Enhancing student engagement and subject knowledge using task-based team learning

by Dr Lovleen Kushwah and Dr Eva Pocher


Enhancing student engagement using collaborative work in a framework of taught topics is nothing new. Team-based learning facilitates conceptual understanding and helps students develop communication skills (Gosser, 2001). It has been incorporated in our teaching practice to overcome a challenge in one of our Undergraduate Economics courses. Course evaluations of our heavily theory focussed course repeatedly indicated that students wanted to get a more detailed insight into different real-life applications of the theories taught in addition to the many real-world examples we were providing and even discussing during lectures.

Gathering oral feedback from students we learned that some students are struggling to relate theoretical knowledge and abstract ideas to real-world occurrences.  Further, our teaching practice was partly didactic in nature having students learn concepts passively as there was only limited time for discussions of real-life examples. We realised that such teaching method contradicts the idea that teachers must spend time helping students to learn ways to implement important concepts rather than learning them passively (Michaelsen,1992). Thus, we decided to modify some of the existent teaching method in a pilot and add team-based learning concepts thereby creating a new teaching strategy, whose effectiveness we would evaluate by collecting student responses.

This new teaching strategy consists of 2 parts: a) the teaching of the theory by the lecturer (teacher-centred teaching approach as by Weimer (2002) and Angelo and Cross (1993)) and b) the team-based learning concept. The team-based learning approach consists of three activities that will lead to an improved learning outcome, the building of learning communities through knowledge sharing and peer feedback, thus making most of an international classroom. It should be noted that we remained passively involved during these activities and clarified students’ questions.

Icebreaker activity

We begin the course with an icebreaker session. It allows students to get acquainted with each other and participate in short discussions about themselves in an academic context. We take on the initiative to form the initial groups to alleviate anxiety (Crose, 2011) and accommodate diversity (Arkoudis, 2006; Jones, 2010).  A week before the first lecture, we inform students about the upcoming group activity and ask them to find out a few things about their country. A teacher-led icebreaking conversation (Collins, 2010) can help with exchange of information (Zwaagstra, 1997), build a community (Eggleston et.al., 2004), support internationalisation (Crose, 2011), and establish focus. Listening to their peers can help students to learn new things as these simple and personalised questions facilitates exchange of knowledge. Typical icebreaker questions could be:

  • ‘What is the name of the monetary institution in your country?’,
  • ‘Explain recent economic trends and events in your country and highlight why these might have occurred?’

Teaching and reinforcing Threshold Concepts (TCs)

Threshold concepts are defined as ideas that help students to open to new ways of thinking (The Economics Network). If students do not understand these concepts, then they may find themselves in a state of liminality or a ‘stuck place’ (Land et.al., 2010), which is unstable, and they might oscillate between old and new understanding (Cousin, 2006).

We taught some of the TCs, e.g., ‘exchange rate’ in the context of International Finance and then used a two-staged formative assessment (Zipp, 2007; Levy et.al,2018) to forge learning. In the first stage, learners tested their understanding of TCs individually using a multiple-choice test. In the second stage, students formed groups and were presented with a practical and complicated exercise that used two or more TCs and was to be solved cooperatively.

Graphic demonstrating the process from left to right
1st box: Teach the threshold concept
arrow showing to
2nd Box: Testing the TC (Individual)  (label underneath sayss: Stage 1) arrow pointing to the right
3rd box Test the TC in a more complicated context (team) label underneath says Stage 2

Re-engaging team activities

After covering all TCs, we used a research-tutored collaborative student-led approach to teach some of the difficult topics and re-invigorate students’ enthusiasm. Since students were involved in the previous icebreaker activity, it was easy to implement a team-based discussion (Kingston & Forland, 2008).

All group discussion questions were provided by us to help peak students’ interest, encourage students to think about economics behind the current systems and help them to relate to the course content. For example, while reviewing theories and academic papers, we ask students to reflect on their personal experience in their own country of origin. Questions may include:

‘Has there been any major crisis (financial, currency or debt) in your country in recent times? Or historically? How were you affected and which policy would you have recommended to overcome this crisis?

Findings and Conclusion

The three activities have been in use for many years in a face-to-face environment, and they proved to be useful even in an online environment using Zoom breakout rooms. From a teacher’s perspective, these activities enhanced students’ engagement and participation. In addition, we spent less time explaining concepts and narrating real-world occurrences. 

Group discussions were particularly popular and well attended. Most of the students engaged actively and collaborated to find solutions. They came across enthusiastic and highlighted that group activities should be incorporated early in the degree program. In the two-stage activity, emphasising the importance of TCs and relating them to the real world was helpful. This activity also gave them an opportunity to discuss and address practical issues while learning. Thus, from a student’s perspective, the team-based activities encouraged communication between peers, provoked peer feedback during discussions, improved the understanding of the taught theories. Additionally, these activities facilitated an improved employability due to increasing the political and economic knowledge of different countries. 

However, our learners identified two limitations to group work. First being loss of anonymity while working in a group and second facing language barrier.

Summarising, team-based learning allows students to integrate and influence their immediate social environment (Gabb, 2006). Deep learning is also achieved as students engage with course material and connect it to the real world (DeLotell, 2010). Further, it can facilitate transfer of knowledge and skills between group members (Pfaff and Huddelston 2003). Overall, the teaching strategy was beneficial for students’ learning and successful in our course and we would recommend it to others.

For collaboration on this research, please contact the authors.


Arkoudis, K. (2006). Teaching international students:Strategies to enhance learning. Unpublished manuscript, Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne, Melbourne,Australia.

Collins, S. (2010). Icebreakers. Training Journal, 73.

Cousin, G. (2006), in Meyer, J.H.F. and Land, R. (eds.), Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge, London and New York: RoutledgeCrose, 2011 https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ946165

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Pfaff, E. and Huddleston, P. (2003). Does it matter if I hate teamwork? What impacts student attitudes toward teamwork. Journal of Marketing Education 25(1), 37-45.

The Economics Network https://www.economicsnetwork.ac.uk/handbook/threshold-concepts/threshold-concepts

Zipp J (2007) Learning by exams: The impact of two-stage cooperative tests. Teaching Sociology 35(1): 62–76

Zwaagstra, L. (1997). Group dytiatnics and initiative activities with outdoor programs. Retrieved December 3, 2009, from http://www.eric.ed.gov/PDFS/ED417056.pdf 

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