How to Use Team-Based Learning

Team-based learning (TBL) is a whole-course framework for improving improving student learning through the systematic and intentional use of student teams, who interact regularly in structured learning activities. As outlined in the What is Team-Based Learning? module, TBL-based courses are designed around a sequence of TBL modules, each framed by a Readiness Assurance Process (RAP) and a series of Application Activities (or Exercises). To be successful using TBL, you need to think carefully about each of the course-design elements of this instructional strategy.

The information below is focused on what you need to think about before actually beginning to use TBL in your courses. The following sections (see also the menu at left) take you through the process of developing a TBL-based course and implementing it:

Getting Started with TBL

Determine Meaningful Student Learning Goals for your Course

Before creating TBL modules, determine a series of meaningful and important learning goals for your course and think about how to develop TBL modules and Application Exercises that will help students achieve these goals.

Dee FInk's Creating Significant Learning Experiences (Jossey-Bass, 2013) provides a useful framework for thinking about course learning outcomes using "backward design" principles - starting with student learning goals and then developing assessment and teaching/learning activities that promote those goals. In addition to this book, FInk provides a free 37-page Self Directed Guide for Designing Courses for Significant Learning. In the Guide, he provides a useful series of questions for formulating significant learning goals for courses.

Prepare your Students for Team-Based Learning

For many students,TBL will be a new experience, especially compared to lecture-based courses they have previously taken. In particular, TBL shifts responsibility for learning to the student and his/her team. To minimize student resistance to this learning approach and generate student "buy-in" from the start,

  • explain how TBL is designed to maximize their learning and minimize the chances of a "bad team experience."
  • share with your students that in practice, teams almost always outperform individuals on Readiness Assurance Tests (RATs).
As Sibley and Ostafichuk (2014) note (p. 34): "Many teachers include a mock RAT and Application Exercise on the first day. The mock RAT is sometimes based on the course syllabus, a short handout about TBL, or a short course-related article. Using a course-related article gets students to dive straight into the course material, which really announces that this course is going to be different! Often students are given a short amount of class time to read and review the reading material before taking the mock test. We make it very clear that these orientation activities are not for marks. Just like a regular RAT, students first take the test individually and then retake the same test in their teams."

Understanding the Role of Teams in TBL

Teams are at the heart of team-based learning. Some key features of TBL teams and their role in the learning process are outlined below.

Permanent Teams: Student teams are formed by the instructor at the beginning of the course and remain together throughout the course. This builds community and provides an opportunity to develop the "team cohesion" necessary to solve increasingly complex problems over the course of a semester.

Large, Diverse Teams: TBL experts suggest that teams include 5-7 students with varying strengths and weakness, backgrounds, and characteristics. The large size and diversity of the team are suggested so that teams have the full range of skills needed to address the complex and challenging issues included in Application Exercises.

Forming Effective Teams: Like other elements of TBL, the formation of teams is intentional in nature. See Forming Effective TBL Teams for additional tips on how to form and develop effective teams.

Team Accountability for Learning:Team accountability for learning is emphasized in both the Readiness Assurance process and Application Activities.

  • During the Readiness Assurance Process: After completing an individual Readiness Assurance Test (iRAT), students complete an identical team-based Readiness Assurance Test (tRAT), requiring students to consult with their team members before selecting a team-based answer to each question. Each team member earns the same tRAT score, promoting an incentive for team discussion and consensus.
  • During Application Exercises: Application activities require team members to jointly analyze a meaningful problem and commit to a single team response, which is ultimately shared with the class (and defended by the team). As with the tRAT process, the necessity of making a single, concrete choice promotes team participation in the problem-solving process.

Teamwork Assessment: During the course, team members are asked to assess the contributions of their team-mates in promoting the team's learning performance. Peer assessment promotes high levels of team engagement throughout the course.