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HOW TEAM-BASED LEARNING GOT STARTED

With all the renewed talk about the “flipped” classroom brought on by the advent of MOOCs (that are really a form on animated textbook broken up into episodes), it occurred to me while re-reading the manuscript of Getting Started with Team-Based Learning, how the modular structure of TBL makes it a wonderful pedagogy to both take advantage of all the rich resources on the Web and at the same time promote the deep learning and critical thinking that are the aspiration of all teachers.

Like all student-centered pedagogies, TBL makes two demands on faculty: to change the mind-set of being at the center of the classroom, and learning to be a facilitator rather than a dispenser of knowledge; and a lot more planning work up-front.

TBL can also be off-putting to those who first brush up against it because it seems to have an arcane vocabulary of its own like iRATs and tRATs (Individual and Team Readiness Assurance Tests) that are simply a process (a more structured variant of just-in-time teaching) to ensure that students come to class having done the readings or watched the assigned video, and have a grasp of the concepts and knowledge needed to complete the assignments that they will work on in teams for each module of the course.

The hard work is in being very selective about the out-of-class readings and assignments, keeping them a reasonable length, limiting them to what is really relevant to students’ completion of the module, and determining very precisely from the outset what the goals of the course are, and how to know that the goals have been achieved.

Like all good teaching, TBL makes one clearly state the goals of the course, and determine how each module builds towards it, and how one will know that the students have mastered the concepts and can apply them practice, first one module at a time, and then bringing together all that they have learned in a culminating exercise, test or essay. The team learning that is at the heart of TBL provides a dynamic that engages students, and makes them accountable to each other to complete their out-of-class assignments and to contribute wholeheartedly to in-class assignments. The fact that all teams work independently on the same assignments in class both provides an element of competition and results in far deeper discussions of the conclusions reached when the students share and argue about the paths they took and the evidence they relied on.

While this may sound complicated, this account of the origin of TBL should de-mystify it, and I hope persuade more faculty to explore this very powerful teaching method.


In January of 1979, Larry Michaelsen was a junior faculty member teaching an Organizational Behavior course at the University of Oklahoma. Budget cuts had tripled his class size from 40 to 120 students. He had been advised by senior colleagues to give up on his case-based Socratic dialogue approach and switch to lecturing, but he was unwilling to let go of working with cases and facilitating deep disciplinary problem-solving discussions. He felt strongly that these discussions really were at the heart of deep and enduring learning. He had an idea to try something different; he called it Team-Based Learning. It was an invention that preserved what he so valued in his teaching: engagement, decision-making, deep discussions, and feedback. His method actually made positive use of the larger class size to improve the quality of the discourse.

He realized he needed to overcome two challenges:

  1. How to engage large classes in effective problem-solving when the teacher is a scarce resource and class size encourages anonymity rather than accountability?
  2. How to induce his students to come to class prepared?

Right from the start, he developed something very close to the structure that Team-Based Learning classrooms still use today.

Student preparation was ensured by using the ingenious Readiness Assurance Process. During an early Readiness Assurance test, he listened to the student discussions as they were answering the questions, and realized that the students were actually discussing the very material that he would have been forced to cover if he had to lecture. He knew he was onto something.

Once he knew his students were ready, he was in a position to help them begin problem-solving. The overarching course goal of helping students learn how to apply course concepts was successfully structured using the “3 S” framework (now the “4 S” framework : Significant Problem – Same Problem – Specific Choice – Simultaneous Report). The 4 S framework encourages students to make difficult, data-rich decisions that can be quickly reported to the entire class.  Much to his relief, he found that the decision-making and problem-solving aspects of the course that he valued so highly were in fact very possible, even in large classes. Using this structured problem-solving method, students engaged deeply with the content and were learning more than he had thought would be possible.

The elements of TBL have evolved slightly over the years, but these two original pieces that ensure preparation and guide problem-solving are still the heart and soul of TBL. Over 30 years later, TBL is used with great success all over the world, in virtually all disciplines, and in classes as large as 400 students.

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