Reflections on P132 Spring 2019

The semester is (well) over, the grades are in, and the course evaluations have been returned. Based upon this feedback, I must say that I think the strategy used this past semester to apply the TBL strategy in the large lecture hall of Physics 132 was fairly effective. Our changes to the laboratory curriculum (developed in conjunction with Paul Bourgeois and David Nguyen) also seemed to be positive. This post will focus on the team-based learning aspect of the course in the lecture hall. I will reflect on what I did differently and how it compares to both the previous two semesters’ iterations of the course. I will also consider my other prior experience teaching in large lecture halls. The lab will be dealt with in a later post.

Team-Based Learning in the Physics 132 Lecture Hall

My experience in Physics 131 has truly convinced me of the power of a flipped team-based model. The flipped model ensures a common baseline for all students regardless of prior preparation and skipping “boring” base-level information. Instead, I can jump right into challenging conceptual corners and more interesting applications. I also love the energy of the 131 classroom where students really get into solving problems. The fundamental challenge for Physics 132, however, has always been how to implement this pedagogical strategy in a room ill suited for it.

The physical spaces of Physics 131 and 132

Physics 131 is in a wonderful classroom with round tables and whiteboards on the walls. Myself and my TAs can easily see which groups are stuck and physically get to them to help them out. Physics 132, on the other hand, is in a standard lecture hall with rows so close together that there is no possible way that in-classroom assistants could possibly get to each individual group.

Impact of the space on student behavior

While I have not conducted systematic studies, the different layouts of the two rooms has an obvious impact on student behavior. The lecture hall of Physics 132 prompts students to engage in the same behaviors that they have followed in previous lecture halls: attend if you feel like it, sit quietly, take notes, and do not interact with your neighbors/peers. The Physics 131 classroom, with its non-traditional design, breaks student expectations, especially when students are required to get up from their seats and work at the whiteboards on the walls; when working on wall-based whiteboards, students’ attention is focused somewhere else than their notebooks and they focus on solving the problems instead of copying. In addition, the round tables encourage interaction with peers as students are face-to-face, which enhances team cohesion relative to students trying to work together in a lecture hall.

I hypothesize that these two factors, improved group cohesion and daily interaction with classroom staff, are the reasons for the difference in attendance that I have traditionally observed between Physics 131 and lecture-hall based courses. In previous iterations of Physics 132, as well as other lecture courses I have taught, attendance always starts high and then drops down to about 60% by the end of the semester if attendance is not required (and that is if you are doing well!). In contrast, the attendance in Physics 131 is typically in excess of 80% without any grade-based attendance requirements. I suspect that the social pressures and the classroom environment of Physics 131 are the driving factors.

What I did in Physics 132 this time, how it is different from previous iterations, and why I think they matter

Opt-in teams

In this iteration of 132, as in previous rounds, teams were opt-in. Due to the poor layout of the room for team-based learning, I am ethically uncomfortable with requiring students to participate in teams. Students must therefore select to be on a team. Moreover, I feel that team participation should be benefit driven (carrots) and not punishment driven (sticks).

Another motivation for opt-in teams is established by the room itself. If every student is in a team, some teams would be in the middle of the rows of seats devoid of access to in-classroom assistants and at a significant disadvantage. Perhaps this disadvantage could be spread out by rotating which teams would be in the middle, but that gets logistically complex very quickly. In an opt-in team system, enough students elect to go it alone (so called solos) that the middle of the rows can be populated with them ensuring that every team has aisle, and therefore assistant, access. Assistant access then becomes a non-grade-based carrot for team membership.

Previous Iterations

In previous iterations of Physics 132, teams of four were formed and expected to work together in class. Four seems to be the maximum size that I can expect to work together in the hall: two in front and two behind. I spent a class day after team formation to provide a space for teams to set their own norms regarding attendance etc. The only graded team-based assignments, however, were as part of the pyramid exams. While these pyramid exam grades were manipulated by a peer evaluation using the CATME system, there were still several complaints in the course-evaluations about team-members not showing up or failing to participate. In fact, since the quizzes on preparation were given online, there were zero extrinsic motivators to attend class.

The teams are hit or
miss because you can have teammates who
never show up to class because there is no
penalty for missing class since there aren’t
iclickers or anything like that.

Course evaluation comment from Spring 2018

This round – Change the preparation quiz structure

Preparation quizzes as team bonding

One of the ways in which the teams in Physics 131 bond is through the preparatory quizzes. At the beginning of each of 131’s five units, students complete a 10-question quiz first on their own and then as a team using the Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique (IF-AT) cards. These quizzes provide a social pressure to not only come to class, but to be prepared for team members. Moreover they exert an equalizing pressure: students who may be over-confident are quickly corrected. I believe that the lack of such a team-cohesion opportunity with immediate feedback was one of the problems in previous versions of 132 teams.

Logistic Challenges of Preparation Quizzes

How to give a 10-question quiz to 300 students in 50 minutes to a room with limited mobility? The logistics in 131 are fairly simple. Due to the room, students can wait for the other four members of their team to finish, hand in their individual quizzes, get an IF-AT card, go out in the hall, and leave when they are finished. Such a system is impossible in a lecture hall. What if the student in the middle of a row finishes early? They cannot get up and begin the team portion without disturbing at least 30 students! Moreover, the 131 class sessions are 75 minutes which has always been sufficient time for all students, even those who may need extended time, to complete the quiz and still finish the team portion. Fifty minutes, on the other hand, would not be enough time and thus some system of accommodating students who may need more time would be needed. In a class of several hundred, and system that requires individual accommodation becomes logistically unweildly very quickly.

Solution: Daily Single Question Quizzes

While asking students to wait for all students to finish a 10-question quiz is unreasonable, asking them to wait for all students to finish a one-question quiz is fine. Each day, I therefore gave a single question quiz, graded by iClicker. The students would complete the question individually and then cooperatively: students who were members of organized teams were instructed to work with their teams while those who were solo just worked with whomever was sitting next to them. The topic of the quiz was always announced in advance so that students could prepare.

To cover all absence issues a certain number of quizzes were dropped. To ensure attendance, those who elected to be on a team had the lowest four quiz scores dropped. Solos had the lowest twelve. There are 39 days in a semester. This system resulted in much higher attendance and drastically fewer comments regarding team members’ attendance.

I have a great appreciation for my team. Although I was worried at first because I highly dislike group/team based classes or work, it ended up being perfectly fine at the end. I don’t know how much effort goes in to creating these teams, but Dr. Toggerson or whomever created the teams did a good job when pairing mine together. I learned a lot and stepped out of my comfort zone several times. I enjoyed contributing to a team that cared as much as I did. Learning physics (a subject I most definitely dread) was actually a lot more fun. I definitely have somewhat of a better understanding of it – and I can thank my teammates for helping contribute to that understanding.

A student’s feedback on participating in a team during Spring 2019

Thoughts for future iterations

A few things did come up:

  • I need to be VERY clear that the absence allotment is meant to cover both excused and unexcused absences.
  • There is a potential unfairness here against those who have excused absences: there is no possibility of dropping a quiz simply due to poor performance. Perhaps do a drop two and two absences excused?
  • The daily quiz is convenient in another two ways:
    • I can ensure that students are fresh on the material relevant for a given day
    • I can have a quiz on material from a previous unit that is relevant for a given day
  • Students on teams have, on average, lower exam scores as well as a larger spread in scores. I believe this is due to the fact that my top students are electing to go-it-alone. Research suggests that if these top students were on teams, they would help those who may be struggling. How can I:
    • Further encourage these top students to be on a team?
    • Encourage them to help their team members along? On this last point, a colleague Guy Blalock tried something in 131 wherein if all team members improved the team as a whole earned a bonus. This model is based upon a common team incentive scheme from the corporate world. Perhaps this bonus prospect would help?

Look for thoughts on lab in a future post!