Team-Based Learning

Spend even a small amount of time on Twitter, at an educational conference, or reading educator-based blogs, and you’ll encounter a myriad of teaching methodologies: flipped learning, project-based learning, inquiry-based learning, peer instruction, game-based learning, standards-based learning, and the list goes on. Each of these methods has value, but figuring out how to successfully combine aspects of each into a single class is a little daunting. Incorporating one more practice, Team-Based Learning, into the classroom could be the glue that holds everything else together.

Team-Based Learning (TBL) is not a new idea. It was born out of necessity by Larry Michaelsen in the 1970’s when his course numbers at the University of Oklahoma were growing in size. He wanted to develop a method that would allow him to continue using group activities in his classes, despite increasing student enrollment.

I immediately saw its potential in gluing together three major pedagogies in my own classroom: flipped learning, peer instruction, and inquiry.


I personally learned about Team-Based Learning by participating in a short simulation as part of a continuing education class at the University of Minnesota. A couple of days before attending the class, we were instructed to read two articles about TBL as “homework.” We also completed a survey that helped to indicate certain characteristics of our teaching styles, such as what percentage of time we typically spend lecturing in class, as well as gauging our familiarity with TBL.

When we visited our “classroom” the next day, I could tell immediately that TBL was a student-centered approach. We were arranged in groups of 5-9 members, all sitting around tables with access to various ports for technology use. The walls of the classroom were covered with whiteboards. Approximately a dozen large-screen TV’s were mounted throughout the room. There was no “front of the classroom” from which the professor would pontificate. Our survey results were used to sort us into diverse teams based upon our assets and previous experiences.

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Our first task in our new classroom was to complete short, individual quizzes based on the content assignment. The quiz had two pieces: a set of questions, and an answer sheet. We were instructed to mark our answers on both sheets, and then hand in the answer sheet when completed.

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After all team members had completed the individual quiz, we were given the same questions as a team quiz, along with a new answer sheet. What happened next was electrifying.

In my team, we began debating and arguing for the answers we felt were correct. I had to defend my answers with specific evidence from what I had read as homework, and spent time analyzing what each question was asking more deeply. We had to decide as a team how we would negotiate disagreement and learned quickly that hearing each member’s opinion was important.

How did we learn this essential lesson? The team quiz answers are submitted via IF-AT forms. When the team has reached consensus on an answer, the choice is scratched off like a lottery ticket. If a star is revealed under the scratched answer, the team immediately knows the answer was correct. If there is no star, the answer was wrong and more discussion is needed to generate a second answer, which is then also scratched off. The instructor can see exactly how many attempts it took for the group to reach the correct decision by how many answers have been scratched.

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Both the individual quiz scores and the team quiz scores count toward a student’s grade. Research shows that team quiz scores are consistently equal to or higher than the individual student quiz score, revealing that learning is happening for all students. The inclusion of a team quiz as well as an individual quiz harnesses peer pressure in a positive way, motivating students to prepare for class.

Once the content quizzes are completed, the students have the opportunity to ask for clarification on questions that confused them or can challenge any of the quiz questions. Finally, the teams spend the remainder of the unit working on challenging problems that extend their understanding of the unit content. All team members work on the same problems, requiring them to make a unified choice that will eventually be defended to the entire class. Sample assignments might be:

  • Should the DNA of extinct animals be used to bring them back to life?
  • If you could go back in time and change one historical event, what would it be?
  • What is the most energy-efficient shape for a building and why?
  • Should young-adult fiction be considered valuable literature for analysis in high school classes? Defend your decision.

Case studies are also appropriate resources for this type of problem-solving process. (A variety of science-themed case studies can be found at http://sciencecases.lib.buffalo.edu/cs/). The challenge in creating these assignments is that they shouldn’t be “Google-able” questions, and significant attention needs to be paid to the difficulty level of the task. The work should be formidable enough that the entire team needs to participate in order to successfully address the question. When the team has reached a consensus, students are required to create a product that they then share with the rest of the class.

With this short introduction to Team-Based Learning, I immediately saw its potential in gluing together three major pedagogies in my own classroom: flipped learning, peer instruction, and inquiry.

What is one of the most common challenges teachers have with flipped learning?

Motivating students to watch the videos. Students have an instinctual desire to maintain their value in the eyes of their peers, and Team-Based Learning uses this in conjunction with inter-team competition to encourage members to be accountable for their out-of-class work. Team scores on quizzes are often posted for the entire class to compare, as well as the change in the average score of all the individual quizzes for each team.

What is one of the most common challenges teachers have with peer instruction?

There is no incentive for the teams to work together. Team-Based Learning addresses this problem by rewarding both individual and team efforts. The assignments in TBL are carefully designed to be engaging for all team members and challenging enough that they cannot be completed by one person. Also, the TBL assignments are always completed in class. It has been found that when group work is expected to take place outside of the classroom, tasks are almost always unevenly divided and the assignment becomes individualized.

What is one of the most common challenges teachers face when implementing inquiry learning?

Students want a yes or no answer. In Team-Based Learning, the concrete questions and answers are moved out of the classroom space. This type of content is delivered via textbook readings or video, and assessed via the individual and team quizzes. Once these objective questions are addressed, the students are mentally prepared to delve deeper into more inquiry-based problems. The essential point here is that students begin to learn that there are different types of questions, and not all questions can be answered definitively.

Team-Based Learning connects many of the student-centered, deep learning goals that today’s educators are trying to incorporate into their classes. Although I have yet to sort out how this practice will fit into the Standards-Based Grading and Explore, Flip, Apply methods I use in my classes, I am inspired by the potential TBL has to excite students in becoming more active participants in their own learning process.

Only a small portion of the Team-Based Learning practice has been described above. If you are interested in researching more about this method, here are some resources that have aided in my own understanding:

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