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Team Based Learning: An Introduction

Written by Robert Philpot

Describe the theory behind team based learning (TBL).
Team based learning is an instructional strategy that aims to facilitate the development of high performance learning teams capable of completing complex and significant learning tasks. Students are strategically organized into permanent learning teams for the term. By its unique design, TBL provides students with both conceptual and procedural challenges. In a typical TBL course, most of the class time is devoted to the application of course content by very cohesive and well- developed teams to solve increasingly complicated problems.

According to Michaelsen, Knight and Fink (2004), there are four essential elements of Team- Based Learning:

1. Learning teams must be properly formed and managed. Teams should be as diverse as possible. This requires the instructor to assign students to teams in a way that distributes intellectual resources and characteristics evenly as well as avoids coalitions and minimizes barriers to cooperation.

2. Students must be held accountable for the quality of their individual and group work. The course should be structured in a way that utilizes tools such as the readiness assurance process to keep students and their teams accountable for the quality of their work.

3. Students must receive frequent and timely feedback. When a team receives immediate feedback indicating that their answer is incorrect, they can back up, review their initial conclusions and make corrections while the concept is still fresh on their minds. In TBL, immediate feedback is critical to the development of teams (Birmingham and McCord, 2004) as well as learning and retention (Bruning, Schraw, and Ronning, 1994; Kulik and Kulik,1988).

4. Group assignments must promote both learning and team development. Assignments should be designed to require a high level of interaction among the team members. These may be a little more difficult that one would expect a single student to be able to solve on his or her own. Michaelsen, Sweet, and Parmelee (2008) have described four keys to creating effective group assignments:

  • Significant- Assignments should require students and teams to work on problems which demonstrate a concept’s usefulness
  • Same Problem- Individuals and teams should be required to work on the same problems or questions at a given time.
  • Specific Choice- Assignments should be structured in a way as to required students and teams to apply course concepts to make specific choices.
  • Simultaneously report- Whenever possible, individuals and teams should report their conclusions simultaneously.

Perhaps the most important element of Team Based Learning is the creation and development of high performance learning teams. Successful use of TBL hinges on the use of instructional strategies that require accountability and challenge the teams in such a way as to build cohesion and foster performance beyond the expectations of the individual learner.

What is the typical format of a TBL style class (IRAT/GRAT/discussion)?
At the beginning of each term students are strategically organized into permanent learning teams. The course is organized into major units and the students study required material before each unit begins. Each unit begins with the readiness assurance process (RAP). The RAP consists of a short readiness assurance test (RAT) on the key ideas from the study assignment. Students complete this individually (iRAT), then come together as a team (gRAT) to discuss and reach consensus on each of the test items. The instructor may use a number of tools to provide immediate feedback to the teams. They are then given the opportunity to write evidence-based appeals if they feel that they can make a valid argument for their answer. By paying attention to the concepts that challenged the students during the individual and team readiness assurance tests the instructor avoids covering material that the students have already mastered and wraps up the readiness assurance process with a brief, tightly focused, mini-lecture.

Teams may also participate in increasingly difficult case studies, or application-oriented activities, to answer questions, solve problems, predict outcomes, and accomplish other higher- order learning tasks.

Discussions often begin at the team level. As the teams begin to master moderately challenging problems and tasks the instructor should facilitate a transition to a full class discussion of more complex ideas.

Finally, the unit ends with the assessment phase. This consists of an examination or team project designed to evaluate their mastery of the material that they have been studying and practicing. After this, the students are ready to move on to the next unit.

What challenges accompany this learning style?
Many of the challenges that face the TBL instructor, as well as the learner, stem from the shift in emphasis on how classroom time is to be used. For the student, there is an increased emphasis on preparation and accountability. Classroom time is no longer used for passive listening to a lecturer. Rather, it is used for critical thinking, active problem-solving and discussion of key concepts. Along with the challenges of mastering new concepts and ideas, the student must learn to effectively work with other members of a learning team.

For the instructor, the role changes from being a source of knowledge to becoming a senior partner in a journey of discovery. A greater amount of time is spent in preparation for class and, once the class has started, the instructor must be comfortable with student inquiry and challenge. This format requires the instructor to depart from a well- rehearsed script and deliver ad-hoc mini lectures when the “teachable moment” presents itself.

As with any type of group learning, there are students that become anxious or dissatisfied with the idea that other team members may not contribute “their fair share.” Instructors may also be concerned that the group process will encourage social loafing. Similarly, students and instructors often worry that more assertive students may “hijack” the team process in order to push their own agenda. Many of these concerns may be addressed through the use of a comprehensive feedback and evaluation system aimed at student as well as team performance. Such a system ensures student accountability to both instructor and peers through the use of carefully planned peer evaluations (Michaelsen, Knight and Fink 2004.)

Discuss the pros and cons of this class format.
It is not unusual for instructors and students alike to feel both exhilaration and frustration with the shift to this class format. If the new learning strategy is not properly introduced to the students, they may voice dissatisfaction or even push back in even the best planned courses. Many experienced TBL instructors advise starting with a discussion about the learning style followed by a few practice or low-stakes exercises. By giving the class the opportunity to set some of the rules and grading policies (within parameters, of course) one may create a sense of ownership and foster cooperation. This can also be an excellent way to begin building cohesive and efficient learning teams.

Once the students become comfortable with the process, the classroom becomes a bed of “controlled chaos” where students enthusiastically share their ideas and opinions with each other, Instructors comfortable with rows of students quietly sitting in neat rows attentively taking notes and anticipating the next morsel of knowledge to flow from the front of the room may find this learning strategy a bit disconcerting. But the results speak for themselves. Once students develop these high-performing learning teams they are able to tackle problems of much greater complexity and difficulty than they ever could alone

The layout of the classroom also becomes important to the process. The best classrooms allow teams to circle around small tables in a way that each team member can easily communicate with their team mates. For this reason, tiered or amphitheatre style classroom are not well suited to Team Based Learning. Instructors must have the ability to easily wander around the classroom to observe and facilitate the teaming process.

What are some additional resources about TBL?
Much has been written on the use of Team Based Learning. The primer for many TBL instructors remains “Team-Based Learning; A Transformative Use of Small Groups In College Teaching” by Michaelsen, Knight and Fink (2004.) This is a slightly updated version of the original 2002 book. Many find this a practical, easy-to-use text for instructors contemplating their first foray into TBL.

“Team-Based Learning: Small Group Learning’s Next Big Step” (Michaelsen, Sweet, and Parmelee, 2008) is a more concise and recent text compiled by a number of experts in the field. Written with an emphasis on clearing up common misperceptions and sharing best practices, this text can be a valuable resource for the instructor who desires to “get off on the right foot” and avoid some of the common mistakes made by others attempting this powerful strategy.

Finally, I strongly recommend that the TBL instructor join the Team Based Learning Collaborative. Through the website at http://teambasedlearning.apsc.ub the collaborative provides the instructor with a venue to network with other TBL instructors as well as access to a case bank, faculty consultants, seminars and conferences.

What tips do you have for students who are studying for a TBL style course?
Prepare for class. When a student shows up for class unprepared he or she lets down their team. Read and review assigned materials and, if time permits, do a little extra research on concepts and ideas that will make you a valuable asset to our team. Get to know your teammates and try to understand their strengths and weaknesses. Everyone has something to offer. It is also important to seek feedback from your team members on your performance and how well you are contributing to the team. When your team succeeds, you succeed.

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

Bruning, R.H., Schraw, G.J., and Ronning, R.R. Cognitive Psychology and Instruction. (2nd ed.) Upper Saddle River N.J. : Prentice Hall, 1994.

Kulik, J.A., and Kulik, C.C. “Timing of Feedback and Verbal Learning.” Review of Educational Research, 1988, 58(1), 79-97

Michaelsen, L.K., Knight A.B., and Fink, L.D. Team Based Learning; A Transformative Use of Small Groups in College Teaching. Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2004

Michaelsen, L.K., Sweet, M., and Parmelee, D.X. (eds.) Team Based Learning: Small Group Learning’s Next Big Step.” New Directions in Teaching and Learning, 2008, 116, 1-95