Team-Based Learning Enhances Performance in Introductory Biology

By Carmichael, Jeffrey | Journal of College Science Teaching, March-April 2009 | Go to article overview

Team-Based Learning Enhances Performance in Introductory Biology


Carmichael, Jeffrey, Journal of College Science Teaching


Traditional lecture has been the instructional method of choice by faculty at many colleges and universities and is especially common in large introductory science courses. Unfortunately, lecturing alone is not the most effective way to promote learning (Handelsman et al. 2004; Knight and Wood 2005). Many students in introductory courses view science as overwhelming and believe that success in these courses depends on memorization of numerous facts and terms. This problem is often compounded by the fact that instructors in large-enrollment courses are not provided adequate assistance and there is little incentive to implement active learning exercises or other creative teaching approaches.

Fortunately, this past decade has seen an increased awareness of the value of active learning in the college classroom (Caccavo 2001; Lunsford and Herzog 1997; Tessier 2004, 2006, 2007). Some activities used by instructors include concept mapping, prescribed exercises (Freeman et al. 2007), think/pair/share, exam question writing, and others. Most studies indicate that active learning improves student learning and performance (Crouch and Mazur 2001; Ebert-May, Brewer, and Allred 1997; Freeman et al. 2007; Knight and Wood 2005; Tessier 2007; Mazur 1997). Indeed, recommendations by the National Science Foundation and the National Research Council support an increased emphasis on active-learning approaches in higher education (NRC 1997; NSF 1996).

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Personal response systems (PRS, or clickers) and collaborative (team-based) learning have received increased attention recently for their potential role in active learning. Handheld remote clickers can be linked to individual students and are often used to monitor class attendance, enhance student-professor interactions, provide immediate feedback, and record quiz or exam responses. Clickers have been shown to have either a neutral or positive effect on student performance in the classroom (reviewed in Caldwell 2007). Collaborative learning has also been used effectively, especially in smaller class settings. This learning approach takes the emphasis off the lecturer as the provider of knowledge and places it on students as constructors of their own knowledge. Cooperative-learning activities have been shown to enhance thinking, attitude, comprehension, and even social skills of students (reviewed in Lord 2001).

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Given the problems associated with the traditional lecture method, the constraints associated with large classes, and the effectiveness of active learning, continued development and testing of efficient student-centered learning approaches are needed. This study explores the effectiveness of team-based learning (TBL) in a large-enrollment introductory biology class. Two sections of General Biology were taught in the same semester. One section used the traditional lecture and note-taking format, while the other was taught with a major TBL component that incorporated regular use of clickers. Student performance on exams, quizzes, and end-of-semester surveys was recorded in both sections. The results support the use of TBL as an effective, student-centered approach that enhances learning and energizes the learning environment.

Course format

Two sections of General Biology, enrolling approximately 200 students

each, were taught during the fall semester of 2006. Both sections were taught during the morning hours on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Students had no advanced indication of how their course would be structured when they enrolled in the class. Students in the lecture-based section spent each class period listening to the instructor present information and were expected to take notes, learn the material, and be able to apply their knowledge on exams. Supplemental information, such as outlines of lecture notes, practice questions, and exam study guides, were made available throughout the semester. …

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