What's the buzz about team-based learning?


A student team discusses tradeoffs associated with sustainability in setting local planning priorities during a Theory of the Planning Process class taught TBL-style by Jane Rongerude, assistant professor of community and regional planning. The topic for the week was sustainability. Photo by Amy Vinchattle.

Some college classes are not what they used to be. And that may be a good thing.

A relatively new teaching method, called team-based learning (TBL), is getting the attention of faculty members at Iowa State. Why? Students are reading the assigned materials, they are engaged in classroom discussions and, quite simply, they are actively learning.

What is TBL?

TBL is a type of small-group learning that can be adapted for small or large classes. It provides students with a small-class feel even in a room with 60-plus individuals. The emphasis of TBL is team collaboration, which gives students problem-solving experience, something they likely will encounter in their future careers. A more detailed explanation of TBL is available on the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) website.

How does a TBL classroom work?

Faculty members may tweak TBL classes to meet their specific needs, but most include these four components into their curriculum:

  • Permanent teams
  • Readiness assurance
  • Application activities
  • Anonymous peer evaluation

Monica Lamm, associate professor of chemical and biological engineering, began using TBL during spring semester 2012. Her classes follow the classic TBL structure. Here's how it works.

At the beginning of the semester, Lamm divides students into balanced teams of five to seven, making sure each group comprises individuals with diverse skills. The students remain in their assigned teams the entire semester.

Lamm assigns readings and a problem that students must solve by themselves prior to class. Once in class, Lamm gives the students a readiness-assurance test to assess their knowledge of the assignment. Students then have a chance to ask questions before joining their teams.

During class, Lamm gives the teams one or more challenging problems to solve. The students must work together, using their assigned texts, to come up with solutions. All the while, Lamm is mingling among the teams, listening to their discussions and providing assistance as needed. Once a team comes up with the correct answer, the remaining teams have two minutes to complete the problem. She then conducts a mini lecture to cover the concept in greater detail.

Lamm grades students based on team answers and group participation; students also grade their team members. Students still must take individual tests to ensure they understand the coursework.

TBL impacts student learning

Lamm has witnessed a marked change in her students since implementing TBL.

"There is more engagement from the students. My section sizes have grown from 40 to 80 students recently, and this large group is nearly 100 percent engaged," Lamm said. "I couldn't get that in a lecture format."

Jane Rongerude, assistant professor of community and regional planning, also teaches TBL classes and said her students have become more active learners.

"The students have become more engaged," Rongerude said. "They have the ability to communicate their ideas. They articulate, take risks, engage the material and texts, and use those texts to back up their arguments. The texts and books have more relevance. That's very exciting to me as a teacher."

The difference isn't lost on students.

"TBL makes you much more involved in the class, hands down," said senior Alexander Eppel, a student of Rongerude's. "If you didn't do your readings or homework, your teammates knew that you were slacking. This pushed me to always come prepared to class. This made me a much better student because I wanted to thrive and show my team that I was well prepared for the challenges we would face in class."

Eppel added that hearing different perspectives from his teammates, as well as Rongerude, provided more viewpoints about a topic, deepening his understanding.

How to get started with TBL

CELT is a valuable resource for faculty interested in learning more about TBL. Each semester, CELT offers a weekly team-based learning circle where faculty members and graduate students can learn how to create a TBL class. The learning circles are taught as a TBL, giving instructors the opportunity to participate in a TBL class while they design their own classes. The spring 2014 learning circle schedule begins Thursday, Jan. 30, and continues each Thursday through Feb. 20 (1:10-2:30 p.m., 2030 Morrill). Registration is available online.

After mastering the basics in the learning circles, faculty are invited to join the team-based learning community to hone their skills.  The schedule for the learning community is in the works, but typically meets every other week of the semester. Contact CELT, 4- 5357, for more information. 

Learning community growth keeps pace

Despite a 13 percent leap in the size of the freshman class this fall, Iowa State learning communities are serving the same ratio -- 69 percent -- as they did a year ago. According to data shared last week by the registrar's office, 4,208 freshmen are participating in a learning community this fall, 515 more than a year ago. Total learning community participation, including transfer students and sophomores, is at a record 5,434 students.

Learning communities co-director Doug Gruenewald said he's pleased with the program's growth. Much of it, he said, can be attributed to the larger student body. Some of it is due to growing interest in specific academic programs -- and the learning communities that support them -- such as global resource systems and kinesiology.

"Our learning community coordinators do an incredible job of recruiting students, even though the record enrollment makes their jobs more challenging. Their commitment to our students is amazing," Gruenewald said.

The university is supporting 80 learning communities this fall, including eight offered for the first time. Most are related to an academic discipline, with about 10 percent targeting a multidisciplinary group, for example, first-year Honors program students, Hixson Opportunity Award recipients or international students (also a first-time learning community).

Five years of learning community growth


Freshman class

Freshmen in a LC

All students
in a LC*



2,953 (65%)





2,936 (67%)





3,225 (71%)





3,572 (71%)





3,693 (69%)





4,208 (69%)



*Includes transfer students, sophomores who return to their LC

Managing the growth

"Learning communities are about taking a large campus community and making it small," Gruenewald said. "As our numbers go up, we need to rethink how we do that to make sure it still works."

He said that many learning community coordinators – faculty and professional staff who add this duty to their workday – are supervising more peer mentors, typically sophomore students who "graduated" from the learning community they're assisting. The program employs 497 peer mentors this fall, up nearly 30 percent from just two years ago.

In turn, many peer mentors are leading larger numbers of learning community members, as high as 25-30. Twelve or 15 students per peer mentor is ideal, Gruenewald said.

"We need to continue to provide more peer mentors. That student-to-student contact is a major part of our success," he said. "We're also looking at how we can help our coordinators, who have to manage more peer mentors."

Howard Tyler, who co-coordinates the animal science learning community, takes that message to heart. Last winter, he requested additional learning community funding to hire 38 peer mentors to work with 350-plus freshmen and transfer students this year. A year ago, about 300 students were in the learning community. In spite of the growth, animal science has succeeded at cutting the peer mentor-student ratio in half from five years ago.

"We rely heavily on enrollment projection numbers from our college, so we anticipated this growth," he said. His department provided graduate student time to help with the logistics of coordinating a large group -- for example, finding meeting spaces for 38 groups to meet at 2 p.m. on Tuesdays.

The investment is worth it, he said. A dozen years ago, the one-year student retention rate in his department was under 70 percent; now it hovers around 90 percent. The learning community is a key factor in that growth, he said.

Carol Cordell, academic adviser and co-coordinator of the 249-strong kinesiology freshman learning community, said the group has experienced 25-35 percent growth the last two years as interest in the major escalates. The department hired a fourth academic adviser to serve the additional students, and that adviser also helps with the learning community. Cordell said the team's 12 peer mentors often offer a workshop or activity twice in order to keep group sizes more manageable. The intent is to seek funding for additional peer mentors for next fall, she said.

In spite of the high numbers, Cordell's team tries to schedule one or two activities each week in addition to the one-hour orientation class all kinesiology learning community freshmen take. With the array of career possibilities for kinesiology students, Cordell said career exposure and exploration is a major focus of the learning community, because that, in turn, drives students' course selections.

"As academic advisers, we love the learning community," she said. "We've seen tremendous growth in student numbers and we couldn't do all this ourselves. The university support makes this work so much better."

New rule for flexible spending accounts allows carry-over

The Internal Revenue Service has announced a new provision that allows enrollees in health care flexible spending accounts (FSA) to carry over up to $500 of unused funds into the next plan year. Iowa State's flexible spending plan, administrated by ASIFlex, will implement the new carry-over provision beginning with the current fund year.

Some of the benefits of this change include:

  • Minimal risk of losing unused funds at the end of the plan year
  • No more precise calculations of out-of-pocket expenses
  • No more last-minute purchases to deplete the remaining fund balance

A few things to remember

The carry-over amount will not reduce your election amount. Instead, the carry-over amount will be added to your original election. For example, if you normally set aside $400 each year in your FSA and your 2013 claims total $200, then the amount of available funds for 2014 would be $600.

The carry-over balance will be determined at the end of the plan’s run-out period, which is April 30, 2014, for ISU enrollees. The run-out is the period of time during which you can submit claims from the previous year. The remaining balance, up to $500, will be automatically added to your 2014 plan year balance.

If you have questions about the new carry-over provision or you would like to enroll in an FSA, contact university human resources at 4-4800.

Senate creates new student affairs committee

The creation of a committee on student affairs was unanimously approved at the Nov. 12 Faculty Senate meeting. The advisory committee will provide faculty perspective on student success.

"We discovered that there was no formal Faculty Senate committee that worked with the vice president of student affairs," said senate president Veronica Dark. "Vice president Hill was very, very open to having a Faculty Senate advisory committee."

Campus alert

Dark told senators that she met with top administrators to share her concerns about the lack of information and instructions that were immediately available to faculty following the Nov. 4 police chase that ended on central campus. She asked college caucus groups to share feedback and concerns as part of the review process.

"Warren Madden has assured me -- since he has been tasked with considering the incident from start to finish ... do we need to make any policy changes, do we need to change who has authorization to do what -- he has assured me that the senate will be at the table when we're discussing this."

Loreto Prieto, professor in psychology and director of the U.S. Latino/a studies program, said he would like the review to look at the policy or agreement that allowed the Ames Police to continue its pursuit onto campus.

"Maybe the discussion about whether or not we allow our external police force here in the city to come in [to campus] to engage in a high-speed chase -- whether that in and of itself creates a danger that we might want to consider," Prieto said.

New reporting

David Holger, associate provost for academic programs, said federal legislation related to student financial aid has changed a reporting requirement for students who have failed courses. Instructors now must categorize why students received F grades, including a "best estimate" of a student's last date of attendance.

Holger said a new feature in the Blackboard system provides instructors with interaction data for students and can help estimate attendance. He said AccessPlus does not provide a similar feature.

"I recognize that this will be more work for some people," Holger said. "We just don't have a choice. I was told that Missouri was recently fined $700,000 because they were found in violation of tracking this kind of data. We don't want to end up in that situation."

Other business

The academic affairs council introduced four proposals up for a vote at the December meeting, including:

  • Name change for the sociology department's public service and administration in agriculture program, to agriculture and society
  • New undergraduate minor in food and society, administered by the department of food science and human nutrition
  • New master of engineering in energy systems engineering, an interdisciplinary program intended primarily for distance education students and administered by the department of mechanical engineering
  • Discontinuation of the master in agriculture degree program in the department of agricultural education and studies

Vet Med campus achieves significant energy savings

A significantly larger Veterinary Medicine campus -- following nearly five years of renovation and new construction -- also is a much more energy-friendly one, according to energy consumption data compiled by ISU utility services.

From 2008 to 2012, the facility's total square footage grew by a third, and a third of the original 1976 space was renovated. An on-site chilled water system and steam-generating boilers were replaced with high-efficiency systems now independent of the power plant on central campus. The result has been a nearly 25 percent decrease in the facility's annual energy use (electricity, cooling and heat) and a 38 percent decrease in its energy "intensity" – a measurement of BTUs used per gross square foot.

The fiscal year that concluded June 30 was the first full year of operating the new Vet Med facility with its smart design, state-of-the-art building products and efficient utility systems. Utilities director Jeff Witt said he averaged the complex's energy use from fiscal years 2006, 2007 and 2008 and compared that average to FY13 consumption data.

"Essentially, I drew a box around the complex, including the energy plant, and looked at energy inputs to the facility before renovations began and after all the work was completed," he explained.

Witt said the credit for the savings ought to be spread around, among the architects, engineers, project managers from facilities planning and management and the building users.

The FY13 data is "a good benchmark to watch," he said. Weather and age of the building systems will influence the numbers from year to year.

Additional savings

One small piece of the Vet Med project, following the installation of new chillers and boilers, was to remove a mile of steam pipe serving the college's heating needs from the campus power plant. The pipe, installed underground more than 35 years ago, was in poor condition with leaks and ineffective insulation by the time it was removed. Witt said eliminating that steam line resulted in an additional $600,000 savings last year.

Council hears from Madden on Nov. 4 campus incident

Senior vice president for business and finance Warren Madden visited the Professional and Scientific Council at its Nov. 7 meeting. He recapped the events surrounding the police chase that ended on central campus Nov. 4, and took questions from council members.

"The alert system we've developed on campus is to communicate information about immediate threats and the actions people can take to respond to whatever those threats are," Madden said.

"It was clear there was no other threat coming from this particular event. So as you look at the things people were trying to do and how this proceeded, I think you can look back and -- at least we believe -- people did the right things in the right sequence.

"I think the question is how quickly can we communicate and are there different staffing structures that will let all this happen more effectively -- as with any incident, we are in the process of reviewing all of that and will continue to do that. But you can't get this done without changing our resources and even the technology we have has some limitations with how quickly we can communicate."

Madden said administrators will continue to evaluate the response, processes and procedures for emergencies. He said expanded training and development, such as "table top exercises," are being discussed.

" When you do communicate, you want to communicate information that is factually accurate and you can't always do that in the next 10 seconds," he said.

"At the end of the day, I think the one thing that everyone needs to do is use good judgment. There's no completely right or wrong in most of these cases. There is a range of choices you have, and you need to be thoughtful about it. We hope the campus community will understand that as we move forward."

Other business

  • Lindsey Wanderscheid, chair of the council's awards committee, said there is discussion about developing a P&S award that would honor longtime ISU employee and former council president Dan Woodin, who died Sept. 24.
  • President-elect Amy Tehan reported that leaders of the professional staff councils at Iowa, Iowa State and Northern Iowa met at last month's state Board of Regents meeting and plan to meet again in April.

NCAA meet returns to Ames

Iowa State men's cross country team

Iowa State's cross country course will serve as the site for the 2013 NCAA Midwest Regional Cross Country Championships on Friday, Nov. 15. The men's 10,000-meter race begins at noon, and the women's 6,000 meter race starts at 1:15 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.

Iowa State is one of 11 schools with both teams ranked among the top 25 nationally in the latest coaches poll. The Cyclone women are the three-time defending Midwest Regional champions and rank seventh after capturing their third consecutive Big 12 Conference title. The men's squad (pictured above at the Big 12 meet starting line) jumped to No. 24 after a runner-up finish at the conference championships.

Qualifying teams and individuals from 33 teams in 13 conferences will participate in the regional meet. The top two teams (and top four finishers not on a national qualifying team) advance to the NCAA Championships on Nov. 23 in Terre Haute, Ind. At-large teams and individuals also are selected following the regional meets. Photo courtesy of athletics communications.