‘Building the Ship as we Were Setting Sail’ – Interview with Dr. Rebecca Carruthers DenHoed

Dr. Rebecca Carruthers Den Hoed and Joerdis Weilandt

discussed the Blended Learning Pilot in the Writing Program in an interview conducted in the Summer of 2018.

Teaching Centre: What motivated you to redesign your WRIT 1000 courses into a flipped classroom with team-based learning at its core?

RC: It all started the last fall when I began teaching the Writing 1000 courses. A lot of students showed up wanting to do well, but most would glaze over after the first five minutes of a traditional lecture. They would ask strategic questions about what they “needed” from each lecture, for an assignment or exam. But they wouldn’t otherwise engage with the material. Upon reflection, I realized that if I were a student in the class, I wouldn’t really care much about it either. I would probably have considered the course a hoop to jump through and nothing more. As a result, I approached our program coordinator to ask if I could experiment with some non-traditional teaching approaches in the classroom.

What I wanted to try, because I had noticed varied skill levels in the classroom, was to incorporate a flipped classroom and active learning into my teaching. If I lecture in class, I have to slow down the whole class to accommodate students who are struggling, or I go too fast when I pace the class to accommodate more advanced students. My idea was to post lecture materials online to accommodate students with differing skill levels. Online, students can judge for themselves how much and how fast they need to cover the material they are looking at. If I lecture in class, I also have to deal with the students’ general anticipation that I will ‘fill them up like sponges.’ My idea was to encourage more active participation in class through team-based learning, which requires students to actively work with concepts instead of me only lecturing about them. I think students learn more when there is pressure to show up to class ready to actively do something with the materials they have prepared for class. I was very fortunate to get the go ahead for that project from our program coordinator.

TC: What do you consider essential for the planning stage of a flipped classroom?

Time is an essential variable in this calculation. Ideally, if I were to do something like this again, I would set aside a term to thoroughly plan all parts of the project instead of the units as I go. Since I started teaching my first flipped/team-based class on short notice, I didn’t have much time to redesign the course, but I was willing to use the very short Christmas break to get started. The rest came together as I was teaching, which my husband called “building the ship as we were setting sail”. Not only was the design a big-time investment, I also needed support. I really wouldn’t have been able to do this without the special supplies and the encouragement offered by my program.

TC: What supplies are you referring to?

My department ordered a batch of special scratch cards to use for in-class assessments. As part of the work students do in class, they discuss in teams the probable answers to questions about course concepts. Then, they check their answers on the scratch cards: stars appear when they answer correctly and blanks appear when they need to keep working on the question through team conversation. The cards provide immediate feedback on and focus for team conversations. The scratch cards also help make the learning process more transparent to me, the instructor. As the teams are discussing, I circle through the room to keep track of what is being said and what challenges teams encounter. Listening in while teams work with their scratch cards supplies me with information I need to tailor any upcoming lectures or activities to their needs.

What impact did the flipped classroom and team-based approaches have on you and your students?

So far, I have been working with the final course evaluations and personal comments from students, which generally have been quite positive. As a matter of fact, I have had a couple of students approach me to say how thankful they were for the learning experience in my classes. It had given them a reason to be on campus, because as they told me they had felt adrift and untethered from their classmates and their professors in prior courses, where self-study had been their sole learning mode. They had been wary initially when my course started. By the end of the term, however, when they had created strong friendships and support systems in their teams; they would bounce ideas off one another – even outside the classroom.

In my opinion, team-based learning creates a more supporting learning environment for students. If they need help, there is support not just from the professor, but from everyone else on their team and in the classroom. After the students had been working together in teams for a few weeks, I noticed how confident they had become with the material, how they were asking the right kinds of questions in discussions, and how they understood the feedback I was I giving them on assignments. It felt more like a dialogue between us all—one in which students felt supported.  The last big piece in the puzzle is that, in my view, students were also producing higher-quality work at the end of term.

How did you get the buy-in from the students to take a collaborative approach to learning?

Most importantly, I talk to the students. I explain to students how team-based works and how it enhances learning. I challenge their preconceptions of group work and I do that all on the first day of class.

Team-based learning really hinges on the students completing the assigned readings before class, so that they’re ready to work together in teams during class. At the end of each unit, team members evaluate each other on how prepared they were and how much they contributed to team activities. Those peer evaluations, in turn, ensure that hard-working students who show up and do the work end up with a higher grade on team assignments and prevent less-hard-working students from “coasting.” Explaining all these pieces to students—that they would be held accountable for their preparation and active engagement in learning—really helped to dispel their fears about “group work.”

My transparency about the philosophy behind team-based learning helped the students understand what I was looking for and what I wanted to foster in the classroom. A few students were uncomfortable with the approach, so I recommended them to take the course with another instructor instead. Those who stayed were committed to the style and willing to work collaboratively.

What does the planning process for team-based teaching look like for you?

The design of the course is very bottom-up. I first ask myself what I want the students to be able to do by the end of the course. Then I design team-activities that will help students learn how to do those things. Then I design readings and study guides that will help students learn the concepts they will need to do those things. And then I design in-class assessments to make sure students have done the readings before class. All the pieces interlock. You should see my office at this point in the planning stage. I use the windows and walls and whiteboard to plan out course: from outcomes, to activities, to readings and quizzes.

I go through the same ritual every term to double check whether I’m still on track with my teaching intentions. Following the goal setting, I break down the list of goals into smaller units, each of which ends in an assignment. For each of those smaller units, I isolate activities that will help students develop the skills they need to complete the assignment and concepts they need to tackle the activities. I choose readings that cover the required concepts, and I create in-class assessments that help me discern whether the students understand the readings or not. I also create online lectures and study guides to help students navigate the readings.

Before my course starts, everything is usually up on Moodle on Day 1, with the exceptions of the lectures, which I post the week before. I also post additional online lectures in real time to provide take-home messages for the students who are struggling with a concept and need help clarifying something we talked about in class.

TC:  How do you facilitate the learning in teams?

One of the challenges of using team-based learning in class is “selling” it to quieter students. One of the things I try to encourage students to understand is that, when it comes to teamwork, the quantity of what they say is less important than the quality of what they say. Quieter students can speak up only occasionally, yet still manage to point out something key that everyone else in the team overlooked. So, I try to highlight to the whole class that a single and short high-quality contribution can offer the team a lot, and sometimes prevent a team from making an error. This can reassure more introverted students that they can do their share, while it reminds more extroverted students to judge contributions on quality not quantity. I want my students to understand that the space is there for all of them to express their thoughts regardless of individual differences in personality.

To guide my students in their teams requires some conscious effort, especially in the initial stage. Putting in that work on my part will result in equal contributions from all team members by the end of a term. In the early weeks of a course, my job is to listen to how the teams are interacting. Based on my observations, I give the teams models for how they might approach activities and quizzes differently to be more productive. By the time we get into our second or third month of class, students are doing those things without being prompted. They’re engaging in dialogue and decision-making so I can cultivate in them the kinds of critical thinking that I really want them to develop by the end of the course. This kind of coaching and guiding means moving away from a traditional “sage-on-the-stage” professor role, which was a shift for me. But it is very rewarding. At first, it was hard to stand in the classroom and ‘do nothing’, but by the end of the term, I was really amazed at the growth and intelligent discussions the students were having as I was standing there listening to them.

To me, facilitating team-learning is a lot like cultivating a healthy garden environment, where when you do all of that early work, strong plants can grow without any further intervention.

What do the learners need to navigate your course well?

The main thing that the students need to thrive is a willingness to show up and engage consistently throughout the term. A lot of students have grown accustomed to being able to skip three or five (or more) classes in a term with few repercussions, as long as they cram before exams. My classes don’t allow for regular “skipping” or “cramming.” I let my students know that there is no final exam in my class, because everything they would normally cover in a final exam is done during class time, spread out over the term. We do a lot of learning and a little bit of testing each day, so if students miss a class it’s tantamount to skipping a question on the final exam. Once they understand what’s expected of them, students adapt quickly.

What kind of support is necessary for instructors to take such an innovative approach to teaching?

Like I said before, the support I’ve received from the program has been crucial. I really appreciate the fact that risk-taking is valued in my program and that I have been allowed to pilot this project. Apart from the emotional and psychological support from my program, some of the technical assistance I’ve received from the teaching Center has been invaluable, too. The Teaching Centre has helped me learn how to record and post a lecture on my computer. I had never done that before January this year and it involved a bit of a learning curve.

I would love some more technical support when it comes to developing video lectures, though. There’s much more that I could be doing and I really want to make the move towards some self-contained “re-usable” lectures. The software I am currently using, Techsmith Relay, is a simple video recording tool that permits only minimal editing after the recording is made. While I appreciate being able to access this technology for free through the university’s subscription, I also find its limited functionality increasingly constraining.  A little bit more support in terms of alternative software and more advanced video editing tools would help me become more independent and creative with my lecture recording. It would be fabulous if the university could offer some hands-on training in that field.

Another great way of supporting my work would be exchanging ideas with other blended-learning practitioners on campus. I think there’s a real risk that instructors like myself will end up reinventing the wheel, if we’re left to work on our own. We could be learning from each other. Until now, I worked with some support, but it still feels like I’m making a bunch of mistakes that I might have avoided if I had talked to someone else beforehand. I am looking for a community where like-minded people, who are struggling with the same pedagogical conundrums and technological questions or problems as I am, can bounce ideas off each other in a way that fits our schedules. I’ve seen my students benefit from peer learning, so I’m thinking that we as professors and instructors would benefit from peer- and community- sharing, as well.

TC Which aspects of digital teaching and learning would you be curious to investigate?

One of my questions is similar to what Harold Jansen was trying to find out when he looked at the team-based learning in one of his courses. I want to find out what roles the students take on in their teams and how those roles impact their performance in the course.

The other question I’m trying to answer is how much the team-based learning is helping the students in writing their assignments. I would love to hear students reflect on the skills they’ve learned in teams and how those skills applied to their writing assignments.

I would like to explore the benefits of continuous active learning and share those results with the research community studying team-based approaches to teaching. There is not a lot of research that explores team-based learning in a writing course, so that’s a niche I could fill.

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Digital Teaching and Learning at the UofL by Dr. Rebecca Carruthers Den Hoed and Joerdis Weilandt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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