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What is team-based learning? 4 ways it can help your group activities

Matteo Rinaldi
October 19, 2020

Without doubt, education is definitely not going back to “normal" for the fall semester 2021. With the spread of COVID variants and vaccine hesitancy, campuses often have no choice but to maintain online elements by offering a mix of offline and online teaching. In other words, “online and hybrid learning will remain important", as stated by Beth McMurtrie, senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education in her latest report “The Future of Teaching: How the classroom is being transformed".

While hybrid classrooms offer instructors and learners great flexibility and accessibility, they can still be challenging when it comes to design and facilitation. One solution to help instructors lighten the cognitive load of hybrid education is team-based learning (TBL).

But what is TBL and what are its main components? How does it work? What are the advantages for students and teachers, and what are the pitfalls to avoid at all costs? This article will touch upon all these matters.

What is team-based learning?

As every instructor knows, merely covering a topic is no guarantor for learning. Students might spend hours reviewing content, listening to lectures and taking quizzes, but the learning process is not as simple. TBL focuses on giving students the possibility to apply their knowledge to solve single or multiple problems. By doing this, TBL aims to facilitate both the conceptual and practical knowledge of the students.

TBL is a way to give students an opportunity to solve something they often complain about: not having the possibility to put theory into practice.

“Team-based Learning is an evidence-based collaborative learning teaching strategy designed around units of instruction, known as “modules,” that are taught in a three-step cycle: preparation, in-class readiness assurance testing, and application-focused exercise”. - The Team-based Learning Collaborative

The TBL “rhythm”

TBL, in fact, is organized in a way that most of the time spent in class (online or physical) is used for team assignments, while some is spent ensuring that students master the course content [1].

In general, a TBL course divides students into permanent groups. Before any class, students have to study an assigned piece of material. Specifically, they will be assessed as individuals and then as a group with immediate feedback to their answers, at the beginning of each new learning unit. The remaining time for the learning unit is spent on group activities that will test students' knowledge of the course content, as well as their ability to apply such knowledge into problem-solving.

This process, which is called the TBL “rhythm", starts with out-of-class preparation, the Readiness Assurance Process (RAP), and is then followed by Application Activities.

Starting with Pre-class preparation, in which students are assigned preparatory materials (textbook chapters, articles, videos, slides, etc.) to review before the start of each module.

Next, students enter the Individual Readiness Assurance Test (iRAT) stage. For this, students need to complete a 15-20 multiple-choice question test which is written at the three foundational levels of the Bloom taxonomy: remember, understand, and apply.

After the iRAt comes the Team Readiness Assurance Test (tRAT) stage, where students complete the same test. Immediate feedback is provided after the team test.

Students then have the opportunity to write evidence-based Appeals if they feel they can make valid arguments for their answer to questions which they got wrong.

The final step is a mini lecture in which the instructor explains or clarifies any problems or misperceptions that arise during the team test and the appeals.

Once the Preparation and RAP stage are completed, the rest of the learning unit is spent on in-class activities that require students to apply the study content for problem solving. In detail, ​​students work in teams to analyze, discuss, and carry out solutions to a presented problem or challenge. The challenging scenario is often structured around the TBL' s 4S framework: Significant problems, Same Problem, Specific Choice, and Simultaneous Report.

For a more comprehensive understanding of the TBL process, check out this Introduction to Team-Based Learning from the Team-Based Learning Collaborative.


4 pillars of team-based learning

All in all, a course using TBL will need to consider four main elements:

  1. Groups: Groups must be properly formed and managed. Here, this means that the instructor must consider three factors:
  • Resources: each group must have adequate resources by being as diverse as possible. Indeed, cultural and gender diversity can provide diverse input on how to solve problems, improving both performance and learning [2][3]. Different perspectives and new ways to solve problems generate not only original solutions but also “learning inside the learning”, where students understand how to deal with different views and how to integrate them into a problem-solving process.
  • Avoiding Coalitions: If two or more students are good friends, in a romantic relationship, or are connected in some other way, they might hinder the equilibrium of the group and the discussion, making the others feeling at a disadvantage. Instructors should take into account these factors when creating groups to avoid tension and the forming of subgroups.
  • Time: Students should stay in the same group for the entire course. Only when students work together for a long time do groups become cohesive enough to evolve into self-managed and truly-effective learning teams [1].
  1. Accountability: Students must be accountable for the quality of their individual and group work. In total, there are three types of accountability that an instructor should take into account when creating a TBL course.
  • Individual pre-class preparation: Put bluntly, when students do not prepare beforehand, the whole team is far less likely to succeed at a task. Just  is no amount of exercise that can overcome a bad diet, there is no amount of discussion and work that can overcome poor preparation. Insufficient pre-class preparation might trigger a sense of resentment from members of the group, as they tend to be rightly annoyed by their peers' attempts at free-riding. Effective solutions to this problem involve clarifying the class requirements, assessing students' preparation (in-class quizzes, informal assessment, or group activity), or including questions within the study materials.    
  • Accountability towards the team: members must contribute to the team as equally as possible. Preparation for teamwork, class attendance, and meeting attendance monitoring, or positive contributions evaluation are effective ways in which students can contribute to teamwork.
  • Accountability for high-quality team performance: Accountability must be assessed. How to do this? One way is to use assignments that require teams to create a product that can be compared with those generated by experts, another is to use specific pedagogical software to keep students accountable for team activities.
  1. Feedback: Receiving immediate feedback is what makes TBL an effective practice, especially because it does not only increase learning and retention [4] but also has a terrific impact on group development [5].
  1. Assignment design: Group assignments must promote both learning and team development. To ensure this, assignments should ensure group interactions, emphasize decision making, and stimulate discussions. These assignments, thus, should not be too long and technical (producing complex documents and outputs often limit both learning and team development [1]). Good assignment design for TBL should be:
  • Nudging students to have a lengthy and meaningful discussion about the product, with no sense of urgency related to the amount of work to do
  • Leading students to focus on content-related issues, not on how to divide the work
  • Making it possible to divide the work equally, without having students to rely on and the expertise of a specific member or part of the team that would have to take over the majority of the project.

The advantages of team-based learning design

So why is TBL such a good strategy for facilitating effective group work?Numerous studies have described how TBL was specifically able to elicit different benefits for students [6] [7] [8]. While TBL was specifically created for Business schools, it has nonetheless been successfully applied to many other domains such as medicine and law [6] [7]. When the previously mentioned 4 pillars are properly setup up, the following benefits are likely to emerge in the learning environment:

Increased engagement: TBL has been repeatedly shown to enhance the level of engagement between students and the course material. It is suggested that small-group assignments significantly enhance individual accountability and collaborative behaviors, leading to students' achievement of their desired performance [6]. Research has shown that when students work in teams and have a problem to solve together, they “pay attention to important considerations and address alternatives with more than just opinion” [8, p. 279]

Many small-group experiences without needing a large number of instructors: TBL allows us to create, in a large-scale course, a plethora of team-based activities. This is possible without having a large number of instructors since students prepare before class and work independently on their projects. The role of the teacher becomes that of a facilitator, or a “guide on the side” [6].

Multiple opportunities for self-assessment and revision: TBL provides several occasions for students to provide feedback and discuss outcomes, suggest modifications to projects, and compare strategies [8]. Such a feedback-encouraging environment fosters students'  cognitive skills such as analysis and evaluation, while also creating a “learning” instead of a “teaching" classroom [1]. A good group dynamic is one that allows students to engage in all these processes, which can be initiated via a well-designed TBL activity. Furthermore, involving technological support like pedagogical tooling can maximize the positive effect of the TBL method, thus counterbalancing students' hesitance towards team-learning [6].

Increased sense of agency: Students learn best when they feel in control [8]. The characteristics of TBL are able to foster these feelings by allowing students to organize themselves independently and create solutions on their own, while developing a sense of accountability towards each other. Indeed, accountability is one of the strongest components of TBL [8]. Tools such as Group Member Evaluation, have been valuable in eliciting this trait in students during team-based learning activities.

Team-based learning: effective practices and tools

How does TBL look in practice? If you are curious for examples, take a look here for an archive of videos, articles, and resources.

And while TBL is a powerful pedagogical approach that allows instructors to achieve a great many benefits for students, there can certainly be challenges in facilitating the different stages of TBL: lack of engagement with the study materials, free-riding, students' heavy workload due to the flipped classroom format. Solving these issues requires instructors to be disciplined, well-organised facilitators with a thorough understanding of how to best use different pedagogical tools. So how can instructors overcome these challenges? Let's take a look at some best practices and tools.

In his epidemiology course for first-year medical students, associate professor Jeroen de Wilde at Leiden University increased student engagement during the Preparation stage to a greater extent by creating a thriving environment for student discussions. Discover how Dr. de Wilde designed and structured his TBL activity in this use case.

One major pitfall of TBL is associated with students' lack of enthusiasm when having to change to a different learning method [6]. This problem; however, can be overcome by a well-crafted course design [6]. FeedbackFruits tool suite, which offers several sorts of pedagogical tools, helps teachers create a watertight course design that optimizes the potential of TBL strategies. Seamlessly integrated into many LMS’s, these tools target all four elements of TBL by allowing for direct, interactive discussion with study materials, peer/ group feedback, and group-task distribution. As a result, students' engagement, learning, and retention can be maximized. For a complete overview of the tools, take a look here.

A new tool customized just for team-based learning

As it happens, our team is about to release a new tool which targets the RAP process of the TBL activity. This tool, co-created with IE Business School, promises to help instructors design and facilitate a smooth iRAT and tRAT process. Are you interested in trying out this new tool? Then stay tuned for our upcoming official release of Team-Based Learning, to be announced on the FeedbackFruits website and newsletter.


References

[1] Michaelsen, L. K., & Sweet, M. (2008). The essential elements of team‐based learning. New directions for teaching and learning, 2008(116), 7-27. Source

[2] Brobeck, F. C., and others. “The Dissemination of Critical, Unshared Information in Decision-Making Groups: The Effects of Pre-Discussion Dissent.” European Journal of Social Psychology, 2002, 32, 35–56. In Michaelsen, L. K., & Sweet, M. (2008)

[3] Chan, C., Burtis, J., and Bereiter, C. “Knowledge Building as a Mediator of Conflict in Conceptual Change.” Cognition and Instruction, 1997, 15(1), 1–40. In Michaelsen, L. K., & Sweet, M. (2008)

[4] Hattie, J., and Timperley, H. “The Power of Feedback.” Review of Educational Research, 2007, 77(1), 81–112. Source

[5] Birmingham, C., and McCord, M. “Group Process Research: Implications for Using Learning Groups.” In L. K. Michaelsen, A. B. Knight, and L. D. Fink (eds.), Team-Based Learning: A Transformative Use of Small Groups in College Teaching. Sterling, Va.: Stylus, 2004. In Michaelsen, L. K., & Sweet, M. (2008)

[6] Hunt, D. P., Haidet, P., Coverdale, J. H., & Richards, B. (2003). The effect of using team learning in an evidence-based medicine course for medical students. Teaching and learning in medicine, 15(2), 131-139. Source

[7] Haidet, P., Morgan, R. O., O'malley, K., Moran, B. J., & Richards, B. F. (2004). A controlled trial of active versus passive learning strategies in a large group setting. Advances in Health Sciences Education, 9(1), 15-27. Source

[8] Barron, B. J., Schwartz, D. L., Vye, N. J., Moore, A., Petrosino, A., Zech, L., & Bransford, J. D. (1998). Doing with understanding: Lessons from research on problem-and project-based learning. Journal of the learning sciences, 7(3-4), 271-311. Source

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