Professor Pietro SpanuAt the start of each academic year Professor Pietro Spanu faces a major challenge: he must teach applied molecular biology to a group of second year students. He wants to teach them in a way that is interactive and meaningful but there are 140 of them and only one of him. 

“I have a four-week block and it’s a challenge to fit it all in,” says Professor Spanu. It is also a challenge to cope with the additional work of marking and grading such a large group of students: “The admin involved with grades can be laborious yet it’s extremely important to students - they are naturally keen that we get it right.”

An approach for dealing with both issues came to Professor Spanu four years ago when he attended a workshop on team-based learning organised by Imperial’s Educational Development Unit. 

In team-based learning, students come to lessons having studied materials in advance. When they arrive, they begin by being assessed with a multiple choice test. “The questions I set are very challenging and there is only one correct answer to each question. They’re based on current research papers which the students need to be able to interpret and analyse,” Professor Spanu says. 

Student comment

“The immediate feedback session and discussion with peers help me to realise my mistake immediately. It increases my confidence to explain my logic to peers.”

After the test, students join together in groups and are asked to work on the same set of questions. For each question they answer correctly, they score 100 per cent. For any that they get wrong, they are given a second chance.

Traditionally in team-based learning, these tests are done using scratch cards. But Professor Spanu has worked with Moira Sarsfield, a Senior Learning Technologist at Imperial, to replace scratch cards with software. Professor Spanu explains: “Unlike a traditional test, where papers are taken away and marked, students get immediate feedback. If they got it wrong, they can reflect on why.” If students get the right answer on their second attempt, they can still score 50 per cent.

In the next stage, the same groups get a new set of questions. But this time they are asked to present and discuss their answers without knowing if they are right or wrong.

“Instead of arguing with me for a better grade, this process means students argue with each other for the right answer. In a big group it also keeps more people involved so they stay focused and don’t get bored.”

Professor Spanu leads at TBL sessionA final but important element is peer assessment – students must grade the other members of their group anonymously and fairly, and they are not allowed to simply give the same mark to everyone.

“Students don’t like assessing other students and they don’t like being assessed by other students. The first year we tried this there were objections, so now I take some time to explain why we do it – peer review is a reality, especially in science but in other professions too. 

Now, Professor Spanu has been using team-based learning with these large classes for three years with positive results. “Because answers are collected digitally and feedback is immediate, I can forget about counting the grades and concentrate on interacting with students in real time. And because they’re working in groups with peers who will also be assessing them, they must verbalise.”

Finally, Professor Spanu adds: “To begin with, the class is really like an exam, but when the group work starts it’s like a riot - it’s noisy and students can overhear what other groups are saying. It changes the dynamic completely.”

For more information about the team-based learning at Imperial, visit the Educational Development Unit website.