Helping students learn to solve problems

At its heart, chemistry is a problem-solving subject. The objective of much of chemistry teaching is to equip learners with knowledge they then apply to solve problems. For many learners, the step from following examples of problem solving given by instructors to doing it for themselves resembles a quantum leap.

Traditionally, bridging this gap is achieved by more personal instructor time, such as in tutorials. But this is very demanding on staff time and students often have a different instructor to the one who introduced the concept to them. In team-based learning, learners see that their peers have understanding, demonstrating this knowledge is within their sphere of comprehension. Team-based learning provides a structured framework where learners interact as knowledgeable peers, who pool their knowledge and support each other in their thinking to come to collective decisions in solving problems. Team-based learning is one way of encouraging your students to become active learners.

Our experience is that team-based learning is a highly efficient and interactive way of teaching classes of 100–150 learners, requiring a very small staff-student ratio with little compromise on the learner experience and receives excellent feedback.

Scratch and win

We were first introduced to the concept at the 2014 Variety in Chemistry Education (ViCE) conference, held at Durham University, UK. Mark Paetkau from Thompson Rivers University in Canada presented a workshop explaining the practicalities of running team-based learning sessions and the educational theory supporting the concept. Since then we have successfully incorporated team-based learning into a number of our courses at Keele University.

At the ViCE workshop we were separated into teams and then asked to individually answer 10 multiple-choice questions. Next, we were asked to discuss our answers within our teams, agree our answer and then things took an unusual turn – each team was given a scratchcard. We were told: ‘Scratch the answer and the correct answer will be marked by a star’. This sounded like fun!

The teams debated the answer to the first question then somebody took out their lucky penny and scratched away the silvery surface for option B. The team erupted with pleasure: ‘it’s a star!’. For the next question the team couldn’t agree on the answer but C was eventually scratched: ‘Arrgghh, no star!’ Back to the drawing board: is it A, B or D? Everyone agreed it can’t be A, choosing between B and D, more plumbed for D, scratched again: ‘Yeah, another twinkling star!’

The first things that will grab your attention about a team-based learning session are the scratchcards, the level of meaningful discussion between team members and the teams’ reaction to getting the answer right or wrong. However, there is a lot more to team-based learning than that.

Team-based learning explained

In contrast to problem-based learning, which uses ‘problems as a starting point for the acquisition of knowledge’,1 team-based learning uses pre-session preparation followed by a series of multiple-choice questions to provide scaffolding for subsequent problem solving.

Team-based learning began life in management sciences2 and over the past 20 years has spread into a variety of other subjects particularly in the health sciences. There is even now a Team-Based Learning Collaborative to promote team-based learning.3

The cohort of learners is divided up into mixed ability teams of six to eight participants, which are maintained for the duration of the course. This continuity gives learners time to settle into their teams and over time team members will begin to hold each other to account for coming prepared to the sessions and contributing to the discussion. Most importantly, team-based learning encourages students to become active learners taking responsibility for their own educational experience. Team-based learning is often used for large cohorts where, despite a small staff-student ratio (1:50–100), student experience is not compromised due to the nature of the activities taking place in a team-based learning session.

A typical session

There are three distinct parts to each team-based learning session, which usually last between 1.5–2 hours. The first part is the readiness assurance process (RAP), which takes about one third of the class time. This involves an individual-readiness assurance test (iRAT), carried out under test conditions, followed by a team-readiness assurance test (tRAT). The iRAT and tRAT are in fact the same 10 multiple-choice questions, which test the fundamental knowledge the learners have encountered before the session and will require to apply to solve the problems presented in the third part of the session. Because everyone attempts the questions individually during the iRAT, they all have an answer to contribute to the tRAT, which is often a cacophony of discussion. It is during the tRAT that the IF-AT (immediate feedback assessment technique) scratchcards are used. These can be scored: four if the answer is right first time, two for the second try and one for the third attempt.

You might ask: ‘what is the point of the scratchcards; are they just a gimmick?’. We don’t think so. They give immediate feedback, the teams keep working on the question until they get the right answer. It would be impossible for an instructor to mark team answers in such an efficient way, which also allows each team to work at their own pace. They also bind the team members together and somehow seeing the little star gives a greater sense of achievement than an instructor saying ‘your answer is correct’.

After the RAP comes the mini-lecture intervention, which is delivered by the instructor. While all the teams have been tackling their tRAT the instructor looks through the iRATs to see where the learners are going wrong. The aim of the mini-lecture is to address common misconceptions, point out why some answers are wrong and reinforce why others are correct.

The RAP and mini-lecture act as the foundation for the harder problem-solving work in the applications activity, which takes up the majority of the session. Answers to the problems given to the teams in this part of the lesson must follow the 4Ss: a problem that is Significant to the students, the Same problem for all teams, all teams report Simultaneously and a Specific choice (for chemistry this is whether the answer is correct or incorrect). Initially, the aim is to encourage learners to discuss and solve their problems within their team; the second step comes through reporting the answer to the whole cohort, where all learners become involved in discussing what the correct answer is. We have found this has been greatly aided by the use of a visualiser, so teams can write down their answers on paper and they can be shared with the whole class.

Our experience

As an example, at Keele University we have used team-based learning in the teaching of NMR spectra analysis.4 In the RAP section, students were given 10 spectra and asked to match them with the correct chemical structures. The application activity involved measuring coupling constants and annotating splitting patterns.

Other chemistry topics taught so far using team-based learning at Keele include organic reaction mechanisms and foundation year general and organic chemistry. From just two chemistry staff trying it three years ago, nine are now using team-based learning.

In addition, we have used team-based learning in China through an articulated chemistry degree with Nanjing Xiaozhuang University for teaching physical and organic chemistry. Discussion within the teams took place in Chinese, but reporting back to the class was in English.

Foundation year general and organic chemistry is a good example for further discussion. Team-based learning has run now for two years, first with a class of 150 in 2015/16 and then with a class of 125 in 2016/17. Consistently, the team scores higher in the tRAT than the average team member in the iRAT, but on rare occasions an individual scores higher than the team, which suggests that teams are listening to all team members. Feedback from the learners is overwhelmingly positive, with 70% of learners agreeing with the statements ‘I have learnt from other team members’, ‘I feel more confident in answering chemistry questions having had the opportunity to explain concepts to my team’ and ‘The application activities helped me to understand more complex exam style questions’.

What is it like for the instructor?

As a team-based learning instructor, start by working out what you want students to achieve by the end of the session (or series of sessions) and ensure the application activities are testing the desired learning outcomes. The team-based learning sessions can either be run as fully flipped classrooms – with learners expected to engage with material before the session through directed reading, screencasts, e-learning resources and so on – or it can be used as a format for problem sessions alongside traditional lectures.

Multiple-choice questions for the iRAT/tRAT require careful planning to ensure they are pitched at a level that stimulates discussion. We have found it helpful to structure questions to include more than one element and to build in common misconceptions.

Application activities should ideally include exam-style questions, therefore existing problem class questions may map directly into team-based learning sessions. However we have found when using exam-style questions it is wise to provide additional scaffolding to guide learners through the stages and create additional reporting back checkpoints. In general, it is advantageous for teams to report back on a regular basis to ensure they remain engaged and are working productively along the right lines.

Team-based learning sessions keep you on your toes. You need to be able to react to the results of your iRAT to make the most of your mini-lecture intervention and to be able to work the room when teams are reporting back on the problems in the applications activities, to ensure that all teams engage in the discussion.

The downside is preparation, in terms of both material (question writing and photocopying) but also the room you are using. Since the tables in many classrooms are laid out traditionally in rows, some time and effort is required to reconfigure the classroom to accommodate team work.

You can use the tRAT scores combined with peer assessment, such as WebPA,5 to assess performance in the team-based learning sessions. We trialled this for the first time this year and it worked well; the assessment was restricted to just 5% of the overall module mark, although we did learn that performance at each individual session should be peer assessed, rather than simply all the team-based learning sessions at the end of the module.

Give it a go

Hopefully we’ve convinced you that team-based learning could benefit your teaching. Some obstacles to consider:

  • Timetabling – preferentially you need a two-hour session. However, it might be possible to complete the RAP and intervention mini-lecture in one hour and the application activities in another (it would be advised that these sessions are relatively close though).
  • Location – you need a flat room where tables can be arranged such that teams are able to face each other to facilitate discussion.
  • Material – you need to work out how to adapt your current sessions, write multiple-choice questions and structure applications activities.
  • Scratchcards – these are commercially available in bulk from the US [link no longer available].

If you would like to give team-based learning a try, then we can provide you with some scratchcards. We would also be happy to share more details of our experiences and offer advice about the practicalities and question writing. Do get in touch if you would be interested to hear more.

Laura Hancock, Chloe Howe and Daniela Plana are chemistry teaching fellows at Keele University, UK. Graeme Jones and Tess Phillips are both chemistry lecturers also at Keele University