Kristen Hessler, Assistant Professor of Philosophy

After her first year of teaching at the University at Albany, Kristen Hessler, an Assistant Professor in Philosophy, was frustrated with teaching her large introductory ethics course in a Lecture Center (LC) classroom. Her goal for the classroom was for students to analyze and critique philosophical texts as well as to construct and defend their own views on the same topics. However, she was unhappy with student performance on these tasks, even though her student evaluations were on par with other LC philosophy courses. Even in her upper division classes, she found that students did not read outside of class and did not perform to her expectations on exams and papers. As a result, she found herself dumbing the courses down. This only marginally improved the student’s engagement, but made the course less interesting for her to teach.

She decided to make changes to improve the students’ performance and increase their learning. Dr. Hessler believed that in teaching the large lecture general education course she had an opportunity to help students grow intellectually and to prepare them to succeed in their college careers and she wanted to take better advantage of that opportunity. She also thought that it shouldn’t be impossible to enjoy teaching these large courses and hoped for an improvement on that score as well.

Working with ITLAL

To that end, the next year she worked with ITLAL to incorporate a classroom response system (“clickers”) into her course. This technology proved useful for promoting student attendance, increasing understanding of how well students were learning, as well as for providing a way for students to take on a more active role despite the lecture-hall setting. Given the improvements she noticed, she decided to do more to increase the engagement level of the students and to try to help them handle more difficult material. That is when she decided to redesign her course to incorporate Team Based Learning (TBL).

Dr. Hessler attended a two-day ITLAL course design workshop that focused on TBL. As a result, she made deep changes to both the day-to-day activities of the course and to the assessments. Students were expected to come to class prepared and were held accountable by individual and team tasks. During the semester, ITLAL consultants observed her teach, providing some feedback to help her fine tune her approach. Dr. Hessler found that restructuring the course into the TBL format was helpful in two ways. First, it required her to think more clearly about what she really wanted the students to do. She had to become more explicit about all of those goals she had, but hadn’t really thought about before. For example, she wanted students to know how to make an argument, and to know the readings they were covering (e.g. from the dialogues of Plato). So, when she planned her courses, she made sure that students had in-class and out-of-class assignments that provided them the opportunity to practice working with arguments, using Plato’s dialogues. These assignments provided an additional benefit—she found it helpful to have it confirmed that the stuff she was teaching could be used by students. After having “dumbed down” the course before, she found it validating to see how students’ thinking was changed by their experience.

Changes in Learning Outcomes

Dr. Hessler describes the results of TBL on student performance as “remarkable.” Not only was she giving them hard quiz (RAT) questions at the beginning of units (before she lectured on them), the students were doing better than previous students had done on end of section exams. Lectures, discussions and activities in the body of each unit were more productive, because a substantial number of students already had a grasp of the most important concepts from their engagement with the material outside of class. She was therefore able to design exams to test students on more complex application and analysis problems rather than testing them on how well they did at simply reporting information from the reading or the lectures. In her earlier course, exam questions assessed basic understanding of concepts, for example:

“How does Kant’s categorical imperative test work? Explain using two of Kant’s own examples. State and defend your opinion about whether these examples are successful.”

In the new version of the course, however, because students had the opportunity to practice making judgments and to apply theories, Dr. Hessler could give students novel situations on exams and both she and her students trusted in the students’ ability to critically analyze them, for example:

“Sid is a person who is frequently angered by daily life. For example, being stuck in a traffic jam fills him with rage, which he then vents on his co-workers or family members when he gets out of the car. He often insults people and threatens them when he is angry, and has a very difficult time apologizing afterwards. Explain what Socrates would say about whether Sid is moral, given how Socrates understands morality in the human soul.”

Despite giving students harder questions, the final grades for the course increased. In the pre-TBL course, the distribution of grades was dismal: A=23%, B=25%, C=11%, D=4% and 35% of students failed (the average of final grades was 65). Post-TBL, a greater percentage were passing the course A=23%, B=38%, C=25%, D=10% and only 5% failed (the average of final grades was 80).

Attendance and overall engagement improved as well: since students knew that exams would require them to engage in more complex intellectual tasks, they also knew that they needed to participate on a daily basis during the semester to practice these kinds of tasks. And most students responded to the structure of the TBL course by recognizing that they had to transform their study habits. One student wrote on the SIRF: “You MUST do the readings. I’m someone that never bothered to read outside of class, until this one.”

Changes in Student Satisfaction

Dr. Hessler’s SIRF scores reflected this change in the students’ experience. The average “Instructor, Overall” rating for the first three semesters of teaching 114 in an LC without TBL was 3.35. Over the first two semesters (S09 and F09) with TBL the same number rose to 4.06. Over the same time periods, student reports of how challenging the class was rose from 3.86 to 4.17. These numbers are closer to what she receives in her upper division and graduate courses, and suggest that students appreciate and respect teachers who challenge them. Dr. Hessler reflects further that these data have helped reveal something about herself: “I now think that, in my early teaching, an even greater problem than student disengagement from learning was my own disengagement from teaching.”

In addition to seeing students perform better on harder assessments, Dr. Hessler was pleased to find that students were also showing progress in more broad ways. One of the most important of these was that she saw her students take responsibility for their own learning and to acquire or further develop the academic skills required to support their learning. Most ambitiously, on their exams and papers, students demonstrated that they were “more aware of themselves as moral agents, to be able to connect our philosophical reflections to their own moral thinking, to broaden their thinking about morality beyond their own personal moral dilemmas and take an interest in larger issues of social and political justice, and to become familiar with moral questions and perspectives that might have escaped their notice thus far.”

Instructor reflection

Dr. Hessler found her experience using TBL to change her relationship to teaching and to UAlbany students:

TBL has been for me not an end in itself but a doorway into a more engaged, challenging, and rewarding model of college teaching. My classes have come to feel to me like learning communities—I know my students much better than I used to, and the students develop strong connections with each other in my classes. My own attitude has shifted from one of deep disappointment in our students to one of deep respect for them. While not every student is capable of, or interested in, making significant changes, I have seen many students take more responsibility for their own learning, become deeply engaged with philosophy, and proactively seek opportunities for further learning and even service based on the content of their philosophy courses. As a result, teaching, for me, has become one of the most rather than least satisfying components of my work at UAlbany.