November 2019 brought a visit from Dr. Parto Khansari to the Roseman College of Pharmacy, who spoke about methods for facilitating team-based learning. At their best, team-based activities promote constructivist learning by students, helping them understand content more deeply, connect it with prior knowledge, and think about it at a higher level than simply memorizing facts or processes. Because team activities involve peer interaction, they can also positively impact communication skills, which are vital for effective healthcare practice.
Unfortunately, despite the best intentions, some team activities can end up nothing more than worksheets students slog through individually as they sit in silence near their teammates. To combat this, Dr. Khansari offered several principles to help facilitators promote the sort of debate and discussion between team members that will lead to effective learning.
First, start with a purpose in mind. It is easy to get derailed by a wide variety of peripheral issues, so use principles of “backward design” to stay on target. This means choosing in advance the learning outcomes you want to address and having assessment questions in mind. Team-based activities can be time-consuming, so you’ll want to think about which learning outcomes will benefit most from the deeper dive. Reflect upon the kinds of problems students will face in a clinical setting. These can serve as inspiration for team activities.
Second, save your carefully-worded, unambiguous questions for the assessment. Team activities that lead to discussion and debate will include ambiguous questions with equivocal evidence and multiple plausible options that students will need to form opinions about. Given that many real-life questions meet these criteria, there is often no need to go too far out of your way by trying to artificially introduce uncertainty.
Third, encourage participation by maximizing intrinsic motivation for the activity. Dr. Khansari taught that intrinsic motivation comes from feelings of autonomy, competence, and relevance. Autonomy means students have a sense of control within the learning process, such as when they are able to derive their own conclusions from a provided set of data. Competence refers to a feeling that they are capable of successfully doing what is being asked of them and have value to contribute. Relevance signifies how the student feels about the material; that it is useful and will advance their professional competence.
Fourth, ask students to explain their answers and defend their decisions. Be prepared with follow-up questions. Ask other students to respond to student comments rather than responding yourself. There can be a sense of discomfort for everyone when ambiguity is unleashed upon a class and our natural inclination will be to put everyone at ease by immediately providing the one best answer. However, improved learning will occur when students are engaged in collaborative problem solving, which includes discussion. To encourage participation and maximize learning, it will be essential to model and nurture good communication practices to create an environment where students (and the facilitator) can feel okay about being wrong and where everyone can express their views freely, without derision.
Finally, summarize the key concepts students should take away from the activity. Discussion can be messy and leave people confused about what they were supposed to gain from it. Don’t neglect to summarize the important points so there are no misunderstandings about what students should know for the assessment.
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Tyler Rose, PhD
Associate Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences
Roseman University of Health Sciences College of Pharmacy