Team-Based Learning (TBL)

Team-based learning (TBL) is a model of classroom instruction similar to that of a ‘flipped classroom’ in that the students’ first introduction to the fundamental material is done outside of the classroom (Demetry, 2010). For example, students are expected to grasp the essential concepts from the assigned readings or videos prior to coming to class. The class time is spent clarifying and applying the information that they learned outside of class.  However, TBL differs from other flipped-classroom models in that the application exercises are done through team interactions, guided by the instructor, around specific problems. Another difference is that each unit of study must begin with an assessment of students’ understanding of the prepared content, and is followed by an ordered method for structuring class time.

TBL is a model for course instruction, not just a teaching strategy that can be employed on occasion (Fink, 2004). TBL creator, Larry Michaelsen (2004), suggests that this model requires a paradigm shift in how an instructor approaches teaching, as embracing TBL often results in significant changes to instructional objectives, views on how learning occurs, and expectations for the instructor and student roles. Instructors move away from emphasizing content coverage toward the application of course concepts. They are no longer the masters of content, responsible for the distribution of knowledge, but instead act as designers and managers of student learning experiences. Their instructional planning focuses on designing application exercises that require students to solve problems, make decisions, and engage in team discussions. Consequently, students need to be engaged and accountable for their own learning inside and outside of the classroom, rather than focusing on memorizing content disbursed by the instructor.

Video 8.12.1. Team-Based Learning explains the process of implementing this model.

Principles of Team-Based Learning

Michaelsen (2004) believes that this shift in emphasis will occur under the four essential principles of TBL. These principles include the following: proper team formation and management; student accountability, both individual and team; use of team activities to promote learning and team development; and frequent and immediate feedback on student learning.

Team Formation and Management

Teams should be permanent and large enough to bring diversity to the team decision-making process; Michaelsen’s (2004) recommendation is five to seven members per team. Team formation is managed by the instructor in class so that it is transparent to the students and done in a way that will break up any previously established subgroups, as perceived favoritism of other teams or previously established relationships may interfere with the development of team cohesiveness. To make teams more evenly matched and better prepared to solve problems together, student talents and resources, as well as liabilities, should be distributed among the teams (Michaelsen, 2004).

Student Accountability

Student accountability is established by constructing systems for monitoring the quality of individual and team contributions and building in mechanisms for consequences that are dependent upon that quality of work. This includes graded individual readiness assurance tests (iRATs) and team readiness assurance tests (tRATs), team performance on application activities and summative assessments, and assessment of a team member’s contributions and performance by the teammates (Birmingham & McCord, 2004).

Use of Team Activities

Team activities are not only meant to assist students in exploring and learning course concepts but also encourage group cohesion and the development of communication and teamwork among members. Well-designed activities will promote discussion and shared decision-making for more complex and well-developed answers (Michaelsen & Knight, 2004). Michaelsen (2004) recommends that all team activities adhere to the ‘4S’ framework; activities should be significant problems, the same problem, require a specific choice, and choices should be reported spontaneously. Significant problems are meaningful to students and complex enough to promote team discussion. All teams should work on the same problem at the same time to elicit greater team investment in class-wide discussions and debriefings, as well as, gain a deeper understanding through comparison and critique of the other teams’ choices. Problems should have specific choices with a clearly-defined answer. Finally, teams should present their choices to the class simultaneously, encouraging team accountability for their choices and preventing teams from changing their choice after hearing from other teams. Simultaneous reporting may also create an atmosphere of engagement through anticipation, excitement, and competition.

Frequent and Immediate Feedback

Frequent and immediate feedback is essential for team-based learning for two reasons. First, feedback is important for learning and retaining content. Second, feedback is important for group development. From the beginning, teams will need feedback to gauge how effectively they work together, which team strategies work and which do not, and their understanding of the concepts that they are discussing (Michaelsen, 2004).

Team-Based Learning Process

TBL requires students to work together in teams on a three-part sequenced set of learning activities: a preparation phase, application phase, and assessment phase. In the preparation phase, students are engaging with materials outside of class to introduce the concept, followed by the completion of the individual readiness assurance test (iRAT) and the team readiness assurance test (tRAT), and finally, brief instruction on challenging concepts needing clarification. During the application phase, students are asked to apply concepts to make predictions, solve problems and create explanations for complex problems. Finally, during the assessment phase, a final problem is presented to the students to assess their mastery of the concepts (Fink, 2004).

1. Preparation Phase

The preparation phase or readiness assurance process (RAP) begins prior to the start of each module or unit of study and is meant to confirm that the students are prepared with the fundamental knowledge necessary for the application phase. Students are assigned specific materials to prepare them with the essential concepts for that module. The assigned materials may be readings, videos, or audio recordings, which are to be completed outside of class time and prior to the first class for which the content was applied.  On the first day of class for that module, students complete a two-part readiness assurance test (RAT); a brief multiple-choice assessment of students’ comprehension of the assigned content. The first part of the RAT is the individual readiness assurance test (iRAT), done independently. The second part of the RAT is the team readiness assurance test (tRAT), a team test that is comprised of the same set of questions as the iRAT. The two scores are then averaged together for a single RAT score (the weights of the scores may vary by course) (Michaelsen, 2004).

Immediate feedback is an important aspect of the TBL model, thus the tRAT utilizes a method for immediate feedback. One popular tool for immediate team feedback is the immediate feedback assessment technique (IF-AT). The IF-AT (see Figure1) is a card with squares that can be scratched off by the students. Each row of squares corresponds to a test item number and the multiple-choice options, A-B-C-D. The team discusses the question, agrees upon an answer and then a team member scratches their selection to find out whether their choice was correct or not. If the team’s choice was incorrect then they may choose a second, third, or even fourth answer for partial credit. This encourages students to continue to discuss the material that they did not understand to find the correct answer, rather than getting the item wrong and just moving on without any further clarification.

Figure 8.12.1. Immediate feedback assessment technique (IF-AT) scratch card for tRAT. From IF-AT Demonstration: Step 1, by Epstein Educational Enterprises, 2009,  Reprinted with permission.

Once the RAT process is complete, the team may decide to appeal any questions they missed that they believe should be correct. The appeal process requires the team to justify the reason for the appeal, as well as find and cite the correct answer in a written appeal to the instructor. This encourages further review of the material. Appeals are reviewed by the instructor after class, and RAT scores may be adjusted if the appeal is approved.

As the teams turn in their IF-AT cards, the instructor will examine the tRAT answers to look for continued difficulties with understanding concepts. The issues are reviewed in a brief corrective instruction that follows the completion of the RAT. Once assured that students have an understanding of the material for the module, the team application activities may begin.

2. Application Phase

Where the readiness assurance process is estimated to take fifty to seventy minutes, the application activities should be significantly longer, typically three to five hours. The design of the application activities should follow the ‘4S’ framework highlighted by Michaelsen (2004). The teams should be given a significant problem, the same problem, with a specific choice, and they should be simultaneously reporting their answers. Activities start out simple and become more complex as students build upon previous experiences. Again, an important aspect of the application process includes constant and specific feedback to the teams regarding their responses. Sometimes this feedback comes from the instructor, but often the feedback comes from teammates or other teams. When students have the opportunity to share, compare, and defend their answers they get feedback as to whether their answer is correct and justified. Students also get to witness how others solve problems and consider alternative ways to approach a problem.

3. Assessment Phase

The last phase of the module is assessment. These assessments may be administered to the team or individual students and might include graded problems to solve, traditional exams, peer evaluations, or other forms of assessment. Once the three phases are complete, the entire process can begin again with a new module. Michaelsen (2004) suggests dividing a course into five to seven modules.

Effects of TBL on Learning Outcomes

A number of studies have examined the effectiveness of TBL in meeting course objectives and learning outcomes. Several studies have found improvements in pretest-posttest outcomes, student learning through team interaction, and higher test scores for TBL students when compared to other instructional methods. However, not all studies have corroborated that TBL is a superior instructional method, but have confirmed that TBL is at least as effective as other methods.

There are documented differences in the level and types of engagement of students in TBL classes. Instructors have observed that students appear more engaged with each other than with a comparison lecture-only course (Hunt et al., 2003). It is not to say that there is no engagement in lecture classes. Kelly et al. (2005) found that students in lecture had significantly more interactions with their teachers than students in TBL classes, while students in TBL courses had significantly more learner-to-learner interactions. Compared to Problem-Based Learning (PBL), students in TBL courses had significantly more interactions with their instructors than students in PBL courses. The students in the TBL group also perceived their level of engagement to be higher, rating their individual and team members’ engagement as high (Bick et al., 2009). Similar differences have been found in student-rated engagement in class between TBL and lectures courses, with TBL students rating engagement as significantly higher (Clark et al., 2008).

Participation in TBL has also been found to positively influence students’ attitudes toward teamwork. The exception to this trend was among students who were the top academic performers. Students who have been highly successful in traditional academic settings were found to have more negative attitudes about TBL (Epsey, 2010).

Effects of TBL on Course Evaluation

Course satisfaction is a broad category and can be qualified in many different ways. Most often, studies have collected student-reported levels of satisfaction on course evaluation items. Overall, student attitudes about TBL have been positive (Haberyan, 2007). Many students have responded to TBL with high satisfaction (Abdelkhalek, Hussein, Gibbs, & Hamdy, 2010), even rating the TBL methodology as excellent (Touchet & Coon, 2005). Beatty et al. (2009) reported that 91% of students felt that TBL helped improve their understanding of course content and 93% of students encouraged continued use of TBL. Students reported that TBL helped them improve critical and independent thinking skills (McInerney & Fink, 2003). When comparing students in TBL classes to students in lecture classes, TBL students rated classroom engagement, perceptions of effectiveness, and enjoyment significantly higher (Levine et al., 2004). Feingold et al. (2008) found that students felt that TBL helped them learn how to apply concepts in clinical situations, how to become more accountable students, and how to learn through discussion. Participants in Kühne-Eversmann & Fischer’s (2013) study rated the interactivity and team-based discussions as reasons for their learning and also anticipated that the course would influence their behavior. In fact, participants did show an increase in specific course-taught behaviors, while the control group showed a decline in the same behaviors.

Not all course evaluation reports have been positive about TBL. Lancaster and Strand (2001) compared student perceptions of the course and the instructor and found no difference between the TBL and lecture students. Letassy et al. (2008) found higher course evaluations for the lecture group over the TBL group. Focus group interviews indicated that students felt that their team members were not enthusiastic about TBL (Hunt et al., 2003). Student interviews also found that students were uncomfortable with the RAT testing process and were concerned about the impact of team grading on their scores (Feingold et al., 2008).


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