Team-based learning, an interview with Dr. Molly Espey

Although the idea of team-based learning (TBL) originated back in the 70s, many faculty members are now recognizing the educational importance of transforming small groups of students into formal teams. The difference between the two being the commitment of the members to advance the learning process beyond individual capabilities and the opportunity to fully take advantage of the strengths of each member. As recently noted by Lewis, a key component of TBL is the motivational framework in which students increasingly hold each other accountable for coming to class prepared and contributing to discussion. The approach has been implemented in multiple courses and across discipline areas, including economics, veterinarynursing, social sciences and humanities, and chemistry. Students participating in TBL not only earn better grades (than those enrolled in traditional courses) but also make improvements to their critical thinking and communication skills.


Dr. Molly Espey

Dr. Molly Espey has an academic background in Agricultural Economics from UC Davis (BS 1988, MS 1989, PhD 1994). She joined Clemson in 1999 as an Assistant Professor of Applied Economics and Statistics and is now a Professor at the John E. Walker Department of Economics. Her research covers a variety of areas, including Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Public Land Management, Hedonic Valuation, Demand Analysis, and Natural Resource Economics. In her free time, she enjoys traveling, hiking, and outdoor activities. 


Dr. Espey has also published a number of articles related to team-based learning and this interview aims to gather her views on the advantages and limitations of this methodology, when applied in Clemson courses.


What was your motivation to consider TBL in your courses? 
  • I actually went to a workshop here on campus, I think it was in 2001, with Larry Michaelsen, who is the founder of team based learning. He is the one who has written the book and trademarked the term of team based learning. So he and L. Dee Fink, who wrote a book on creating significant learning activities and also worked with Larry with the team based learning stuff, were both here through OTEI when Linda Nielsen was here. At that time I had just moved here and I was looking for ways to improve my teaching and this just blew me away. I thought it was really cool so the next semester I tried to implement bits and pieces. But it was on my way back from a pre-conference workshop on TBL in Chicago, when I realized that I can’t do this bits and pieces… I had to go full bore. So two weeks before the semester started, I just threw it all out and changed the way I taught and went 100% team based learning in my fall classes and then every semester until I had them all done and haven’t stopped using team based learning. So my motivation was just always trying to improve the way I was teaching and went to their workshop and was really impressed by it.  But when I sat through the workshop a second time, that’s really when it hit home.
Can you tell us about the challenges and rewards of using TBL in Economics?
  • Challenges for me were probably just the initial effort to figure it out, because it takes a different way of thinking about teaching. I was never taught in that way. People who have Philosophy or English or something more seminar based in small groups kind of have more of a feel of that question and discussion way of teaching and learning, but as an economist I never had that. I was always being lectured at. So that was the biggest challenge, to turn my mind around on how I was going to teach.
  • Another challenge was buy-in from some of the students, but I do something day one. I put them in teams day one, I give them the syllabus and they take a little quiz over the syllabus by themselves then again with their team (this simulates the readiness assessment test aspect of the class). So from day one they know something about how the class works and that they’re going to be engaging with each other every day in class. I tell them it’s going to be just like this, this size team, the same group all semester. Students who do not feel the structure is a good match have the option to drop out.. and some definitely do. One of the aspects of team-based learning is that the literature recommends that instructors set things up in a way that students will not have assignments that one person could do, or that they can divide and conquer. This requires a lot more thought in design of activities that engage students and forces the team talk about it. And free rider problems can be addressed using peer evaluations.
  • Besides the students, there are also rewards for me because the students are more enthusiastic and I’m more enthusiastic in response. Because they’re engaging with each other in a small group then I’ll call on groups and and so it’s not like calling on somebody in class. Somebody in the group will respond, and even when they’re not right, they see that it’s OK to be wrong in my class, because a big part of the team based learning is being wrong in class so they can learn.
You have published data related to improvements in critical-thinking skills in students. When do you think students become aware of this?
  • It is hard to determine when they recognize these aspects, but both of my classes in which I am currently doing some research (intro in the spring and intermediate in the fall) report similar feelings in terms of the value of working with others. That said, there are some stronger critical thinking gains in the intermediate level class (than in the freshman course), which makes sense simply because the class is more challenging.
  •  In addition to that, there are many other aspects to consider including that students mention things like “it’s a lot funner to come to class” and “I get to talk to other people, and I get to think in class”
  • It is also important to mention that one of the advantages of TBL is that most of the times the students say they put in less work than in other classes, but that is because of the structure of the class. When they’re in class, more of the focus is on learning and application of material rather than lecturing about the material. So students can spend their time (if they come to class and are present and engaged) learning in the classroom and they don’t have to study as much outside of the classroom. Everything in the teams is in the classroom, and there’s just a little bit of preparation.
In one of your papers, you state that spreading the strongest students across teams, creating diverse teams, and encouraging all students to contribute are keys to success in the TBL classroom. 
  • What I do to make teams is to first distribute students in groups based on their GPA, so the groups are somewhat balanced in terms academic abilities of members.
  • Then I try to ensure some diversity within teams including choice of major, where they’re from, class level. And I think students really like it. I think they like engaging with others and they can get more out of being in a group that’s not their choice… providing diversity in terms of majors, ways of thinking, and viewpoints. That is much better than just turning and talking to their friends, where they are less likely to hear a different viewpoint or different thought process.
  • I also think that students in the intermediate course (microeconomics) are really enthusiastic about the approach because they learn about economics and get to meet new people. I’m also finding slightly better gains in terms of critical thinking in this class, an aspect that perhaps can be attributed to the challenges associated with the intermediate course.
Besides the points earned towards the final grade, what other incentives can be considered to improve the level of engagement of students, and the performance of the teams? 
  • One of the aspects that I consider important is the opportunity for all members of the team to have an active discussion every time I ask a question. So regardless of the specific answer, the idea of presenting and defending an idea is important. And again, being wrong is okay and can be beneficial if it improves students’ understanding of how to think about economic problems.
What recommendations do you have for a Clemson faculty that may considering the adoption of TBL? 
  • I think starting with a TBL workshop would be recommended. In addition, faculty could reach out to the Team Based Learning Collaborative or OTEI. I also think there are a number of ways to get immersed in the TBL approach, including an extensive amount of literature, both books and journal articles.


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