By Brian B. Parr, Ph.D.

Viewpoints presented in SMB commentaries reflect opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of ACSM.

Brian B. Parr, Ph.D., is an associate professor of exercise and sports science at the University of South Carolina Aiken in Aiken, SC. He is an ACSM member and certified exercise specialist. Dr. Parr also chairs the ACSM Exercise Sciences Education Interest Group and has presented on teaching topics at ACSM and other professional meetings. 

This commentary, along with two others scheduled to appear in SMB this summer, relates to a special tutorial session on teaching innovations in exercise science that Dr. Parr and two of his ACSM colleagues presented as part of the program at the 2013 SEACSM Annual Meeting.

Think about the last time you took on a new task or assignment at work. Maybe you had to implement a new program or answer a question about a new product from a client. Did someone come to you and give you an organized lecture telling you everything you need to know? Of course not! You almost certainly did what any professional would do: you identified what you needed to know, sought the relevant information, and used that information to complete the program or provide factual information to your client. And more likely than not, you did this by working with others.

Unfortunately, many students emerge from their college experience lacking the skills to ask relevant questions and seek out, interpret and implement appropriate information. This is due largely to the fact that much of the educational process emphasizes what to learn rather than how to learn. Furthermore and partly as a result of this prevailing process, many students don’t get meaningful experience tackling in-depth assignments and problems by working with others. As many employers (and graduate faculty) know and recent graduates quickly learn, these skills are essential for success in our field.

Fortunately, a growing number of faculty members are exploring instructional methods that emphasize critical thinking through self-directed and team-based learning. While lecturing is both familiar and effective for delivering information, this teaching style encourages students to be passive recipients rather than active participants in learning. This is a challenge for students who grew up in an era of standardized testing and a focus on accumulating information, rather than focusing on active learning. It also can be a difficult transition for faculty who are comfortable lecturing, probably because, in large part, that also is how we were taught.

Effective team-based learning (also, see Michaelsen et al.) is more than simply having students work in groups during class. Learning teams are carefully developed and provided with clear goals to promote maximum involvement of all members to meet specific learning objectives. The process can vary, but typically includes some initial preparation in the form of a lecture or reading assignment, assessment of readiness using individual and/or group tests, and application of the concepts through a team assignment or project. Each member of the learning team is responsible for a part of the larger assignment and team members grade each other on their efforts. The instructor is responsible for developing the objectives and assignments, providing feedback on team progress, and assessing individual and team outcomes.

Many lab courses in exercise science programs are taught this way, which is why there is such an appreciation for “learning by doing” among students and faculty. This concept can also be applied to courses that are traditionally lecture-based. One considerable challenge for faculty to become comfortable with giving up control over how and when key information is provided. This can be addressed through careful planning of learning objectives, assignments, and evaluation. Although the transition to team-based teaching can be challenging, developing students who can work with others to direct their own learning is a worthy goal on both an academic and professional level.

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