New Team-Based Learning creates better classroom experience for calculus students

Heather Bolles helps students doing group work in a calculus class.

If the words “group work” make you cringe, the math department wants to change your view.

A few instructors are introducing the concept of “Team-Based Learning” to Calculus I and Calculus II courses at Iowa State University. The idea is a form of active learning, and it weeds out common group work issues, such as low participation, unpreparedness, unequal contributions of work, and having to meet outside of scheduled class time.

“Active learning and active engagement in classes shows better retention of the material,” said Heather Bolles, a senior lecturer in mathematics who implemented the concept in her Calculus I classes last year. “The biggest change we’ve seen since changing the structure of the class to team learning was attendance. Typically, we get down to between 55 and 65 percent class attendance on average. Last year, we were consistently at 90 percent attendance.” Perhaps even more important than being physically present was the fact that students were also engaged in the material during class.

“Students would work up until the end of class and we’d have to tell them it was time to go,” she said.

Here’s how it works: Students are assigned to heterogeneous teams. Individually before class, each student watches a 15-minute video and then takes a short quiz. Homework, essentially. When they show up to class, each student takes the same quiz, but as a team. This way, each student has already prepared for class, and students who do not have a good grasp on the material can learn from their teammates. The instructor goes through the quiz with the class, and class is dismissed.

During the next class period, teams are assigned a project to complete based on the quiz they took (individually, and as a team) the previous class period. The project is designed to be completed in one class session, and is solved by each team on a 2×2-foot whiteboard. After completing the project, one representative from each team presents their solution to the class. Solved projects are also turned in on paper in a team folder for grading.

“We want to assess what happens in downstream courses,” Bolles said. “We are trying to gather data to see if students are transferring their knowledge of calculus to other courses, such as engineering or physics. We want to know if this approach really pays off in the end.”

Bolles and her team are now deciding which portions of the class should be graded individually, and what should be graded in teams. At the end of each semester, each student scales their teammates on how engaged and prepared they were, and if they attended class, in a peer evaluation. Bolles said most students have been honest and thorough with the evaluations, although she and her team are still deciding how much peer evaluations should weigh on a final class grade.

Mostly, Bolles wants to watch the problem-solving ability of students in Team-Based Learning.

“The projects we give them are really challenging,” she said. “If they weren’t, they’d be able to solve them on their own. Will they have greater persistence in problem solving after this course? We hope this is one result of this approach.”

Team-Based Learning in math is funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) until 2018. Nearly 10 math faculty, TAs and undergrads help with or teach the courses, but Bolles said there is a need for more instructors and more funding. She said alumni sponsorship of teaching assistants or supporting a post doc will make the program stronger.

“This approach creates a great sense of community. It’s not a big lecture anymore,” Bolles said. “It’s really a win-win.”

By Jess Guess