Using Team-Based Learning in German Courses

I thank my teaching assistant, Seth Berk, for his help in successfully implementing this new pedagogy in my first TBL course and editing this paper for style and naïve fluency.

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My institution, a public R-1 flagship, periodically conducts surveys of its recent alumni in order to learn about where we do a great job and where we need to improve, specifically in terms of how well we prepare our students for life after college. On the plus side, our former students usually mention the fact that they were trained for a global world, to speak languages, to write well, and to think critically; they were exposed to other cultures, values, and ideas, and they returned from their study abroad experience as more mature human beings. The one thing, however, that they all missed in their education – looking back at their student days after a decade or so in the real world – was that they did not learn how to function in teams. While they all appreci-ated the opportunity to improve their writing and critical thinking skills, to acquire knowledge of history and various cultures, and to receive basic training in the sciences, they felt that the intensive experience of studying for their exams, taking notes in lecture classes, and discussing ideas with their teachers and fellow students in seminars did not adequately prepare them for performing an essential skill needed in many job environments: the ability to work in teams.

A few years ago I started experimenting with student teams on my own without any prior theoretical pedagogical background, because I wanted to address this need for team learning, yet I initially struggled with several issues: Firstly, I did not know how to form the teams. The result was either teams comprised solely of people who were already friends or, on the other end of the spectrum, teams of complete strangers that did not complement each other in terms of skills they brought to the table. Secondly, I did not know how to grade individual contributions to team assignments, as most of the projects were completed outside of class. When I came across the pedagogy of Team-Based Learning, I intuitively knew that I wanted to try this out in my next German Studies course (i.e., a course that is taught in English and that includes students from German, as well as students from other majors). I joined a series of webinar training sessions to prepare for this new teaching style; [1] I also did some background reading into the philosophy behind TBL.[2] I have since taught two larger German Studies courses conducted in English and one class in our German major that utilized the TBL format, and I plan to teach a revised version of one of my German Studies courses again next year. I believe, however, that this pedagogy is adaptable to a large variety of teaching formats and is not limited to those German Studies courses with larger class sizes and taught in English, or to the core courses in the German major; even introductory German language courses that take a task-based approach would profit tremendously from the emphasis on creativity, team learning, and presentation skills that the TBL pedagogy represents.

What attracted me right away to TBL is its modularized approach to the course material. For a ten-week German Studies course on “Literature, Culture, and the Environment,” which met three times a week for fifty minutes, I chose five topics: mountains, polar environments, plants and animals, tropical environments, and postcolonial settings. In a modularized approach, instructors can test what works best for them and their students and what does not, and they can then switch out individual modules or change them around, if the material becomes tiresome or requires more coherency. For instance, for future articulations of the same course, I plan to develop additional modules on food, waste, impacted landscapes, climate change, pollution, etc. Each of these modules then follows the same instructional activity sequencing:

readings are done outside of class before the modules begin

a test on the readings as part of the Readiness Assurance process on the first day of the module (RAT) – half a class period

instructor-led discussion of topic (analysis) – one and half class periods

team discussion of topic – one class period (this can be handled flexibly, some classes need more instructor-led analysis than others)

project-based team-work (application) – two class periods

project presentations (showtime) – one class period

SPRICH: Student Provided enRICHment: Building a language community

(1) Carnegie Mellon University        (2) Michigan State University


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One major issue in higher education today is the struggle to develop new language learning opportunities while continuing to provide superior language instruction in the face of current fiscal hardships. A March 2013 report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities showed that, “States are spending $2,353 or 28 percent less per student on higher education, nationwide, in the current 2013 fiscal year than they did in 2008, when the recession hit” (Oliff et al.). These spending cuts have been especially detrimental to funding for higher education language teaching, which often takes a back seat to more profitable departments, such as the sciences (Skorton and Altschuler; Zehr).

With the almost certain knowledge that no additional funding will be provided to develop new opportunities and programs for students learning foreign languages, we, as language educators, must become more creative in our use of available resources. This paper outlines one way in which we can live by the well-known adage we, as educators at all levels, have come to know all too well, “Do more with less.”

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Designing and Running a Short-Term Study Abroad Program in Germany: Guidance for New Program Directors

Wernigerode Summer 2011
Image by P. Ecke

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This article is written for teachers and administrators at institutions of higher education who would like to create and run a short-term study abroad program for their students. It discusses practical issues that need to be addressed when designing, planning, and maintaining a program by illustrating part of the decision making process that was involved in the development of a summer study program in Germany offered by the author’s department at a large public university in the southwestern US.

North American Students and Short-Term Study Abroad

Only a small percentage of college students in the USA and Canada gain study abroad (SA) experience. Just over a percent of US American students at any academic level study abroad during a given academic year (IIE). Less than three percent of Canadian students study abroad at some point during their degree program (Bond). About 14% of US students who pursue a bachelor’s degree study abroad at some point during their undergraduate program (IIE). Unlike the Canadian figures, however, the latter percentage includes students who participate in short-term SA programs of eight weeks or less, the largest and fastest growing program type in the US. Over 56% of students who study abroad do so in short-term SA programs (IIE).

In spite of the low rate of students who manage to pursue a part of their studies in another country, SA appears to be valued by teachers, administrators as well as the general public. Ninety percent of Canadians believe that SA is valuable and should be made available to a larger part of the student population (Bond). SA can be an eye-opening experience with a profound transformative effect on students’ lives and careers. For students of foreign languages, SA represents a means to potentially improve language proficiency and intercultural competence. Successful SA early in a student’s degree program may result in the students’ selection of a (second) language/culture major, participation in a longer SA program and/or choice of a career that requires a substantial amount of language and intercultural competence (Ingram).

In this article I would like to share our experiences in developing and maintaining a short-term SA program with educators and administrators who plan to build their own program. I will point to organizational issues that need to be addressed and provide examples of decisions that we have taken over the last ten years developing our summer program. The decisions that we have taken may or may not be the best option for other programs, but they should provide the reader with a good idea of what organizational issues they will have to resolve.

Program Participants

Creating and running a short-term SA program is a rewarding, but challenging and time consuming task that requires year-round planning and organization. The program planning process will normally start with determining the type of student participants for whom the program will be designed. That is, what kinds of students are expected to enroll in the program? For example, are they students in different degree programs or are they exclusively majors and minors in the target language and culture? Important aspects that need to be considered are minimum requirements for students who apply for the program. These may include a language proficiency level or minimal amount of prior language study, a minimal age requirement, and academic performance requirements. Program organizers will also have to decide whether their participants will come solely from the home institution or whether students from peer institutions will be eligible to apply as well.

Students of any field of study are eligible to apply for acceptance into our program. However, there is a minimum language requirement of two semesters of college German or equivalent. This limits the pool of applicants, but has the advantage that participants will already be minimally functional in the target environment compared to total beginners.  Our program also has a motivational function for students in the basic language program and for majors and minors of German. Going to Germany in one of the next summers can be a long-term goal that some students will be preparing for in their German language and culture courses on campus. While enforcing a minimal language requirement, we encourage students to participate in SA early during their degree programs (see also Chieffo and Zipser). In their first and second year of study, students’ career paths are still quite open and flexible, and an early successful SA experience might result in the selection of and commitment to a language major or minor or an academic year abroad (King and Young). Academic standing (reflected in GPA and a one-page recommendation form to be filled in by an instructor) are additional application requirements. Enrollment has been kept to a maximum of thirty students. More than that would make it difficult to organize student housing, classrooms, and excursions (including accommodation, guided city tours etc.). While the program welcomes and accepts applications from students of other colleges, the large majority of participating students has been from our university.