1. Nichols, Mary R. PhD, RN, APRN, FNP-BC
  2. Malone, Audra DNP, RN, APRN, FNP-BC
  3. Esden, Jana DNP, RN, APRN, FNP-BC

Article Content

Learning teams were developed to promote active learning among students in distance education. This is a teaching-learning strategy that was adapted from collaborative and team-based learning concepts. In an online environment, promoting active learning is a challenge as students, often in large class sizes, work independently rather than meeting regularly in a traditional classroom. Collaborative learning enhances motivation to learn, knowledge retention, and understanding of content in a variety of classroom settings.1-4 Learning teams were implemented to promote active learning, increase student engagement and collaboration, and efficiently manage large class sizes. The purpose of this column is to describe the use of learning teams as a teaching-learning strategy in distance education graduate nursing courses.


Learning Team Instructional Method

The learning team instructional method described here included 3 steps: preterm learning team formation, mastery of course objectives as learning teams, and evaluation of the experience.4 Course announcements were posted prior to the beginning of the term to describe the concepts and advantages of collaborative learning, with ways the courses would use learning teams to enhance learning and maximize connection to peers. Course requirements included the following: all course assignments would be completed by learning teams, learning teams would consist of 3 students, and requests for specific learning team partners could be made in advance of the new term. If students did not request learning team partners, faculty assigned students to a team.


At the start of the term, all students reviewed the course learning team policy that outlined faculty expectations and student responsibilities. Faculty expectations included that each learning team partner would participate fully in course work through group discussions about course content and by equal contribution to completing assignments. Student responsibilities included planning for course due dates, synthesizing course content through required reading and written assignments, and exchanging constructive feedback with learning team partners. A written collaboration statement on each submitted assignment indicated that all students contributed equally to and agreed with the final submitted assignment.


At the end of each course, students were invited to evaluate their learning team experience. Students were asked to write a reflection about advantages and disadvantages of participating in learning teams to complete course assignments. Student reflections provided narrative data that were used to evaluate learning teams as a teaching-learning strategy. In addition to written student reflections, 5 faculty were interviewed to provide their perceptions of advantages and disadvantages of teaching in courses using learning teams. Faculty narrative data were also used to evaluate the teaching-learning strategy.


Institutional review board approval was provided by the university to use the anonymous written student reflections and obtain verbal narratives from faculty. Analysis of course reflections included data from 2 courses in 1 term as this was believed to be a representative sample of responses. Narrative data from the reflections were analyzed into themes by 2 nurse researchers using content analysis. The students were asked to reflect and respond in writing to open-ended questions about the advantages and disadvantages of being on a learning team. Faculty responded verbally to questions about the advantages and disadvantages of learning teams in their courses.



The majority of the responses (80%) from 174 students indicated that students found their learning team experiences to be advantageous, and about 20% of the responses listed disadvantages. Student-identified advantages included improved critical thinking, peer support, and constructive criticism. Student-identified disadvantages included time required, group grades, constructive criticism, and variations in writing skills. Because of the small number of faculty respondents (n = 5), narratives were coded into broad themes categorized as an advantage or a disadvantage. Faculty-identified advantages of learning teams included improved social and teaching presence, peer interaction and deeper student learning, and efficient class management. Faculty perceived some disadvantages that included physical/geographical issues, dependence on technology, and variation in student performance within learning teams. Another disadvantage mentioned by faculty was the time and attention devoted to possible group conflicts. Faculty occasionally needed to intervene if students had difficulties working with their assigned learning team partners (eg, inaccessibility, responsiveness, workload, communication, and personal issues).



The use of learning teams to teach graduate level theory and research courses was successful. The craft of teaching was enhanced for both educators and students in an active rather than a passive teaching and learning environment.5-8 The learning teams strategy facilitated active learning within small groups in which students interacted and worked on course content together as a team. Students took responsibility for learning, and faculty facilitated learning as opposed to teaching specific content.9 Data from the students and faculty indicated that learning teams were an effective teaching-learning strategy that fostered critical thinking as well as interpersonal and interprofessional relationships.5,9


Students identified more advantages than disadvantages of being on a learning team. Data from students also provided additional evidence that the active learning, student-centered instructional design was positive for learning the skills needed for successful group interaction, a skill set that is necessary for professional development.7,8 Data from faculty provided additional evidence that teaching using learning teams was more efficient, led to greater satisfaction with their own teaching, and enhanced faculty social presence in the distance education environment.


To address the student-perceived disadvantages, faculty developed a learning team toolbox as a resource to explain how to effectively participate in and manage a learning team. The toolbox included tips on working in groups and resources for communication. Subsequently, individual graded assignments were also integrated into the course so that student grades were not completely dependent on the group performance. Peer evaluation of group members was also planned to encourage individual accountability. A learning team discussion forum was added to the courses for students and faculty to discuss issues and solutions.



Using learning teams continues to be successful in our distance education courses. The data showed that using the learning team strategy in research and theory courses was advantageous for both students and faculty. The evaluation supported previous evidence of benefits of collaborative learning in the classroom setting, which included opportunities for critical thinking and problem solving, enhanced levels of engagement, and optimal quality of assignments.10 The use of learning teams and other forms of collaborative learning is important to stakeholders as research has found improved health care outcomes when nursing students master teamwork, interpersonal communication, and critical-thinking skills.5,9 The intended long-term goal is preparation of students as lifelong learners who will effectively function as professional leaders who are able to collaborate and think critically, problem solve, reason abstractly, and develop creative ideas. Learning teams as an instructional method are appropriate for use in other nursing courses, both prelicensure and graduate, and are recommended to enhance learning and student and faculty satisfaction with student-centered education.




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