Anthropology professor Jan Newberry believes in the importance of collaborative peer teaching and integrating small groups into her introductory class to create team building. Newberry wanted to make the large, lecture-based class less intimidating by facilitating an easy way for students to make connections on campus and gain information from registration to advising. In 2015, she designed Anthropology 1000 around this philosophy. Students in the class, working in permanent teams of six, would take a test, first as individuals and then as a team. Their score would be an average of both, and students could review together in a collaborative peer-teaching method. Newberry describes her usual in-person classroom as loud and raucous as students battle out the correct answer on their group tests. “There is a tremendous energy I quite like.” In 2020 she was faced with the challenge of bringing this philosophy online and wasn’t convinced that it would work.
Makita Mikuliak (BASc ’20) is completing her master’s degree in anthropology with Newberry as her supervisor. Her focus is educational anthropology and the pedagogical side of things. Makita was one of the students in Newberry’s first team-based learning class back in 2015. She then worked with Newberry as a researcher in her upper-division years, researching the effectiveness of the peer-teaching method used in the introductory course. Newberry explains, “I’m committed to this team-based learning approach. The evidence points to this being an effective method.” In fact, together, Makita and Newberry have published research on the class, titled ‘How Fieldwork in a TBL Classroom Shaped Landscapes of Social Learning,’ in the Learning Communities Journal 20: 65-80.
I’m committed to this team-based learning approach. The evidence points to this being an effective method.
Later in 2018, Makita was one of the first students Newberry brought into her class as a designated tutor. “That experience was amazing for me in terms of understanding the pedagogical side of things, what goes into the class. I helped write tests, helped manage the student groups and group tests, all the behind-the-scenes stuff. It actually had an impact on how I was performing in my other classes because suddenly I could think of tests in a different way, in terms of how they were set up,” she says. Makita valued her opportunity to work as a student tutor immensely.
When Newberry was hesitant about continuing her team-based learning method into the new online medium of the pandemic, it was Makita who urged her to continue opening the fantastic experience she’d had to other students. Newberry knew she would need more help to make it possible. Newberry says, “I was terrified about teaching this great big class during a pandemic. I had already become convinced that synchronous teaching was the only way that worked for me, with my values in teaching. But how was I going to do it in a Zoom medium? It was Makita who said, ‘do it, Jan, it was such a big deal for me to be a tutor.’ I didn’t have a research grant on the go, so I approached six students and asked them if they would be interested in being a tutor in this class. I could offer no money, but they did have the opportunity to do this as an applied or independent study. Happily, six people were on board, three as volunteers and three using the experience towards completing independent or applied studies. We had more than 130 students coming in, but we could still do the groups of six, and each tutor would have around four to help manage. I could not have done this if Makita hadn’t been my tutorial wrangler,” Newberry explained.
For this first online class, Makita worked as the TA managing tutors and putting together a review guide. Before each quiz, she and the tutors meet. “We talk through the material, talk through the test, and even write questions for the test. It parallels the team-based learning that happens in the class because we argue over the questions and anthropology ideas, which is the point of learning in a higher-order type of way! The tutors have been awesome, and if we didn’t have these tutors over zoom, it wouldn’t be possible. We just don’t have that many eyes.” The students all gained valuable credit for the opportunity and can say they’ve learned skill-building, leadership and management skills. While this class was more challenging to monitor in an online medium, Newberry conducted an informal poll and found that 85% of her students believed this group-learning was an effective teaching and learning tool. Many would stay late in breakout rooms, helping one another and discussing topics.
Fifth-year anthropology and psychology major Alyssa White was one of the six tutors who worked alongside students. She helped them keep up with class material, including completing readings, holding group tutorial hours every two weeks before tests, and supporting group discussion on review and test days. Alyssa explains, “I had five groups of five to six students who were assigned to me. During application and test days, I would rotate between groups to assist group discussion and provide clarification on student questions. I also acted as my assigned students’ first line of support when it came to questions and clarifications, which included answering emails and providing one-on-one tutoring sessions with students who requested it. I also had additional responsibilities around test-writing; Dr. Newberry gave us the opportunity to draft and help revise test questions during the writing process, which I really enjoyed, so I was more involved in the test writing process from start to finish.” Alyssa had trouble allocating appropriate amounts of time to the project because she enjoyed it so much. But in the end, she’s grateful for the experience. “I’ll take those skills with me into further academic work or the job force,” she says.
What surprised me the most was how many students were actively engaging with the material during lecture. A lot of students seemed to genuinely be interested in the material and asked a lot of questions which was great to see.
Fourth-year anthropology major Julisha Roache was excited by the opportunity to watch students work together as a team and form a bond over time. Julisha says, “What surprised me the most was how many students were actively engaging with the material during lecture. A lot of students seemed to genuinely be interested in the material and asked a lot of questions which was great to see.” She was pleasantly surprised by her enjoyment of the experience as a whole. “My experience really challenged my ability to teach other people. I had never tutored before this, so it really pushed me to not only know the material but to know it well enough to explain it clearly to others.” Julisha has a formal record of her volunteer work stored in the ‘my experience transcript’ portal.
Alyssa agrees that the class was eye-opening, even for the tutors. She says, “Some of the best moments in the class occurred during those small group discussions. Hearing other ideas, points of view and arguments around class concepts is always really interesting. The group discussion aspect is the best part of the class for both the students and everyone else involved. It’s where you get to really unpack class concepts, make connections, and solidify understandings around material; it’s a far more active and engaged process of learning compared to just taking down notes in lecture. It opens up a space for critical reflection around these ideas – which is so important for learning and anthropology in general!” She adds that as a senior anthropology student, test writing and discussing with undergrad students opened up Alyssa to ideas and perspectives she wouldn’t have thought of independently. “It challenges you to engage with the course concepts in an entirely different way than you would as a student in the class,” she adds. “I got to fall in love with anthropology all over again alongside the intro students.”
First-year neuroscience student Cameron Beazer was one of the students in this first online class. “The review sessions put on by each of the tutors before our in-class tests were always extremely helpful, and left me feeling very well prepared,” he says. Cameron was unsure at first of how the class would work out, but in the end he gained a deeper understanding of class concepts and made friends along the way. “It definitely changed my perspective of online learning. As a pretty social person, online classes have, at times, been a bit of a struggle. I always look forward to the opportunity to connect with new people and learn from the lived experiences of each individual, but this has been pretty difficult with the online format brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The team-based, tutor-supported approach that Professor Newberry implemented in her class really changed that though, as I feel that I have been able to really connect with my team over the course of the semester.”
Being on a team provided students with the social interaction typically missing in online learning classes during the pandemic. It was one of the best experiences of my undergraduate degree!
Julisha has nothing negative to say. “My overall experience in this class was amazing. Experiencing Anthropology 1000 again but now in a tutor position reminded me of how far I’ve come and reminded me of why I fell in love with anthropology in the first place. I would also say that the team-based learning approach of this class was very effective. The students were able to engage with the material on a much deeper level. Being on a team provided students with the social interaction typically missing in online learning classes during the pandemic. It was one of the best experiences of my undergraduate degree!”
This innovative adventure in an online environment delivered incredible results, and students and tutors alike are grateful for Newberry’s drive and willingness to make it happen. Cameron says, “This class turned out to be perhaps one of the most fulfilling forms of learning I have experienced this semester. Honestly, I simply cannot praise enough the team-based learning approach Professor Newberry implemented in her class. I felt that I was able to really connect with my fellow team members, which was a huge blessing, especially in a time when connection can be such a struggle.” Makita adds, “With the online class specifically, one weird part is that we don’t see what’s happening in the breakout rooms. It was surprising to hear students say, ‘I’m building connections in these rooms,’ or ‘this is the only class I turn my camera on for,’ that they actually have a chance to talk to people and get excited about that. When I’ve gone into a breakout room, students are super excited to talk to you.”
Alyssa loved the idea of having tutors in introductory classes and believes this is a shining example of remote learning. She says, “I think this type of position is a really great idea, especially in the introductory classes. Having tutors is about supporting student success and increasing accessibility to resources for students. It wasn’t just about providing support on class concepts but also supporting the transition of being a university student in general for many. There are a lot of skills you need to build in your first few years of university, and having someone in a position of peer support for things like note-taking systems, test-taking tips, or any questions you may have is essential.”
This class turned out to be perhaps one of the most fulfilling forms of learning I have experienced this semester. Honestly, I simply cannot praise enough the team-based learning approach Professor Newberry implemented in her class.
Amazingly, despite having a large class online during a pandemic, Newberry found her class retention to be usual, if not better, indicating her method is working for many. “When I teach in the Fall, I can’t quite decide if I will take this approach again. I’ve had students come to me interested in being a tutor already, so there is a good chance. But it will definitely depend on realistic pandemic transitions.” Peer collaboration was happening at all levels. “Between Makita and me, between Makita and the tutors, and between the tutors and the students. It amplified all the benefits of collaborative learning,” explains Newberry. Newberry was pleased to work alongside Makita, who she considers a peer, and with the tutors who were all once in the class themselves, helping students taking the course for the first time and seeing all of them blossom.