on concept communication within the lecture, there is an organic shift towards conceptual understanding applied use.

Michaelsen’s method uses groups formed and managed by the professor in which students are then made accountable for coming to class prepared, contributing value to their team, as well as high-quality in class contributions.

There is no “lecture” in the traditional sense here. In fact, if there is a lecture component present, then according to Michaelson’s model it’s not actually team based learning.

Students learn concepts and work on simple problems outside of classroom time, and they push their sleeves up and get their hands dirty with their teams inside of class.

This environment also empowers professors to provide immediate and frequent feedback on how students are actually applying classroom concepts. It’s a learn by doing, rather than a learn by listening approach.

1. Use Top Hat to manage the minutiae

Debra enhanced the teaching experience of her team based learning classroom by using Top Hat to save time, organize and distribute teaching resources, facilitate group projects, track student progress and deliver feedback and assessments.

For a typical class, Debra has her students read the material they’ll cover before they come to class. When students enter class, they take an Individual Readiness Assurance Test (IRAT) test using Top Hat.

This quick assessment allows Debra to not only gauge and track which of her students have done the readings and whether they’re prepared, but it incentivizes students to take responsibility for their own learning.

If students do not come to class prepared, they won’t be very useful to their teams, they’ll be unable to participate in exploratory conversations and crucially, they’ll miss out on a fun, engaging break from the conventional academic day. After the individual test, the teams assemble, collaborate together, and then take the test again.

To make the lessons as practical and applicable as possible, Debra uses case studies. In teams, students read the case and Debra asks them respond to specific questions about the case details through Top Hat.

Debra then displays students’ answers on the classroom projector so that students can see how they performed in relation to their peers. By using Top Hat to transparently contextualize student performance, Debra transforms a traditionally tedious and time consuming administrative activity into a fun, engaging and easy pedagogical technique.

2. Interaction and participation are a natural byproduct

As a happy result of the quick visualization of students’ comments and their distribution across the board, Debra is also able to use student response data as a springboard into apt and focused class discussion and debate.

Debra explains that transitioning to a team based learning approach in a large lecture hall with over one hundred students is a feat which would have been untenable even ten years ago.

Some of Top Hat’s features that aid the team based learning approach include: the ability to facilitate large synchronous group interactions in an organized fashion, tracking, collecting and displaying attendance and question response data, and the ability to store and visualize these learning metrics in Top Hat’s cloud server for later use and analysis.

“Top Hat has been instrumental in helping me experiment with alternative modes of teaching and saved me a lot of time so that I can concentrate on my students.” – Professor Barnette

3. Top Hat makes integrating with LMS a cinch

When searching for a platform to help her transition to a team based learning approach, one of Debra’s high-priority needs was data integration with the Carmen LMS. Top Hat’s customizable integration with the most popular Learning Management Systems on the market is another reason Debra’s new pedagogical approach has been a success.

Once LMS integration is set up, cumulative student grade scores from Top Hat can be exported directly to an LMS in a few clicks.

4. Transparent learning data helps inspire excellence

Debra uses Top Hat as an elegant way to gain insight into overall class and individual student performance. With Top Hat’s transparent learning metrics, Debra is able to reach out to students who demonstrate consistent struggle–sooner, and on a individual basis–even in a large class.

While those students who are excelling use overall weekly class metrics for context, in combination with their own individual performance data, to become motivated and to inspire playful competition.

One of the principles that underpins the team based learning approach is that students are responsible for coming to class prepared, having read and thought about that week’s readings ahead of time, so that they may participate with their peers in classroom team based work.

To enrich and support this tactic, Debra uses Top Hat to assign her students interactive homework questions. Students who successfully complete the readings can test their own comprehension with interactive homework questions prior to class.

Then, on the day of class, Debra may begin the day’s lesson by taking up the homework questions with the whole class and use the results to guide the day’s team based work project, answer common questions, or clarify major trends of misunderstanding.

5. Leverage asynchronous teaching moments at any time

Using Top Hat outside of class to time-shift teaching and learning moments allows Debra to capture a more accurate snapshot of her students’ comprehension and confusion as it develops over a course. This knowledge connects her to her class’ progress and enables her to be a more effective guide and instructor.

To further amplify the resonance of this team centered, interactive pedagogy, Debra uses Top Hat’s Discussions as an always-on space for students to collaborate and ask questions. If a particular homework question triggers a student’s insight and they are unsure about its veracity, they can comment in a related Discussion and receive feedback from anyone in their learning community–including Debra–at any time.

This feature is distinct from other online forum discussions because it is focused on Debra’s specific course content, monitored, and active only with Debra’s class.

Investing in a digital toolkit returns student outcomes

Since using Top Hat, Debra has much more time to dedicate to other areas of teaching and to her own career development. She anticipates, “while it’s a bit labour intensive at first, next year I won’t have nearly as much work because Top Hat stores everything, so I can just update rather than upload”.

That innocuous ‘everything’ encompasses course material including weekly readings, slide presentations, interactive questions/quizzes, as well as qualitative student data like Discussions comments and questions.

The residual student-generated data which Top Hat captures throughout the duration of a course is an invaluable, if not tacit, resource for future redesigns of Debra’s curriculum and pedagogy.

Archived Top Hat learning data (eg. question responses, discussion comments) can be analyzed for insights like:

  • Discovering where and when popular misunderstandings arise in a course
  • Which topics generate lively debate or heated engagement–which don’t
  • To reassess and optimize specific question wordings, choices and content

Top Hat can also be used to explicitly solicit anonymous student feedback. Collection of anonymous feedback on teaching techniques, learning objectives and classroom atmosphere demonstrates an openness and savvy that will resonate with digital natives and help professors hone their craft.

It shows care for understanding students’ evolving learning needs and a willingness to help. All this candid, self-reflexive critical feedback can later be used to re-evaluate and recast future assignments, teaching tactics and course material.

This virtually untapped mine of learning data and teaching resources is made possible by combining Top Hat’s digital teaching platform with the insights provided by Michaelsen’s team based learning approach.

Teach today’s students where they are

Most professors today live, research and teach in a world infused by the internet. This fact alone is fundamentally transforming the way professors operate.

Embracing a pedagogical shift in this direction leads to a more interactive and engaged classroom, ignoring it can leave professors disconnected from their students and the future.

By amplifying the analytic capacities of today’s professors, Top Hat allows teachers to refocus on forming empathetic connections with their students. Once new techniques and technologies are integrated into classrooms, professors are able to connect with students in a meaningful and genuine way while coaching and guiding them through core content.

Debra explains that in effect, this amounts to more time for her and her students to think more about the course content and “go as deep as they want”.

In Debra’s words, both tool and practice were used in harmony to “make the flipped classroom and team based learning work, and make it manageable.” When there is a lot of interaction and discussion going on in the classroom, Top Hat helps her manage all of the data and information.

Cooperative learning strategies like team based learning are the backbone of the active learning classroom. Read on to learn the five core elements of cooperative learning to harness and apply them to your pedagogy.

Emerging student engagement platforms like Top Hat are pushing the boundaries of how teachers interact with students in the classroom. Blending creative alternative teaching practices with this new axis of digital access, empowers professors to generate and leverage unanticipated teaching and learning opportunities and insights in our interconnected world.

This new way of teaching is also fostering enhanced stability and connection in classroom’s like Debra’s and in any environment where students’ digital and physical presences compete for attention.



Click the button below to find out how you can join  professors like Debra Barnette in leveraging digital pedagogy in your class and help your students love learning again.


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