Molly Espey

Molly Espey conducted research on team-based learning and its impact on critical thinking skills.

Higher education’s ability to develop students’ critical thinking skills may be under scrutiny by some, but students surveyed by a Clemson University business professor say their problem-solving abilities have been improved through team-based learning methods.

Molly Espey, professor of economics in Clemson’s College of Business, surveyed more than 650 students over the course of six years. Students overwhelmingly perceived that team-based learning was more effective than traditional classroom teaching methods in enhancing a range of critical thinking skills, from developing an argument to applying concepts to real-world situations.

Critical-thinking tests given annually to college freshmen and seniors by the College Learning Assessment Plus, have shown little improvement in students’ abilities to make a cohesive argument or interpret evidence. Significant numbers of students were at or below basic critical thinking skills levels.

“My study measured students’ perceptions of the development of their academic and critical thinking skills with a focus on team-based learning. Team-based learning is a teaching method that encourages student interaction and engagement in contrast to the traditional lecture approach,” Espey said. “Students overwhelmingly believed their critical thinking and problem solving skills were more significantly enhanced in a team-learning environment that encourages problem solving, interaction among students, and group consensus building.”

Espey said team-based learning generally involves groups of five to seven students who work together as a team throughout a semester.

“This approach to teaching requires a student’s brain to be turned on in the classroom. Unlike traditional teaching methods where students take notes and absorb lecture information, team-based learning doesn’t provide students with answers right away,” Espey said. “Students are presented situations and they have to figure out the hows and whys in teams, so they must also explain their thought process and justify their answers to peers.”

Espey said businesses consistently rank a lack of critical thinking skills as one of the biggest problems they see in recent college graduates entering the workforce.

“Critical thinking skills and the ability to solve problems are important in just about any career, and it makes sense,” Espey said. “Anyone who is good at critical thinking is going to be better in their discipline and likely more adept at solving problems for the company and the customer. And, it’s also going to improve their ability to communicate and work out differences with co-workers.”

Espey surveyed students in 18 different classes of five economics courses from introductory through upper division level. Across all sub-groups surveyed – male/female, lowest GPA/highest

GPA, freshmen through seniors – students believed team-based learning enhanced critical thinking skills significantly more than learning in a traditional college class.

So, if the active learning approach is perceived as more effective in fostering critical thinking, why do most college classrooms predominantly employ the traditional lecture approach to teaching?

“Most of us learned through the lecture approach, so it’s a more conventional and comfortable way of teaching for many. And, team-based learning is an adjustment and can be harder to administer and more difficult for students because they aren’t used to learning that way,” she added. “But those who teach and are on the receiving end of team-based learning will tell you students work harder and learn more in the classroom because rather than just taking down information from their professor, they are generating their own understanding, working through problems and finding solutions with others in their team.”

As colleges and universities come under pressure to improve critical thinking skills among graduates, team-based learning is one approach proven to make a difference and is increasingly being adopted across a wide range of disciplines, according to Espey.

“Being able to analyze or interpret information to solve a problem or reach a conclusion is central to everyday life. Team-based learning encourages looking at others’ views and opinions in finding solutions, and benefits students not just academically, but likely in their professional lives as well.”

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