Melody Neumann's active-learning app helps students and instructors Team Up!

June 11, 2020 by Chris Sasaki - A&S News

This story was originally published on January 22, 2020 and updated on June 11, 2020: Congratulations to Melody Neumann for being honoured with a 2020 D2L Innovation Award in Teaching and Learning which recognizes post-secondary educators who are at the forefront of innovation.

A class of 1,500 students in U of T’s Convocation Hall presents a number of challenges for instructors.

How do you make lectures engaging and interactive? How do you know students understand a concept and are ready to move on to the next? How do you get students to learn together?

To cope with these challenges, Melody Neumann has developed an active-learning tool called Team Up!

Team Up! — a secure browser-based app that works on a phone, iPad or laptop — lets students work together on problems in class in real time and provides immediate feedback to both instructors and students. 

The software, supported by U of T’s learning management system Quercus, also enables partial marks for partial understanding and unlike classroom response tools such as Top Hat, is free.

Team Up! is not just for Con Hall-size classes but for any class — including online — where interaction between instructor and students is limited.

Neumann is an associate professor, teaching stream, in the Department of Cell & Systems Biology in the Faculty of Arts & Science. Her research focuses on many aspects of undergraduate teaching, including the development of innovative and evidence-based practices.

I really enjoyed Team Up! I found that active learning really helped me understand the material. — Student feedback 

“I love teaching,” Neumann says. “I love empowering students. I've always been interested in using technology to teach, and technology has now advanced to the point where Team Up! is possible. Plus, it’s based on evidence that shows us the best way to teach.”

Megan Frederickson, an associate professor in the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, uses Team Up! in her Adaptation and Biodiversity (BIO120) course, which she teaches in Con Hall to more than 1,700 students.

“Team Up! helps make a big course like BIO120 more interactive,” says Frederickson, “especially because it allows students to answer questions about the lecture material in small groups, in real time. This is a great way to learn new concepts.”

Brian Wilson is a sessional lecturer in the Department of Physics who has used Team Up! in two different courses.

“With Team Up!, I take a standard physics problem and break it down into three to five steps,” says Wilson. “Each of these is its own question, which students keep working on until they get it correct. That means they learn what they need to, before going on to the next step. They work in groups for 10 to 15 minutes while I walk around and help anyone who still needs help.”

Even in a class with hundreds of students, Team Up! lets instructors know how their students are doing.

I enjoyed Team Up! sessions. They made sure I didn't fall behind. Collaborating with classmates always helped reinforce understanding. — Student feedback 

“It helps me understand what aspects of the lecture material are clear and what aspects students are still confused about,” says Frederickson.

“In a large classroom, getting audience feedback about whether something we discussed makes sense is a challenge,” says Wilson. “Any audience response system helps with this, but Team Up! is better because students instantly find out if they’re wrong and have an opportunity for discussion with each other before trying a second time.”

“Also, the default is that they work in teams,” he says. “And the team gets to give only one answer, so they should be trying to convince each other that they are correct. This helps foster active, peer-based learning.”

The app has garnered praise — not just from U of T instructors and students, but from the academic community as well. In 2016, Team Up! won the annual IMS Global Learning Consortium’s Connected Learning Innovation App Challenge. More recently, it placed second in the e-Learning Excellence Awards at the 18th European e-Learning Conference in Copenhagen.

Neumann developed Team Up! with the help of her faculty partners, Michelle French, an associate professor, teaching stream, in the Faculty of Medicine’s Department of Physiology, and Franco Taverna, an associate professor, teaching stream, in the Human Biology Program

The level of engagement during my online course far exceeded my expectations. The tutorials allowed students to engage as teams to answer quiz questions. It was a great learning experience as we solved questions through brainstorming and discussions. — Student feedback 

The collaboration also included U of T’s Academic & Collaborative Technologies (ACT), Online Learning Strategies (OLS) and Information Technology Services (ITS).

In the 2018–2019 academic year, Team Up! was used in 10 courses by some 6,000 students and this year it has been made available across all three U of T campuses.

Neumann is looking to enhance Team Up! by adding functionality and continues to be its loudest cheerleader.

“It's important that these homegrown tools continue to evolve and I’m looking forward to seeing people use it in ways that I never expected.”