Teams for Restoration Ecology

Dr. Rebecca VidraNicholas School of the Environment, is teaching Restoration Ecology: Theory and Applications during Fall 2012. She has designed this course for undergraduates with the help of a CIT fellowship program which assists faculty and their teaching assistants in teaching using team-based learning (TBL) methods.

Why use Team-based learning?

Dr. Vidra explains:

TBL offered me a framework to design a course that was not just about knowledge transfer but more about active engagement. Ecological restoration is an interdisciplinary field and I knew I would draw students from different backgrounds and levels of experience. I designed this course to be maximally interactive to take advantage of student diversity and TBL was a perfect vehicle for that interaction.

What does this course look like?

Students prepare for class by studying videos, readings and websites made available on the course Sakai site. Instead of lecturing, Dr. Vidra selected material for each major course topic to teach the students basic course content.

In class, students work in teams of 4-5 on problem sets, discuss the readings, and clarify any confusing material. In TBL terminology, students go through a readiness assurance process.  Dr. Vidra provides mini-lectures on issues that students identify as confusing or to provide more depth on course materials.  Students also work on application activities, relevant problems they solve as a team.

Students are involved in a practical project.

The most significant project of the class is to develop a Restoration Plan for Duke Forest. We have worked with staff to identify four small areas in need of restoration and each team has been assigned one area. Working on their plans has been the primary way that these students have learned about the challenges of restoration and we’re working through multiple steps towards a final finished product.

The class participated in “How to Build a Forest” (watch the amazing video 6 mins), an interactive performance-art installation co-hosted by Nicholas School and the Theater Studies Department. This project provided students the opportunity to discuss the ethical implications of restoration.

What went well?

Dr. Vidra shared with us about what she thought went well:
Inviting students to develop the course grading scheme for the class was my favorite part, so far! Teams worked to distribute the points for the course among categories that I chose. Then, each team sent a representative to hash out a final grade structure. It was very fun to watch and resulted in more buy-in (I think) for the students. The Restoration Plan assignment is going very well and although it doesn’t fit within the framework of TBL, I think the team work is resulting in a really rich learning experience.

Just like other faculty who teach using TBL,  Dr. Vidra has struggled to write good multiple choice questions that adequately assess student learning, not just whether or not they did the readings.  As she mentions, restoration ecology is often not black and white and the materials do not lend themselves to multiple choice type of questions. Therefore, she spends a great deal of time researching content and writing questions. She recommends:

If you are going to use TBL in your classroom, do not underestimate this aspect of your teaching. However, the work pays off when your classroom is humming with conversation, not about basketball but about the readings and assignments. I love that we have to close the doors of my classroom so we don’t disturb others – it is a lively, engaging place to be!

Rebecca and other two CIT TBL fellows have put together a proposal for a conference about their new teaching experiences.