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After taking a summer seminar on TBL pedagogy (less familiar to Hilleren than to Drake, whose undergrad work featured nontra- ditional, collaborative courses at Hampshire College), they were both so inspired that they decided to reshape the lecture ses- sions of bio-105 for small-group exercises—and to do it in time for the start of classes in September. Why the rush? With the rising popularity of science majors, bio-105 enrollments have expanded dramatically in the past few years, stretching both staff and classroom resources. Last year students voiced discontent with the size and venue of bio-105’s lectures (the course’s lab sections are still capped at 16 students each), and Hilleren was inclined to agree that such large lectures weren’t effective enough. She’s a lively, funny, engaging lecturer, yet she saw “too many kids texting or tuning out in the back row.” She also suspected too many of memorizing data to pass the exams but “not internalizing the whys, whens, and hows of applying that knowledge.” After her TBL training, she jumped at the chance to get more personal, require more accountability, and spur more active learning in bio-105.


AY ONE: Some 150 students, most of them freshmen, are met at the door of Gannett Auditorium by Drake, Hilleren, or a teaching associate, who assigns them randomly into teams of five or six. They’re told that each team must sit together and work together every day, like it or not. They’re told about the course goals, TBL methods, their responsibilities, and how their grades will be calculated. It all sets them reeling—this is not the anonymous, passive intro course they were expecting. Over the next few class meetings, both students and profes- sors struggle to find their TBL legs. Every session begins with a short, simple quiz on the assigned read- ings. Students punch answers into hand- held electronic clickers, and can prompt- ly see the correct answers on the big screen up front. Clickers not only regis- ter the students’ individual scores (well, they do once the professors get the soft-


ware glitches figured out) but also show how well the readings were comprehended, so the professors can clarify any hazy areas right away. Then comes about 20 minutes of lecture or video (adjusted on the fly to make time for whatever impromp- tu teaching is needed to address weaknesses revealed by the e-clicker quiz). The lecture sets the stage (not always clearly enough early on, but better as the weeks go by) for what’s next: team exercises in analysis, problem-solving, or otherwise apply- ing the concepts being covered.

For these case studies and problems, several teams huddle together in their seats, while other adjourn to the lobby or aisles, trying to put some distance between the 26 simultane- ous conversations. Now Drake, Hilleren, and two teaching as- sociates start roving, eavesdropping on this group hunkered in a circle on the floor, or responding to an SOS from that group draped over each other’s seat-backs:

“What would you say is the value for Y? Like, look at the data and see what you think.”


“Oh, I see. It’s actually X and Y that form part of the square.“ “See if this helps: You want to measure relative to what? The null, that’s right. And what does the slope of the null hypothesis look like? Yeah, it’s flat.” “Ah, I get it now. Hello!” “You guys are interrogating this really well—keep talking.” As Drake points out, it’s as if the student-faculty ratio in the room shrinks from 1:150 down to 4:26, making one of Skid- more’s largest classes into one of its smallest. Moreover, to make sure all students contribute, team members evaluate each other twice during the term, and those evaluations are graded by the professors. Cutting classes? Not likely. Dozing at the back of the hall? Nope. Skipping homework in favor of cramming just be- fore the exam? Won’t work. “Teachers know that one of the best ways to learn is to teach—to conceptualize and articulate infor- mation for others,” Drake says. “So that’s an excellent skill for students to practice in their teams.” During the exercises each team must reach a consensus and record its answers on a scratch-off card; if the first scratch reveals a wrong answer, the team can try again, as second scratches earn partial credit. The team’s “folder czar” is responsible for leaving the scratch-off cards and other paperwork with the professors at the close of class and for collecting the team folder at the start of the next session. It’s a busy, jam-packed 80 minutes for students and faculty alike. It came as no surprise that, as Drake reports, “We got some resistance: ‘You’re not telling me the information!’” Hilleren says the first of the semester’s four exams “really upset some students.” A vocal rebellion broke out when students learned their scores, which averaged in the 70s. (Scores for that test in previous years were typically in the 80s.) “But I didn’t worry too much,” Hilleren recalls, “because they just didn’t know how to prepare well. We gave them guidance about preparing for the next exams, and their scores were much higher—better than for the same exam

in previous years.” She adds, “We also used the opportunity to re-emphasize our goals for collaboration and self-learning, in hopes that they’d remember these values and realize that grades aren’t so all-important.”

RIVATELY RACKED by a sense of grave responsibility and de- termination to make their TBL experiment successful, in class Drake and Hilleren deployed their relentlessly upbeat de- meanors as wide, convex shields to turn aside any carping. They fielded a range of complaints and confusions in office hours and weekend review sessions. “We’re aware that TBL is a very mature way of learning,” says Drake. Given that “nobody’s admitted to Skidmore unless they’re good students,” she says, “we knew the class would be able to learn a lot of material,” and by late in the term she was declaring, “I have zero qualms about whether they’ve absorbed the content of the course.” The added sophistication, she notes, comes from the problem-solving and critical work in teams.


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