TBL in my course: An interview with Nicholas Carnes, Sanford School of Public Policy

In 2012, Dr. Nicholas Carnes, Assistant Professor of Public Policy, participated in the Team-Based Learning Course Design Fellows program organized by the Center for Instructional Technology.  Participants in the Fellows worked together on designing their course based on team-based learning (TBL) techniques, exploring effective group formation, peer evaluation strategies, design of readiness assessments and assignments and communication with students.

Dr. Carnes taught his course in Fall 2012 with TBL and the CIT interviewed him about the results.

Dr. Nicholas CarnesWhy did you want to change your course?

I had taught the course once before as a traditional lecture course. My evaluations were good, but I knew the course could be more engaging. Even with all of the standard lecture tricks — cold calling, think-pair-share, one minute essays, etc.– I could tell that my students were spending a lot of the class time disengaged. They were taking notes, but they weren’t really processing the material. So I started looking for a teaching technique that would allow me to use my class time more effectively. TBL fit the bill and then some — it helped me transform our class meetings into experiences that engage and challenge students from start to finish.

What are you doing in their course or courses with TBL?

I’m using TBL in two different versions of the classic Sanford core course, “The Politics of Public Policy” (PubPol 301 at the undergraduate level, PubPol 814 at the Master’s level).

Say I’m teaching a Tuesday/Thursday course. Over the weekend, I’ll assign some fairly challenging readings (and, if they’re really hard, I’ll record a YouTube video explaining them). On Tuesday, we start class with a “Readiness Assessment,” a case study that wasn’t covered in the readings and a series of multiple-choice questions that challenge the students to apply the concepts they learned to new situations. Students complete the Readiness Assessment individually, then without seeing their scores, they complete the Readiness Assessment with the same team of four or five other students. While they’re engaged in lively debates about the readings and the cases, I’m looking at their individual responses online to see what concepts gave students the most trouble. Then I give a “mini-lecture” tailored to the concepts the students found most challenging. By the end of class, my students aren’t bored from taking notes — they’re EXPERTS on the concepts we’ve covered, and they’re ready to take on challenging, real-world style problems.

And that’s what we do on Thursday: “Application Activities” where I give the students the kinds of tasks they would have to do in the real world. Say we cover a theory on Tuesday that says that members of Congress always vote with an eye to what their constituents might think about the issue before them — because potential challengers are always combing their records looking for dirt to bring up in the next election. On Tuesday, I would give the students a Readiness Assessment that would ensure that they understand the theory. Then on Thursday, I would throw them into the theory. I might ask them to decide how to vote on a bill before Congress based on public opinion data from their congressional district. Or I might ask them to be a challenger, to use real-world legislative research tools to comb through a member of Congress’s voting record and dig up dirt.

Students walk away with the best of both worlds: they’re learning the “textbook version” of the theories and models we cover, then they’re seeing how they would actually use that knowledge in the real world.

What went well?

Everything! I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way, of course — I once had to throw out an entire Readiness Assessment when I realized half way through class that the questions were WAY too hard. But Sanford students are smart and adaptable, and they’ve really thrived in this kind of immersive learning environment. Our readiness assessments are essentially case studies that challenge the students to use the course materials to make tough choices. Our application activities put students in the models — they simulate the kinds of work that legislators and lobbyists and advocacy organizations do every day. And TBL builds up nicely to some of the other staples of Sanford training, like the two-page memo, which students write individually after working on similar problems and projects in teams.

The end result has been fantastic. My students are learning more, and we’re all having more fun in class. A lot of times, I’ll see teams high-fiving each other when they get the right answers on their Readiness Assessments. No one ever high-fived anyone back when I lectured.

Of course, my #1 goal in the classroom is to ensure that my students are learning as much as possible. I collect lots of data to make sure that they’re really mastering the material. The Readiness Assessments give me crystal clear measures of whether they’re mastering the material. (They’re a lot better than the measure I used when I lectured, “How many students seem to be paying attention right now?”) For example, the average individual score in my course this Spring was a 2.6 out of 5.0 — on their own, the students mastered about half of the material — and the average team score was a 4.2 out of 5.0. In the short term, students are really learning when they’re working with their teams.

They also seem to be experiencing long-term learning gains, too. To measure that, last Spring I gave a pop midterm: I told my students we would have a midterm review session, then when they came to class, I gave them the exam to see how they would do. Most of them hadn’t studied, but the average score was almost an 80% — the students had internalized four fifths of the course material. That’s what real learning looks like, I think: the students didn’t have to cram or memorize — as one of them said to me afterward, “I just kind of knew the answers.” (And for the record, I gave students who weren’t happy with their scores on the pop midterm the chance to retake the exam on the official test day.)

TBL is different. Are you worried that it’s going to affect your teaching evaluations?

Before I started using TBL, a few of my colleagues were worried that I might get lower teaching evals. But I had the opposite experience: since I started teaching TBL courses, I’ve been getting the best evals of my life. That could be because of other factors, of course, but I think it goes to show that you can use TBL and student won’t just be learning more, they’ll be happy with the experience.

What recommendations would you make to someone attempting TBL at Duke in their own course

The best thing I did was connect with a large group of faculty who use TBL. At least once a month, I connect with other professors who use TBL. I ask questions, get advice, and — most importantly — steal good ideas. TBL is by far the best teaching technique I’ve ever seen, but that’s because a lot of creative thinking goes into planning a TBL course. The faculty who use TBL at Duke are wonderful, engaging, brilliant scholars. I would encourage anyone thinking about using TBL in their course to start by connecting with them.

Resources on team-based learning

CIT Team-Based Learning Course Design Fellowship Wrap Up
Download the PDF report
Team based learning

Contact CIT https://cit.duke.edu/contact/ for more information on team-based learning and faculty fellowships.