Team-Based Learning

ITLAL focuses on helping instructors adopt evidence-based teaching methods to encourage active learning in the classroom, and we strongly encourage and support the use of Team-Based Learning (TBL).

What is TBL?

TBL is an instructional method that puts students—working both as individuals and in permanent teams—into roles of greater responsibility for acquiring and using information. A TBL course uses specific assessment techniques and social processes in order to foster team development, productivity, and accountability as the term progresses. The central goal of TBL is to shift the use of class time away from instructors transmitting information and toward students working in teams to apply course concepts. While the team structure is an essential condition for requiring students to perform at higher cognitive levels, the key driver of TBL is frequent, immediate feedback—on both individual student preparation and team execution of critical thinking tasks.

What is the theory behind TBL?

TBL emerged out of research in behavioral and organizational psychology. Among the principles that drive the method are the following:

  • People learn best when feedback is frequent and timely.
  • Collaborative work is effective only when individuals see that their own interests are in alignment with those of their team.
  • Individuals need to be held accountable as individuals before they can participate effectively in a team.
  • Groups begin to turn into teams when they are held accountable for making collective decisions.
  • Instructors can intentionally and consistently create specific conditions conducive to group development.
  • Teams that have learned to function well can respond to more rigorous challenges than can most individuals.
  • Teams that have learned to function well need very little instructor management: TBL is therefore scalable to larger classes.

How is TBL different from other collaborative learning strategies?

Many of our students have had negative experiences with collaborative learning because they worked in groups that didn’t function well due to hitchhiking members, dominant personalities, or poor communication/listening skills. Instead of using direct instruction on effective collaborative strategies, TBL recognizes that groups evolve into teams when an instructor designs tasks that require them to prepare content carefully, articulate their reasoning, listen to other perspectives, and use their own thinking and that of others to make meaningful disciplinary decisions. This means that instructors focus their attention not on micro-managing team behavior but on designing in-class tasks that teach groups to become more productive. With practice and reflection, teams gradually learn to reach consensus on knotty problems, benefit from their mistakes, rein in ineffective behavior, and eventually trust in the team’s overall ability to outperform any given individual.

What kinds of tasks help groups develop into teams?

The key to fostering team development is effective task design that requires significant decisions. An instructor creates situations where teams need to work together to achieve a specific task in the form of a group decision. Each negotiation that a team undergoes to reach a decision on a task teaches students analysis and critical reflection by requiring comparison and contrast of individuals’ conflicting perspectives. Moreover, frequent in-class team tasks offer instructors the opportunity provide immediate, regular feedback on students’ thinking.

What evidence do we have that TBL is effective?

As more quantitative studies on TBL emerge, the data continue to confirm what TBL adopters have been reporting anecdotally for several years: students in TBL courses learn more deeply.  Data on the quality of student experience in TBL classrooms are especially revealing: students report that they are more motivated, more engaged and more satisfied.

TBL is now being used internationally in nearly every academic discipline, from natural science to social science to professional disciplines to philosophy and literature. The emerging research helps explain why it is especially attractive in information-heavy and highly technical fields such as medicine and engineering. The social and assessment-driven design raises the level of persistence of students confronted with dense material, and at the same time raises their performance level, not only as teams, but also as individuals. Instructors report consistently that TBL enhances quick retention of core information and allows instructors to challenge their students with more difficult material and more challenging assignments.

A surprising outcome has been that, while initially users of TBL reduce course content to allow for increased in-class processing, they find that within a semester or two of experience with the method they are able to restore content coverage back to original levels, and in many cases, beyond the original level, with greater overall student grasp of disciplinary concepts.

Finally, the organizational structure of the TBL classroom, in which much of the work and interaction occurs in the small groups, allows TBL to be scaled up to large enrollment courses with relative ease. It’s easier to manage a class of 15 teams than a class of 105 individuals.

What does the TBL process look like in a course?

A typical TBL course comprises 4-7 learning sequences within a regular semester. A typical sequence over 2-4 class meetings would look like this:

  1. Students complete a substantial reading assignment (outside of class).
  2. Individual students take individual Readiness Assessment Test (iRAT) on the reading (in class).
  3. Teams take Readiness Assessment Test (tRAT) (in class).
  4. Teams file appeals for reasonable alternate answers (in class).
  5. Instructor provides brief lecture, if needed, to clarify confusion made visible by the tests (in class).
  6. Individual students continue to prepare additional readings and complete homework assignments (outside of class).
  7. Teams engage in tasks focused on decisions around cases, problems, and applications using the material covered in the reading (in class—this phase usually last 2-3 days).
  8. Individuals complete summative assessment of learning in the form of assignments and products (in or out of class).
  9. Students complete peer evaluation at midterm (formative) and at end of course (for a part of the final grade—in class or on line).

What are the Challenges? Is there a downside to TBL?

Research showing TBL’s effectiveness as a method is strong, but it is not always easy to make the transition from traditional teaching to TBL. Teaching with TBL requires considerably more up-front planning and organization. Creating effective application tasks is labor intensive. There is also more assessment to manage and more grades to track. Writing good multiple choice questions for RATs is especially difficult and time-consuming at first, but these, as well as the application tasks, can be recycled in future iterations of the course.

Another challenge is being prepared for those students who will not respond well (especially at first) to this approach. TBL pushes students outside of their comfort zones. Many students—and often it’s the “A” students—believe that their goal is just to write down and memorize what the professor says.  When this is not possible because the professor lectures a lot less, a few of them will express their displeasure, and complain that you are “not teaching.”  It’s important to have clear support from your chair and dean, particularly if you are untenured.

These challenges are surmountable, however.  With support for implementation and experience using the method, most adopters can expect to see gains in student learning and changes in student attitudes as they begin to take more responsibility for their own learning.

What support does ITLAL provide to help me adopt TBL in my courses?

ITLAL provides individual guidance and support for all elements of TBL course. If you’d like to learn more, please schedule a consultation with us.

Additional resources about TBL

The ITLAL Library has several books about TBL.

  • Michaelsen, L. K., Knight, A. B., & Fink, L. D. (2004). Team-based learning: A transformative use of small groups. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
  • Michaelsen, L. K., Knight, A. B., & Fink, L. D. (2004). Team-based learning: A transformative use of small groups. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
  • Michaelsen, L. K. (2008). Team-based learning: Small-group learning’s next big step. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Sibley, J., Ostafichuk, P., Roberson, B., Franchini, B., & Kubitz, K. A. (2014). Getting started with team-based learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
  • Sweet, M., & Michaelsen, L. K. (2011). Team-based learning in the social sciences and humanities. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

You may also be interested in the Team-Based Learning Collaborative website: