The Least You Should Know about TBL
Team-Based Learning (TBL) is an instructional strategy that requires teachers to focus less on what they say and more on what students do in class. Team-Based Learning can best be described as consisting of four elements: (1) strategically-formed, permanent teams; (2) instructional units that begin with a Readiness-Assurance Process; (3) peer evaluation; and (4) team-based application activities.
Strategically form permanent student teams
Strategically forming teams requires determining what student characteristics will make the course easier or more difficult (for example, previous coursework in the discipline or anxiety about the subject matter) and ensuring that those characteristics are distributed fairly across teams. Further, groups need time to overcome the rocky, early stages of their social history. So, once the teams are formed, keep them together for the entire course.
The “Magic” of the Readiness Assurance Process (RAP)
Instead of relying on lectures to ensure content coverage, students are assigned readings they must complete before the first day of each major content unit, and each unit begins with a RAP. During a RAP, students first take a short, multiple-choice, individual Readiness Assurance Test (iRAT) covering assigned readings. As soon as students turn in their answer sheets, they take the exact 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.
When students receive immediate feedback on the gRATs—and it is vital that they do—the Readiness Assurance Process promotes three precursors of effective group work. Students are motivated to prepare in advance, participate in group discussions, and learn how to interact effectively. Students are motivated to prepare for the iRATs and participate in the gRATs because both tests count toward students’ grades and, often more importantly, they want to help their group succeed and they want to avoid being seen as a slacker. Further, when students receive immediate performance feedback, they improve their performance because they learn to recognize and use even subtle cognitive and affective cues to make better collective decisions next time.
Enabling students to know immediately whether or not they have made correct choices has an extremely powerful impact on both learning and the development of team skills, so we strongly recommend using scratch-off “Immediate Feedback-Assessment Technique” (IF-AT) answer sheets for the gRATs. With IF-ATs, students receive real-time feedback by deciding on an answer and scratching off a covering, much like a lottery ticket, to see if they find a star that indicates they have chosen the correct alternative.
Further, with IF-ATs, pushy students are one scratch away from having to “eat humble pie” and quiet students are one scratch away from being seen as a potential resource and two scratches away from being asked to speak up. For example, if we’re students on the same team and you thought the answer to a question was “A” but I bullied the team into answering “B”—and your answer turned out to be correct—then next time around, I would be very hesitant to ignore your opinion and our team-mates will make sure that the best arguments get heard.
As this process repeats, teams become increasingly more effective. Students learn to communicate what they don’t know, how to disagree without being “disagreeable,” and teams become cohesive as their performance improves. Though the RAP is a test and an intense learning activity, it also encourages the development of “team spirit.” The gRAT is also energizing for the teacher because he or she has the opportunity to both “hear students thinking” and observe the team development process.
The RAP takes only an hour or so at the beginning of each course unit to administer, but is dense with content-focused thought and discussion. At the end of the RAP, the teacher knows what still must be covered in lecture, and what does not need to be lectured about because students have already “covered” it themselves! For example, if all the teams got the first five questions right, then the instructor can assume the content of those questions has been “covered”—either through individual reading or team discussion—and it need not be repeated.
If, however, performance on other gRAT questions reveals gaps in students’ understanding, then the teacher knows the specific points that need additional clarification. Furthermore, students, who collectively arrived at a wrong answer which they thought was correct, tend to be eager for teachers to “explain themselves.”
What if a team wants to argue for their “wrong” answer?
If students are motivated to pull out books and dive into course content at the place where their understanding is weakest—let them! This is the intention behind the RAP “appeal” process.
Once correct answers to the RAP have been revealed, teams are allowed to appeal any question for which they failed to receive full credit. Appeals must be written and can come only from teams, not individuals. Appeals are not merely opportunities to dig for points: they must consist of an argument and evidence from the reading in support of that argument, or an explanation of why a question was misleading accompanied by a suggested re-write. Thus, appeals provide the opportunity for students to enrich their understanding as they prepare and present a scholarly argument in support of their case.
Finally, appeal decisions should come later ( by e-mail or at the beginning of the next class). The motivational energy stimulated by the RAP makes it difficult for students to gracefully take “no” for an answer! As a result, it is best for everyone for appeals to be handled after the energy generated in the RAP has dissipated.
In summary, the RAP consists of four critical components: the individual test, group test, immediate feedback, and appeals—followed by clarifying instruction from the instructor.
How do I avoid free-loaders?
Regardless of how much the gRATs count, the “freeloading question” will inevitably arise. Counting the iRATs makes students accountable to the instructor but not to their team. By far, the best way to make students accountable to the team is using a combination of gRATs to provide ongoing, clear evidence about members’ contributions and a peer evaluation to enable members to determine appropriate consequences.
What comes after the RAP?
The “readiness” in RAP refers to students’ readiness to apply course material to solve problems. After the RAP and instructor clarification, the rest of a TBL unit is spent with teams applying course materials to make specific choices using the knowledge they have acquired. For example, should a company buy, lease, or rent these trucks? Which story best depicts the Roman virtue of dignitas? Where on this cross-section of a wing is the highest value of X?
In this article, we have laid out a general overview of TBL. Specifics on how to implement these building blocks in TBL are laid out in detail in our book, Team-Based Learning: A Transformative Use of Small Groups in College Teaching.