Why Use Team-Based Learning?

Teachers in a variety of undergraduate and professional health sciences disciplines have adopted the TBL approach, demonstrating increased student learning and engagement, especially for students from underrepresented groups, including minorities, women, and first-generation college students.

Haidet, et al. (2014) and Burgess et al. (2014) summarize the results of numerous published studies of TBL effectiveness. Early research on TBL in economics suggests that similar gains in student learning (Hettler, 2015) and engagement (Imazeki, 2015) are likely in economics.

Dee Fink divides "small group learning" by their impact on student learning:

  • casual use
  • cooperative learning
  • team-based learning (TBL)

Fink argues that each of the three small group learning methods produces higher quality learning than traditional lecture-based teaching, but that TBL produces the highest impact learning. It is both the instructional strategy and team development aspects of TBL that set it apart from cooperative learning, according to Fink.

  • Instructional Strategy: The systematic, structured and repeated sequencing of learning activities in TBL encourages students to move beyond a basic understanding of concepts to the higher-order application of those concepts.
  • Team Development: The TBL strategy fosters the development of high-performing teams by having permanent teams of students work together repeatedly over the course of a semester on challenging tasks with a common goal, and providing frequent feedback on both individual and group performance, as well as peer assessment.

Fink argues that these differences, while seemingly small, make a significant difference in the learning that takes place in TBL classrooms. It is the development of teams, not just groups, that is key to this learning process, according to Fink. The built-in, self-reinforcing forces inherent in the TBL instructional strategy promote strong team cohesion that in turn generates high impact learning.

Cooperative learning activities typically use smaller, non-permanent groups (4 or fewer students), with students assigned particular roles (reporter, note-taker, etc.), and often do not provide explicit, prompt feedback on individual and group performance.
L. Dee Fink, Chapter 1: Beyond Small Groups - Harnessing the Extraordinary Power of Learning Teams. In Michaelsen, Knight, and Fink's Team Based Learning: A Transformative Use of Small Groups in College Teaching (2004, Stylus).

TBL Actively Engages Students in the Learning Process

TBL is designed to get students actively engaged in the learning process by ensuring that the majority of face to face course time is spent on Application Exercises, where teams of students work together on significant, challenging problems toward a common goal. Application Exercises require students to actively engage with other team members to determine specific responses and develop well-reasoned arguments for those responses. Any member of the team may be called upon to provide the reasoning behind the team's choice for the Application Exercise.

TBL is an Instructional Strategy, not a Teaching Technique

Unlike many other teaching techniques, TBL is a highly structured, whole-course learning framework that incorporates a sequence of carefully designed readiness assurance and application activity cycles carried out by intentionally-selected permanent teams, coupled with summative peer evaluation. The power of TBL comes from the integrated nature of the strategy – it is more than a collection of techniques or activities.

TBL Promotes the Development of High Performing Teams

Teams are at the heart of TBL.

  • TBL teams are carefully selected by the instructor to take advantage of a diversity of backgrounds, thinking processes, and ideas.
  • TBL teams stay together for the entire course, allowing teams to build confidence in their problem-solving skills and build personal trust in each other.
  • TBL team cohesion is enhanced by providing teams with significant, challenging problems that require all students in the group to apply course principles and concepts in new ways. Often, TBL Application Exercises do not have a clear "right answer," encouraging the participation of all members of the team in the problem-solving process.

TBL Promotes Individual and Team Accountability for Learning

Through the iRAT, individual students are held accountable for their pre-class learning, which is further reinforced through students' accountability to other members of their team via the tRAT and Application Exercises. Additional accountability is built in through both formative and summative peer evaluations that ask students to assess their teammates' contribution to the team's performance in the class.

TBL Promotes Higher-Order Thinking Skills

TBL scaffolds the learning process by first taking students through a "readiness assurance process" for each topic (or module) in the course, ensuring readiness for more complex applications of course concepts. For each topic (module), the readiness assurance process is immediately followed by a series of "application activities" that require student teams to apply course concepts to challenging, authentic problems that often lend themselves to multiple perspectives, depending on assumptions, data, and theories that are employed. The active thinking structure of Application Exercises provides gives students repeated practice with higher-order thinking skills such as application, analysis, and evaluation.

TBL is Well-Suited for Improving Student Learning in Economics

TBL is well-suited to economic instruction at the college level.

  • The intrinsic interest of predicting changes in real-world behavior, analyzing current economic events, and recommending economic policy make it possible to create highly engaging Application Exercises.
  • TBL's highly structured approach addresses common challenges faced in economics courses: lack of pre-class preparation, weak analytical and problem-solving skills, and under-developed communication and teamwork skills of students.
  • The "readiness assurance" quizzes (iRATs and tRATs) at the beginning of each TBL module, as well as team-based Application Exercises, require all students to prepare outside of class in order for each team to be successful.
  • Application Exercises require students to apply economic concepts to real-world problems, situations, and policy decisions, promoting the development of higher-order thinking skills and more expert-like thinking.
TBL can also be combined with other evidence-based teaching practices such as:
  • Just-in-Time Teaching (JiTT) Student responses to JiTT exercises can provide valuable Application Exercise responses that address common misconceptions or misunderstandings made visible by students' responses.
  • Cooperative learning Cooperative learning activities such as surveys, jigsaws, or classroom experiments can also complement students' learning when combined with TBL Application Exercises.