Dr. Anne Hildreth had been teaching at UAlbany for nearly twenty years before she began to work with ITLAL. She had consistently received satisfactory teaching evaluations and identified herself as a teacher who cared about her students’ learning, but she believed that she could improve. While she had achieved some success with using cases and real-life examples in her courses to provoke student understanding of key concepts, she continued to struggle with framing questions to provoke productive critical thinking and meaningful discussion among her students. This desire to create better questions led her to ITLAL.
Working with ITLAL
In 2007-08, Dr. Hildreth was developing a new course in Election Reform (RPOS 204). Seeking to create a more problem-driven, critical thinking-based course, she worked with ITLAL staff to design this course using a full implementation of Team-Based Learning (TBL). She began by designing six conceptual units around key reform problems and potential solutions. From there, she describes a new approach to content and student activities that created a more authentic and integrated experience:
I made limited use of lectures and did more team problem solving activities during the class—rank order these activities and explain your rationale, design a proposal that achieves this result, given this amount of money, what would you invest in and why. I began to choose the readings with a different goal—how they fit together, the dilemmas they raised, each unit had a more contested / problematized nature.
While she has not adopted TBL in all of her courses, Dr. Hildreth reports that her work with this method has directly affected her teaching across the board. She has used strategies from the method to create an atmosphere of individual student accountability and opportunities for meaningful student collaboration and reflection around more problem-based strategies.
In Spring 2009, Dr. Hildreth participated in a support group for faculty teaching writing-intensive courses. This group held a series of structured conversations, facilitated by ITLAL staff, about best practices and concrete strategies for helping faculty and their students succeed in writing-intensive courses. Using a combination of approaches derived from these sessions and her work on TBL, Dr. Hildreth has initiated key changes in the integration of student writing into her courses. Relying on a TBL-influenced balance of individual and group work, she assigns group tasks that require students to interpret and explain data and individual writing assignments for reflection. She has also started incorporating smaller, more focused writing tasks that allow students to practice the kinds of thinking the discipline requires. Finally, she has also begun providing more models of strong writing instead of relying strictly on criticism and over-marking of student papers to communicate the values associated with effective written communication in Political Science.
In addition to these intensive encounters, Dr. Hildreth has been a regular attendee at ITLAL workshops and events, both as a participant and as a mentor to other faculty and graduate students adopting TBL and other active learning-inspired approaches.
Changes in Learning Outcomes
As a result of her ongoing work with ITLAL, Dr. Hildreth has reported positive outcomes for her students, beginning with the level of intellectual challenge her courses now provide. Changing the activities in which students were engaged positively affected the day-to-day activities of the classroom, but more importantly has allowed Dr. Hildreth to create a learning environment that provokes students to approach complex questions like political scientists.
I have always believed that there are many ways to look at political problems and issues and I have resisted the temptation of giving students a perspective on politics. As a result, I shied away from thorny problems because I viewed their solution as contingent. In this teaching method I believe I am more effectively serving their learning by revealing a process of investigation, modeling different perspectives on political problems. It is much more consistent with how I believe political questions should be approached.
As a result of this more authentic approach to the content of the course, she has seen changes not only in students’ approach to the content, but shifts in attitudes and behavior as well, both in their interactions with the content and with each other. In addition, her own beliefs about what students can and should be doing in her courses have been transformed.
I now have greater expectations of students to apply concepts and extend their logic to other circumstances more easily. Students now teach each other as they discuss and debate things. They develop better arguments for their positions by helping each other. They pay greater attention to reading. They compete in teams in a constructive way. They are committed to their team mates and proud of the academic work they accomplish together.
In addition to these cognitive goals, Dr. Hildreth has seen positive social outcomes for students in her Election Reform (RPOS 204) course in particular. She reserves half the seats in the course for incoming freshman interested in Political Science as a way of inviting students into the major. This deliberate enrollment strategy combined with the use of TBL has been successful in attracting students to the major but has also in connecting incoming students to the institution in a positive way.
Changes in Student Satisfaction
The transformation in student attitudes, behaviors, and sense of integration into the university are evidenced in course evaluation data, which reveal an overwhelmingly positive response to Dr. Hildreth’s implementations of TBL and use of TBL-influenced strategies. Student comments from RPOS 204 demonstrate high levels of student engagement. In Fall 2009, 29 of 35 students who responded when asked, “What went well in this class?” commented positively about the use of teamwork in the class, as a tool for engagement and for learning as well as a means of lending coherence to the course content. In Fall 2010, 23 of 28 students offered positive remarks regarding teamwork in response to the same question. Many noted that the use of team activities provided a framework for social and intellectual engagement, noting that their groups “learned and had fun with each other at the same time” or that teamwork “really helped me understand the material better” and “was a stimulant that made the material more engaging and easier to learn.”
Student evaluation data from sections of RPOS 204, initially offered as a TBL course in Fall 2008, demonstrate steady improvement in overall scores, with overall professor and course ratings improving to 4.47/5 and 4.21/5 in Fall 2010. Most strikingly, the overall professor (4.43/5) and course (4.12/5) ratings of Dr. Hildreth’s TBL courses are significantly higher than those in non-TBL courses (average professor rating or 3.99/5 and average course rating of 3.65/5). Students’ responses to questions indicating engagement and academic rigor are consistently higher in TBL courses as well, with average scores indicating a higher level of “intellectual challenge”(4.36) and “stimulated interest” (4.26) in these courses.
While Dr. Hildreth greatly values the evidence of greater rigor and improvement in student evaluation scores in this course, the outcome of her TBL courses that she finds most gratifying is their long-term effect on students. She believes the primary evidence of her success is the long-term relationship this course has created between her and her students and between those students and the content.
More than one student has told me that my Election Reform [RPOS 204] class was the best class they have ever had—they say it was so fun and so interesting. And I had had more students contact me semesters later for material on some of the topics from that course than any other—students who had graduated and are working in politics, other current students still digging into the material, working on papers related to those topics. So, I believe it reached students and engaged them in learning in a way that I always wished my courses did.