Figure 1. Professor Bednar, Political Science

The new team based classroom in the Chemistry building is designed to facilitate group interaction, with students organized strategically to apply what they are learning and construct their own experiences. The room includes movable tables and chairs, large flat screens for each group, and a central computing station for the instructor. However, many students would say the coolest feature is the writable wall surface throughout the entire room. But how, exactly, does such as space improve learning and allow for students to think more deeply about content and theory?

Jenna Bednar teaches a Political Science research course to 49 students in the team based classroom. The course teaches students to evaluate scholarly articles in the field and develop a research design for their senior thesis. In this interview Jenna shares how she designs learning experiences to maximize the space and promote her students’ critical thinking skills.

Q: Your students will spend much time working with the same team throughout the semester. How did you select the teams?

The structural difference in this classroom is that students must sit at group tables, rather than groups being an option. The first few weeks students sat wherever they liked until we had enough information to strategically break them into teams. One of the first things we did with initial groups is to assign each group an article and have them work together to identify causal mechanisms at work. Groups had fun writing the causal mechanisms on the writable walls. Then groups who read the same article compared notes and discussed differences.

I had to think about how to continue the team based approach to learning even though in this course students work on independent research projects. So in the third week of the course I asked each student to make a one-minute pitch explaining their research topic. To keep things moving, I ran a 60 second timer on the screen. My graduate assistant and I took good notes, and then we clustered the students into new tables based upon the similarity of their research topics.  

To develop cohesion within the newly formed teams, team members worked together over two class periods to construct a literature review related to the political science concept that binds them together as a team. Teams identified schools of thought common to the team, explored different arguments, determined what is interesting about their topics and in a third session, each team spent 5-6 minutes teaching the class about their topic: “Here is what is known; here is what we don’t know.”  In addition to helping them learn together in a hands-on way how scholarly literature reviews are structured and their purpose, the exercise helped students identify foundational literature for their individual research projects.

Q: One of the biggest complaints students have about working in groups is that group members do not participate equally. How do you encourage participation in group work?

One cool thing about team tables is that it naturally leads to peer accountability.  Students are facing one another, not the instructor. For example, when I asked each student to bring in two foundational articles and two extensions, I’m not walking around and checking. However, students are going around the table sharing what they brought in.  It is hard to look at friend and say, “Yeah, I didn't do it.”  For some assignments I offer a small number of points. For example, when we did a peer exchange on their individual literature review drafts, students earned 2 points (out of 118) for participation if they brought in two hard copies of their draft to share with their team.

Q: Describe how students use technology in the team based classroom.

My students are more adept than I am at using the technology the room provides.  For example, I offered an optional assignment for the students to analyze an argument from the first presidential debate.  I asked them to deconstruct the argument’s components and highlight what made the argument effective in terms of the the quality of its structure and evidence.  Although I told them that they could read from a transcript, nearly all students brought in a video clip on their laptop, plugged into the HDMI cable for the monitor at their table, and showed the clip to class.

When teams were asked to present their literature review to the class, some of the groups prepared slides.  They created a shared document in Google Docs, and one of them would hook it up to the table’s monitor so they could all collaborate on it simultaneously.  When they presented their slide show to the full class,  I could then select to have the slideshow appear on every team’s monitor.  Students have no problem connecting their devices to the screen or creating shared document or slides.

Now there has been a time or two when the technology has not worked as planned on my end, but we made a call to the support number and a tech support staff person came immediately.

Q: You have 49 students in your class. How do you keep things running smoothly and help students understand what is expected of them for the day?

I set us up for the day by reminding students what we have been doing over the past few class periods, where we are headed, and then our goals for the day.  On days when our primary activity is group-based table work, I have found it helpful to use the monitors for consistent communication across each team. For example, when students engaged in peer exchange, I posted a set of questions on the screens that they could all refer to when thinking about how to give advice about their peer’s writing.  When the information is on the monitors, rather than in their own notes, it creates a common knowledge of the evaluation criteria; each student knows what to expect from their peer’s evaluation.

Q: Have you always taught this way?

No, I didn’t always teach this way. Over the last two years I have been hearing about flipped classrooms, and I began to look at other people’s ideas about teaching to think about how I might make my own classroom more interactive between the students. For example, I regularly teach an upper-level undergraduate course on American State Government. Initially I taught the course conventionally, standing at the lectern and talking. I would engage students by asking a lot of questions during my lecture, but I did not send sets of students off to work on their own.  I realized that for some topics, it made sense to let students work collaboratively. But the conventional classroom structure can make interaction between students really awkward: “Students, just lean over your fixed rows to work together.” 

As an example of an opportunity for team-based learning in a conventional course, I changed the way that I taught an important concept in American State Government, direct democracy. Every year on the Monday before election day, we cover the proposals on the Michigan ballot as well as interesting proposals from other states.  The goal was to apply course content to an analysis of current events.  In the past few years, I changed the structure of that day.  Rather than us discussing each proposal together, I broke students up into groups and assigned a different proposal to each group. The groups applied what they’d learned throughout the semester about state-level policy-making, the demographics and financial structure of each state, and how interest group advertising shapes voter perception.  The students could use what they learned about how voters make decisions to make a prediction about whether the proposal would pass, teaching the rest of us as they shared their analyses.  In making a prediction, students become invested in the outcome. So there are a real opportunities in content-filled courses to complement conventional teaching methods with engaged learning.  Faculty don’t have to do this all the time, however.

Q: Obviously, you embrace an active learning pedagogy. For instructors who are considering integrating active learning strategies into their courses, what would you say are the greatest benefits to learning?

I believe the greatest benefit of teaching this way is that students own what they learn because they have constructed it. Let me give you an example.  During peer exchange, students may reference the key points I have made,  but they are also analyzing and evaluating their colleague’s work, such as pointing out what is going right and this is what is missing. They are teaching each other, creating their own learning experiences and, therefore, they own it.

Of course, you do not have to be teaching in a team based classroom to incorporate meaningful team learning experiences into your course. Whether you have a class of 18 or 100 plus, there are many ways to design meaningful learning experiences. And remember, Canvas Groups and Collaborations, can provide you with efficient ways to organize, assess, and manage groups. If you have been thinking about creating group experiences for your students, contact our office and one of our consultants will help you think through all the possibilities.


Learning Technologies & Consulting Group
2014 Modern Languages Building