Lunch and Learn: Team-Based Learning

Logo for Lunch and Learn program showing the words Lunch and Learn in orange with a fork above and a pen below the lettering. Faculty Conversations on Teaching at the bottom.On Friday, December 16, the Center for Educational Resources (CER) hosted the second Lunch and Learn—Faculty Conversations on Teaching, for the 2016-1017 academic year. Eileen Haase, Senior Lecturer in Biomedical Engineering, and Mike Reese, Director, Center for Educational Resources, and Instructor in Sociology, discussed their approaches to team-based learning (TBL).

Eileen Haase teaches a number of core courses in Biomedical Engineering at the Whiting School of Engineering, including Freshmen Modeling and Design, BME Teaching Practicum, Molecules and Cells, and System Bioengineering Lab I and II, as well as being course director for Cell and Tissue Engineering and assisting with System Bioengineering II. She has long been a proponent of team work in the classroom.

In her presentation, Haase focused on the Molecules and Cells course, required for BME majors in the sophomore year, which she co-teaches with Harry Goldberg, Assistant Dean at the School of Medicine, Director of Academic Computing and faculty member, Department of Biomedical Engineering. The slides from Haase’s presentation are available here.

In the first class, Haase has the students do a short exercise that demonstrates the value of teamwork. Then the students take the VARK Questionnaire. VARK stands for Visual Aural Read/Write Kinesthetic and is a guide to learning styles. The questionnaire helps students and instructors by suggesting strategies for teaching and learning that align with these different styles. Haase and Goldberg found that 62% of their students were “multimodal” learners who will benefit from having the same material presented in several modes in order to learn it. In Haase’s class, in addition to group work, students work at the blackboard, use clickers, have access to online materials, participate in think-pair-share exercises, and get some content explained in lecture form.

Team work takes place in sections most FridSlide from Eileen Haase's presentation on Team-based Learning showing a scratch card test.ays. At the start of class, students take an individual, 10 question quiz called the iRAT, Individual Readiness Assurance Test, which consists of multiple-choice questions based on pre-class assigned materials. The students then take the test as a group (gRAT). Haase uses IF-AT scratch cards for these quizzes. Both tests count towards the students’ grades.

To provide evidence for the efficacy of team-based learning, Haase and Goldberg retested students from their course five months after the original final exam (99 of the 137 students enrolled in the course were retested). The data showed that students scored significantly better on the final exam on material that had been taught using team-based learning strategies and on the retest, retained significantly more of the TBL taught material. [See Haase’s presentation slides for details.]

Slide from Mike Reese's presentation on Team-based Learning showing four students doing data collection at a Baltimore neighborhood market.Mike Reese, Director of the Center for Educational Resources and instructor in the Department of Sociology, presented on his experiences with team-based learning in courses that included community-based learning in Baltimore City neighborhoods [presentation slides]. His courses are typically small and discussion oriented. Students read papers on urban issues and, in class, discuss these and develop research methodologies for gathering data in the field. Students are divided into teams, and Reese accompanies each team as they go out into neighborhoods to gather data by talking to people on the street and making observations on their surroundings. The students then do group presentations on their field work and write individual papers. Reese says that team work is hard, but students realize that they could not collect and analyze data in such a short time-frame without a group effort.

Reese noted that learning is a social process. We are social beings, and while many students dislike group projects, they will learn and retain more (as Haase and Goldberg demonstrated). This is not automatic. Instructors need to be thoughtful about structuring team work in their courses. The emotional climate created by the teacher is important. Reese shared a list of things to consider when designing a course that will incorporate team-based learning.

  1. Purpose: Why are you doing it? For Reese, teamwork is a skill that students should acquire, but primarily it serves his learning objectives.  If students are going to conduct a mini-research project in a short amount of time, they need multiple people working collectively to help with data collection and analysis.
  2. Group Size: This depends on the context and the course, but experts agree that having three to five students in a group is best to prevent slacking by team members.
  3. Roles: Reese finds that assigning roles works well as students don’t necessarily come into the course with strong project management skills, and projects typically require a division of labor. It was suggested that assigning roles is essential to the concept of true team-based learning as opposed to group work.
  4. Formation: One key to teamwork success is having the instructor assign students to groups rather than allowing them to self-select. [Research supports this. See Fiechtner, S. B., & Davis, E. A. (1985). Why some groups fail: A survey of students’ experiences with learning groups. The Organizational Behavior Teaching Review, 9(4), 75-88.] In Reese’s experience assigning students to groups helps them to build social capital and relationships at the institution beyond their current group of friends.
  5. Diversity: It is important not to isolate at-risk minorities. See: Heller, P. and Hollabaugh, M. (1992). Teaching problem solving through cooperative grouping. American Journal of Physics, 60 (7), 637-644.
  6. Ice Breakers: The use of ice breakers can help establish healthy team relationships. Have students create a team name, for example, to promote an identity within the group.
  7. Contracts: Having a contract for teamwork is a good idea. In the contract, students agree to support each other and commit to doing their share of the work. Students can create contracts themselves, but it is best if the instructor provides structured questions to guide them.
  8. Persistence: Consider the purpose of having groups and how long they will last. Depending on learning goals, teams may work together over an entire semester, or reform after each course module is completed.
  9. Check-ins: It is important to check in with teams on a regular basis, especially if the team is working together over an entire semester, to make sure that the group hasn’t developed problems and become dysfunctional.
  10. Peer Evaluation: Using peer evaluation keeps a check on the students to ensure that everyone is doing a fair share of the work. The instructor can develop a rubric, or have students work together to create one. Evaluation should be on specific tasks. Ratings should be anonymous (to the students, not the instructor) to ensure honest evaluation, and students should also self-evaluate.

In the discussion that followed the presentation, mentoring of teams and peer assessment were key topics. Several faculty with experience working with team-based learning recommended providing support systems in the form of mentors and or coaches who are assigned to the groups. These could be teaching assistants or undergraduate assistants who have previously taken the course. Resources for team-based learning were mentioned. CATME, “which stands for ‘Comprehensive Assessment of Team Member Effectiveness,’ is a free set of tools designed to help instructors manage group work and team assignments more effectively.”

Doodle was suggested as another tool for scheduling collaborative work. Many are familiar with the Doodle poll concept, but there are also free tools such as Connect Calendars and Meet Me that can be used by students.

An Innovative Instructor print article, Making Group Projects Work by Pam Sheff and Leslie Kendrick, Center for Leadership Education,  August 2012, covers many aspects of successful teamwork.

Another resource of interest is a scholarly article by Barbara Oakley and Richard Felder, Turning Student Groups into Effective Teams [Oakley, B., Felder, R.M., Brent, R., Elhajj, I. Journal of student centered learning, 2004]. “This paper is a guide to the effective design and management of team assignments in a college classroom where little class time is available for instruction on teaming skills. Topics discussed include forming teams, helping them become effective, and using peer ratings to adjust team grades for individual performance. A Frequently Asked Questions section offers suggestions for dealing with several problems that commonly arise with student teams, and forms and handouts are provided to assist in team formation and management.

If you are an instructor on the Homewood campus, staff in the Centerfor Educational Resources will be happy to talk with you about team-based learning and your courses.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Sources: Lunch and Learn logo by Reid Sczerba, presentation slides by Eileen Haase and Mike Reese

Tips for Writing Effective Multiple Choice Questions

Writing test questions is a daunting task for many instructors. It can be challenging to come up with questions that correctly assess students on the comprehension of course objectives. Multiple choice questions are no exception; despite being very popular, instructors often struggle to create well-constructed questions.

Piece of notebook paper with Questions at the top, followed by numbers and ABCD for each of the six numbers. Answers are circled in red.Multiple choice questions have several advantages. They lend themselves to covering a broad range of content and assessing a wide variety of learning objectives. They are very useful when testing a student’s lower level knowledge of a topic, such as factual recall and definitions, but if written correctly, they can be used to assess at the higher levels of analysis, evaluation, and critical thinking skills. Multiple choice questions are scored efficiently (even automatically, if an electronic test is used), therefore, they are frequently the evaluation method preferred by instructors of large courses.

There are some disadvantages, including the fact that this type of question can be time-consuming to construct. Multiple choice questions are made up of two parts: the stem, which identifies the question, and the alternative responses which include the correct answer as well as incorrect alternatives, known as distractors. Coming up with plausible distractors for each question can be a difficult task. And, while some higher level thinking skills can be addressed, multiple choice questions cannot measure a student’s ability to organize and express ideas.  Another thing to consider is that student success when answering multiple choice questions can be influenced by factors unrelated to the subject matter, such as reading ability, deductive reasoning, and the use of context clues.

The following guidelines are offered to help streamline the process of creating multiple choice questions as well as minimize the disadvantages of using them.

General guidelines for writing stems:

  1. When possible, prepare the stem as a clearly written question rather than an incomplete statement.

Poor Example: Psychoanalysis is….

Better example: What is the definition of psychoanalysis? 

  1. Eliminate excessive or irrelevant information from the stem.

Poor example: Jane recently started a new job and can finally afford her own car, a Honda Civic, but is surprised at the high cost of gasoline. Gasoline prices are affected by:

Better example: Which of the following are factors that affect the consumer price of gasoline? 

  1. Include words/phrases in the stem that would otherwise be repeated in the alternatives.

Poor example: Which of the following statements are true?
1. Slowing population growth can prevent global warming
2. Halting deforestation can prevent global warming
3.  Increasing beef production on viable land can prevent global warming
4.  Improving energy efficiency can prevent global warming

Better example: Which of the following techniques can be used to prevent global warming?
1. Slowing population growth
2. Halting deforestation
3. Increasing beef production on viable land
4. Improving energy efficiency 

  1. Avoid using negatively stated stems. If you must use them, highlight the negative word so that it is obvious to students.

Poor example: Which of the following is not a mandatory qualification to be the president of the United States?

Better example: Which of the following is NOT a mandatory qualification to be the president of the United States?

General guidelines for writing alternative responses:

  1. Make sure there is only one correct answer.
  1. Create distractors that are plausible to avoid students guessing the correct answer.

Poor example:
Who was the third president of the United States?
1. George Washington
2. Bugs Bunny
3. Thomas Jefferson
4. Daffy Duck

Better example: Who was the third president of the United States?
1. George Washington
2. Benjamin Franklin
3. Thomas Jefferson
4. John Adams 

  1. Make sure alternative responses are grammatically parallel to each other.

Poor example: Which of the following is the best way to build muscle?
1. Sign up to run a marathon
2. Drinking lots of water
3. Exercise classes
4. Eat protein

Better example: Which of the following is the best way to build muscle?
1. Running on a treadmill
2. Drinking lots of water
3. Lifting weights
Eating lots of protein 

  1. When possible, list the alternative responses in a logical order (numerical, alphabetical, etc.)

Poor example: How many ounces are in a gallon?
1. 16
2. 148
3. 4
4. 128

Better example: How many ounces are in a gallon?
1. 4
2. 16
3. 128
4. 148

  1. Avoid using ‘All of the above’ or ‘None of the above’ to prevent students from using partial knowledge to arrive at the correct answer.
  2. Use at least four alternative responses to enhance the reliability of the test.


Brame, C., (2013) Writing good multiple choice test questions. Retrieved December 14, 2016 from

Burton, S. J., Sudweeks, R. R., Merrill, P.F., and Wood, B. (1991). How to Prepare Better Multiple-Choice Test Items: Guidelines for University Faculty. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Testing Services and The Department of Instructional Science.

“Multiple Choice Questions.” The University of Texas at Austin Faculty Innovation Center, 14 Dec. 2016,

Amy Brusini, Blackboard Training Specialist
Center for Educational Resources

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The Dead Grandmother Syndrome and How to Treat It

Gravemarker with angel lying face down in grief, holding a wreath.If you are a woman of a certain age, with grandchildren attending college, please watch out for yourself over the next couple of weeks. Your mortality rate is about to increase dramatically.

This is a well-documented phenomenon, first described in a scholarly journal, the Annals of Improbable Research in the November/December 1999 Special Education Issue with The Dead Grandmother/Exam Syndrome by Mike Adams, Department of Biology at Eastern Connecticut State University. Although Adams’ article reports on the results of serious data collection, you should take the conclusions with a small amount of salt. The Annals of Improbable Research — also known as AIR — is a science humor magazine that publishes “…research that makes people laugh and then think.” But even as you may smile reading Adam’s research on the dead grandmother syndrome, it is likely because you recognize it from personal experience. As the end of the semester approaches and exams and papers are due, students who fall behind may resort to excuses for extensions or make-up dates. Your syllabus makes it clear that you don’t offer exceptions. Enter the death of a beloved grandmother.

While some faculty take a hard line on these excuses [Dear Student: Should Your Granny Die Before The Midterm … Chronicle Vitae, January 29, 2015], others have learned from personal experience that sometimes students’ grandmothers actually do die. Brian Thill writes of the conundrums faculty face in dealing with students excuses in The Time of Dead Grandmothers [Inside Higher Ed, March 14, 2006]. He writes: “As teachers, it seems to me we finally have a choice with respect to student excuses: to become cynics or fools. Cynics disbelieve all excuses. (It’s as if they all dissolve into dead grandmothers.) Fools believe them all. … How rightly to regard a student who is lying to you? No question about teaching is harder to answer because no question is less attractive.”

Karen Eifler, associate professor in the School of Education at the University of Portland, Oregon, offers a practical solution in Dealing with Student Deceptions: What to do with ‘Death in the Family’ Excuses [Faculty Focus, March 12, 2009]. Eifler, while well aware of the dead grandmother syndrome, also recognized that students do have deaths in the family and these events demand a sympathetic and courteous response, even while not wanting to encourage students to practice deception. This was her answer to the problem: “[W]hen a student informs me that a close relative has died, I immediately send a condolence card to the whole family, expressing my sympathy for their loss. If the student has been explicit (“It was my grandmother”), I am too. I can also match their vagueness. If the loss was authentic, the family is touched at the gesture, and I am truly glad to have extended that civility. However, if the story was a fabrication, the student finds he or she has some uncomfortable explaining to do to the family, which usually curbs that behavior.” It only took a couple of semesters before word got around about her practice, and it worked to her advantage to be seen as compassionate. Students quickly realized that it was better to speak with her honestly about their need for an extension as “…they figured anyone willing to call their bluff by sending condolences to the whole family would probably treat them with reasonable due process anyway.”

Ultimately it may be most useful to take a look at the underlying cause of the syndrome and address the stress that students are experiencing.

In his article, ‘Tis the Season of Dead Grandmothers [Chronicle Vitae, November 2, 2016], David Gooblar, lecturer in the Rhetoric department at the University of Iowa, questions  “…the assumption that strict discipline is the same thing as demanding a lot from our students.” He states that it is possible to care about your students without being a pushover. Strict policies with no exceptions may “…signal to students that adherence to the rules is more important than any other learning goal we have for them.” The end result may be detrimental to long-term learning. Gooblar prefers to create a “cohesive and supportive” learning community for his students. For example, he allows his students to come up with policies on device use in the classroom, having learned that students are more likely to adhere to policies when they have had a voice in the decision. He writes: “We should strive to create courses in which students want to do the work on time — because we’ve successfully made the case that doing the work on time will benefit them. We should also look to make students trust us enough that if tragedy does strike — sometimes family members do die, you know — they feel comfortable coming to us and explaining why they need some extra time.”

How do you handle student excuses and/or requests for extensions or makeup exams? Please share your policies and solutions in the comments section.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

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