February 6, 2013

Team-Based Learning

Pilot project points toward success

A renewed commitment by campus leaders to pedagogy has fueled a pilot project in which 30 faculty members have revamped their roles and now use team-based learning for their courses. For the last three semesters, a 54-seat classroom in Goodell and a 90-seat one in the W.E.B. Du Bois Library have served as incubators for the experiment. So far, the experiment has met with rave reviews and five more team-based classrooms are planned for an academic facility under construction on North Pleasant Street.

“I love working in this team-based environment. It makes understanding the information easier,” says senior journalism major Victoria Arias. Wei Wang, a sophomore sociology major, has similar praise for peer-based learning. “It has also increased my team skills. Before I didn’t have great experiences working with teams but this class really changed my perspective,” says Wang.

Both students are enrolled in a 200-level statistics class taught in Goodell. The classroom has six large, round tables with three laptops per table and large wall-mounted monitors. The noise level is high as the students tackle a problem using voting statistics to learn how President Obama won reelection. When Associate Professor Sanjiv Gupta needs full class attention, he uses a wireless microphone. Other times, he circulates around the room, acting more like a coach than an instructor.

“I had to reconceptualize my role from being the person on stage and telling students what to think to being a facilitator in helping young people learn,” explains Gupta. He said that the team-based learning is very satisfying, and, if possible, he would use it for all of his teaching. Furthermore, he says students are earning better grades working with their peers than as individuals.

Robert Davis, manager of academic computing computer classrooms for the Office of Information Technologies, says the new classrooms replace passive learning with full engagement as the students acquire the art of working and compromising with others. Those skills, he says, and the new knowledge gained, will prepare them well for post college life.

The classrooms have hosted a variety of disciplines from Wikipedia writing to resource economics. Once the new classroom building opens in 2014, the campus expects all first-year students to have an opportunity to enroll in a team-based course. That will put UMass Amherst among the first institutions of higher learning to implement team-based learning on a wide scale.