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Try This - Team-Based Learning

Get the most out of small group assignments. 

Illustration by David Clark

Years ago, students spent almost all their time sitting in even rows, listening to the teacher impart knowledge. These days, most kids do a lot of work in small groups, which has advantages, but can be tricky for a teacher to manage well.

A strategy called “Team-Based Learning” (TBL), originally developed to promote active learning in large college undergraduate classes, is now being used by some K–12 educators. Virginia science teacher Scott Kubista-Hovis says TBL lets him cover all the state standards easily and still reserve 90 percent of class time for hands-on, problem-based, higher-order learning.

Adapted from an article in NEA’s Higher Education Advocate (June 2008) by Larry Michaelsen, University of Central Missouri and Michael Sweet, University of Texas at Austin.

Wouldn’t it be great if your students held each other accountable for coming to class prepared?

Team-Based Learning can make that happen. It can improve attendance, pre-class preparation, and academic performance, and help students develop interpersonal skills.

TBL has four basic elements: carefully formed teams; an individual and team pre-test for each major unit; hands-on, real-world team challenges; and peer evaluations.

Strategically form permanent student teams.

Create teams in which skills are distributed as evenly as possible. Keep them together for the entire course—groups need time to get past the early, rocky stages of working together.

Discover the magic of RAP.

Everything begins with the Readiness Assurance Process (RAP). Assign your students readings to complete before each major unit, then conduct two short, multiple-choice tests based on the readings. Students first take the individual Readiness Assurance Test, or iRAT. As soon as they turn in their answer sheets, they take the same test again, but this time as a team (the group Readiness Assurance Test, or gRAT), reaching a consensus on the answers and receiving immediate feedback on the team’s performance. Both tests should count toward students’ grades. (We usually weight them equally, but students who get low scores on the iRAT don’t get credit for the group test.)

Immediate feedback motivates students to prepare, participate in group discussions, and learn to interact effectively. They want their group to succeed, and don’t want to be seen as slackers. To provide this feedback—and fun—we recommend scratch-off Immediate Feedback-Assessment Technique (IF-AT) answer sheets for the gRATs. They work like lottery tickets: Students scratch off a covering to see if they find a star indicating that they picked the right answer. (Find out more about these sheets at

With IF-ATs, pushy students are one scratch away from having to “eat humble pie.” Quiet students are one scratch away from being asked to speak up. If we are on a team and you thought the answer was “A,” but I bullied the team into answering “B”—and you were right—next time, our teammates will make sure the best arguments get heard.

As the process repeats, students learn to communicate what they don’t know, and how to disagree without being disagreeable. The RAP takes only an hour or so, and reveals what students know and what they still need to learn. And when students collectively arrive at a wrong answer, they are eager for teachers to explain.

What if a team wants to argue for their “wrong” answer?

If students are motivated to dive into course content at the place where their understanding is weakest—let them! They can submit a written appeal offering evidence from the reading. The appeal process can enrich understanding.

How do I avoid freeloaders?

There’s no easy answer. Counting the iRATs helps. We also use peer evaluations at the end of every quarter. We hand out peer grading sheets (find it at Students have 100 points to give out to their teammates, and they must justify their highest and lowest score. We count each student’s total score toward his or her grade.

What comes after the RAP?

After the RAP and instructor clarification, teams apply what they’ve learned to real-world decisions.

Use assignments that promote content discussions. Some projects don’t. The worst aren’t really group assignments at all. For example, asking groups to produce a lengthy document will not promote discussion. Writing is inherently an individual activity. If you go this route, students will talk more about who will write what, rather than focus on the content.

Think of a courtroom. Jurors receive complex information and must reach a decision: guilty or not guilty. Nearly all of their effort is spent digging into the content. You can promote content-related discussion by assigning groups to use course concepts to make decisions such as:

  • Which of these advertising claims is least supportable? Why?
  • What’s the most dangerous aspect of this bridge design? Why?

It works in virtually any discipline.

How do I grade these real-world group assignments?

Besides turning in their decisions, each team also writes a brief (no more than one-half page) rationale for their choice. Grade them on how well they use evidence and make their case. Or don’t grade them; these activities can be very motivating on their own, without a reward or punishment dangled at the end.

TBL in middle school

Scott Kubista-Hovis, a seventh-grade science teacher in Fairfax County, Virginia, read about TBL three years ago and “fell in love right away.”

He contacted TBL developer Larry Michaelsen, who sent him scratch-off answer sheets to try out. “My students adore them!” says Kubista-Hovis.

He uses questions from the Virginia state test for his pre-test. For each unit, he goes over the concepts one day and gives the iRAT the next. After the gRAT, if students are still not getting it, he re-teaches. Then the teams apply the concepts to a real-world problem.

TBL, says Kubista-Hovis, “allows me to front-load a lot of information and we can move on from there.”

Scott Kubista-Hovis (above), with students (left above and left) in the classroom

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