Team-Based Learning

Teachers have a short amount of time to make a meaningful impact on students in our discipline. Much research goes into determining effective and high impact practices to encourage the most learning in students (High-Impact Practices). One such high impact practice is collaborative assignments and projects, well executed in the form of Team-based Learning (TBL).

TBL originated with Larry Michaelsen (Ph.D. in Organizational Psychology from The University of Michigan) in the late 1970s. Michaelsen desired to make a large class of 120 students engaged in the topic at hand (Michaelsen et al., 2002). Ignoring his colleagues’ suggestions to move toward a more traditional lecture-styled class to dump information onto students in class, he incorporated a more structured, small group format of activities to his class.  

Fig. 1: Chronology of TBL Sequence (Michaelsen & Sweet, 2011)

TBL involves grouping students into a team of peers to understand and solve complex problems together. For the teams to work effectively, each student and team needs to already have a good understanding of the content covered in the assignment. To assure this level of understanding, students individually study the content and then takes an individual readiness assessment test (iRAT) as well as a team readiness assessment test (tRAT) with the other peers on their team. Based on their performance on this assessment, the instructor provides a clarifying lecture to assure that all necessary information is known and understood by the teams. Finally, the same complex assignment is given to each team over a period of multiple class sessions.

According to Simkins and colleagues, research based practices that successfully induce learning include the following (Simkins et al., 2021):

  1. Providing students with repeated opportunities for effortful retrieval practice with feedback.
  2. Distributing and spacing student retrieval practice across time.
  3. Incorporating practices that regularly promote the development of self-elaboration skills.
  4. Using activities that employ concrete examples requiring students to apply course concepts in multiple ways.
  5. Blending appropriate sequencing of direct instruction and student exploration.
  6. Integrating highly structured group-based activities throughout a course.

Effectively applying TBL touches on each of the components of a successful learning practice. The positive effects of this practice have been proven in many different fields, especially subjects in STEM (Allen et al., 2013; Bender et al., 2021; Charalambous et al., 2020; Simkins et al., 2021).

Effective Use of TBL

According to Michaelsen et al., 2014, “the TBL instructor’s role consists of creating conditions in which teams will develop the ability to work effectively and independently” (p. 69). More specifically, the benefits of TBL are dependent on the execution of the learning sequence, which incorporates the following (Michaelsen & Sweet, 2011):

  1. Strategically formed, permanent teams
  2. Readiness assurance
  3. Application activities that promote both critical thinking and team development
  4. Peer evaluation

Strategically Formed, Permanent Teams

Three main methods of team creation for group projects are designed (instructor-formed) teams, self-assigned teams, and randomly assigned teams (Pociask et al., 2017). While studies show that the way teams are created do not significantly impact the quality of the submitted material, the team dynamics and student emotions toward instructors are affected (Cavanagh, 2016). Allowing students autonomy in selecting their partners or at least having some input into the formation of the teams allows for greater team cohesiveness and improved group dynamics. As an additional improvement to team dynamics, teams that remain together longer often have higher quality communication and decision making than in shorter term teams.

Readiness Assurance

Readiness assurance tasks should be designed with the intention that the individual students and student teams have a proper understanding of the subject material. These readiness assurance tests (RATs) most typically are in the form of a quiz. This helps to prevent individuals from avoiding work and avoiding intentional understanding of the subject as well as communicating that all can be trusted with a portion of the assignment (Michaelsen et al., 2002).

For best practice, make sure to have both the iRAT and the tRAT incorporated in the lesson plan, as studies have shown that a combination of both of these types of assessments improves retention and recall speed of knowledge necessary for the TBL assignment (Gopalan et al., 2013). These assessments can occur during the class time or outside of class, but both should be present. By having students recall recently learned information individually and then as a team, students practice using the learned information, solidifying in their mind that information is important and will need to be remembered.

Activities that Promote both Critical Thinking and Team Development

Figure 2. Effective Group Assignment Criterion (Michaelsen et al., 2014).

In creating the group assignments, consider the “4 S’s” described in Figure 2. The greater quality of individual work required on an assignment in conjunction with the work assigned to the team as a whole and tasks that incorporate other teams, the greater the impact on learning. Factors that contribute to effective motivation on all levels include a problem is significant to the students and the same across all groups, specific tasks that are highly related to the topic at hand, and simultaneous submission of work done. See below for examples for tasks to give in this phase of TBL. This is not exhaustive by any means, but it helps to show the range of classes that could use TBL effectively:

  • Analyze and revise the same several documents in a professional writing class .
  • Create a report for an Emergency Department Supervisor based on a sample clinical assessment in a medical class .
  • Analyze large amounts of data as a team in a data science class (Vance, 2021).

For further assistance on assignment creation for TBL tasks, refer to Chapter 3 of (Michaelsen et al., 2002) or to

Peer Evaluation

As a form of student accountability, peer evaluations have been proven to be effective. When students know that their peers either depend on them or will be appraising their work, another form of motivation is integrated into the classroom. According to a study done at West Virginia University, students tend to be specific as to why they give a lower rank to students, providing helpful feedback for the struggling or slacking student (Stein et al., 2016). (For more, see Alternative Assessment teaching guide.)

Additional Resources

As an additional resource, refer to (Kibble et al., 2016), a review on everything related to incorporating TBL into your class.


Ainsworth, J. (2021). Team-Based Learning in professional writing courses for accounting graduates: positive impacts on student engagement, accountability and satisfaction. Accounting education (London, England), 30(3), 234-257.

Allen, R. E., Copeland, J., Franks, A. S., Karimi, R., McCollum, M., Riese, n. D. J., & Lin, A. Y. F. (2013). Team-based learning in US colleges and schools of pharmacy. American journal of pharmaceutical education, 77(6), 115-115.

Bender, H. S., Garrett, K. M., & Hostetter, S. J. (2021). Engaging Students with Team-Based Learning in Courses Taught at Two Campuses Synchronously: Two Case Studies in Health Sciences. New directions for teaching and learning(165), 107-121.

Burgess, A., Roberts, C., Ayton, T., & Mellis, C. (2018). Implementation of modified team-based learning within a problem based learning medical curriculum: a focus group study. BMC medical education, 18(1), 74-74.

Cavanagh, S. R. (2016). The spark of learning : energizing the college classroom with the science of emotion (First edition. ed.). West Virginia University Press.

Charalambous, M., Hodge, J. A., & Ippolito, K. (2020). Statistically significant learning experiences: towards building self-efficacy of undergraduate statistics learners through team-based learning.

Gopalan, C., Fox, D. J., & Gaebelein, C. J. (2013). Effect of an individual readiness assurance test on a team readiness assurance test in the team-based learning of physiology. Advances in Physiology Education, 37(1), 61-64.

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Kibble, J. D., Bellew, C., Asmar, A., & Barkley, L. (2016). Team-Based Learning in Large Enrollment Classes. Advances in Physiology Education, 40(4), 435-442.

Michaelsen, L. K., Davidson, N., & Major, C. H. (2014). Team-Based Learning Practices and Principles in Comparison with Cooperative Learning and Problem-Based Learning. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 25(3-4), 57-84.

Michaelsen, L. K., Knight, A. B., & Fink, L. D. (2002). Team-Based Learning: A Transformative Use of Small Groups. Praeger.

Michaelsen, L. K., & Sweet, M. (2011). Team-based learning. New directions for teaching and learning, 2011(128), 41-51.

Pociask, S., Gross, D., & Shih, M.-Y. (2017). Does Team Formation Impact Student Performance, Effort and Attitudes in a College Course Employing Collaborative Learning? Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 17(3), 19-33.

Simkins, S. P., Maier, M. H., & Ruder, P. (2021). Team-based learning (TBL): Putting learning sciences research to work in the economics classroom. The Journal of economic education, 52(3), 231-240.

Stein, R. E., Colyer, C. J., & Manning, J. (2016). Student Accountability in Team-Based Learning Classes. Teaching Sociology, 44(1), 28-38.

Vance, E. A. (2021). Using Team-Based Learning to Teach Data Science. Journal of statistics and data science education, 29(3), 277-296.

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