Team-Based Learning Revisited

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The team-based learning model helps students develop analytical, critical-thinking, and lifelong learning skills. Certain course design and facilitation elements can be exploited to ensure consistent and effective implementation of team-based learning activities.

Group of college students studying together.
Credit: LStockStudio / © 2019

It has been more than four decades since Larry Michaelsen's initial writings introduced the world to team-based learning (TBL).1 TBL is a flipped-classroom instructional strategy based on two distinctive instructional protocols:

  1. Readiness assurance: This protocol relies on a two-step testing process (an individual test followed by an identical team test) that facilitates team cohesion and ensures individual student preparedness for class activities.
  2. 4S task-design framework: This protocol motivates students to engage deeply in course content by completing specific tasks in which they are asked to apply what they know and seek out more knowledge by responding to carefully framed questions.

The TBL model has been used in a wide range of disciplines, from the humanities and social sciences to the natural and applied sciences.2 Over the years, we have worked with hundreds of faculty to implement the original TBL model in large and small classroom settings and continue to marvel at its applicability and reliability across a wide range of teaching situations. The growing use of TBL reflects its effectiveness in creating classroom conditions that help students to develop analytical, critical-thinking, and lifelong learning skills. But why does TBL work so consistently? We have isolated certain course design and facilitation elements that can be exploited to ensure consistent and effective implementation of TBL activities.

TBL Design Key: Framing Team Actions to Focus Inquiry

Our recent insights in TBL pedagogy focus on classroom task design. Even well-conceived team tasks can fail to engage students if certain design and facilitation elements aren't well integrated.

TBL classroom problems rely on a design framework created by Michaelsen known as the 4S's:

First, every team is asked a significant question. This question encourages students to discover the relevance and value of course content through its application in specific situations.

Next, every team is asked the same question, so when all teams report their findings, they will be highly motivated to compare their thinking with one another.

Then, every team is asked to make a specific choice (decision), to focus their analysis and converge their thinking on a single, reasonable, justifiable course of action.

Finally, every team is asked to simultaneously reveal their choice, which allows teams to respond to each other by critiquing and defending their various choices and decisions.

When TBL activities are conceived, designed, and managed in this way, students are better able to stay focused on salient issues. The simultaneous reveal of team answers ensures broad accountability and participation and creates a classroom setting in which specific, focused feedback flows naturally among teams. These simultaneous reports are a powerful starting point for a give-and-take conversation where teams present arguments, challenge others' decisions, and defend their claims.

Constrained Actions versus Student Autonomy

Compared to other cooperative learning practices, TBL classroom tasks tightly constrain team discussions to ensure that teams create products of thinking (specific choices or decisions) that are immediately and easily comparable. This powers deep discussions among student teams when answers are revealed. The "specific choice" format provides this constraint, making comparability possible.

Within this constraint, a TBL task also introduces an ingredient that is critical for student motivation: autonomy of action. The task does not ask students to supply stock answers. Instead, students must reason their way through course content toward a concrete judgment that converts what they understand into action. When students take full ownership of their thinking to reach an independent decision, they experience the empowerment that comes with the freedom to think for themselves.

Decision-driven TBL exercises provide the critical point of intersection where student freedom meets the need to make a specific decision about the best course of action. The "forced" decision ensures that student teams work autonomously but within a specific scope and within the framework of a specific thinking goal. How students arrive at their decision, how they use the course content, and what reasoning they employ are all under their team's control, as long as they arrive at a decision that they can explain concisely and defend to other student teams.

Strategic Task Design for Collective Decisions

There are typically three fundamental design steps involved in constructing a constrained decision task:

Step One: Identify the kinds of student thinking that are being targeted.

These will be higher level thinking challenges that require students to use acquired abstractions and theoretical course knowledge to reason their way to a concrete judgment:

  • An evaluation of something (a product, argument, resource, market, data set…)
  • A diagnosis/assessment of something (a situation, problem, condition…)
  • A prediction about something (a probable consequence of a given action or event)
  • A recommendation (what to do in a given situation and how or when to do it)

Step Two: What's the context?

Concrete situations are key. Students need to wrestle within the constraints of reality. Situational reasoning reduces the tendency for students to respond to a problem by merely reciting abstract definitions or principles. By asking students to make decisions in response to specific situations, they quickly discover the limits of "textbook" explanations. Abstract understanding has to be transformed into applied reasoning and evidence-based arguments in order to address a specific situation and set of facts, underscoring the efficacy of the TBL method.

Cases and scenarios work well to create the kinds of situational complexity and consequent ambiguity necessary for meaningful team decision-making. Stories introduce circumstances, conditions, and realities that complicate the application of theoretical content. TBL task scenarios are written to bring students to a decision point with a requirement for concrete action. Stories also "allow the instructor to embed variables to introduce multiple concepts, theories, competing contextual factors, and perspectives into students' discussion."3 Here are some scenarios that provide context and point toward an action:

  • Marketing: You see eight brands of tofu in the supermarket arranged according to [story details]. What's the strongest piece of advice you'd offer the store manager to improve the effectiveness of this display?
  • Environmental biology: Here is a wetland environment undergoing a change in biodiversity [story details]. Predict the most likely effect of this change on the survival of the resident tree frog.
  • Writing: Here are three paragraphs by three different authors [story details]. Decide which one makes the most effective use of metaphor.
  • Human resources: Here are three job application letters for the director of [story details]. Rank them according to each one's effectiveness in communicating a sound temperament for the posted job.

Scenarios can be short or extended depending on the scope of the task and the level of intended interaction with the content. Each of the story fragments above hints at how the whole scenario can lead teams to a point in which they need to use textbook knowledge along with analysis, reasoning, and judgment to arrive at a justifiable decision.

Step Three: How will the task prompt be worded?

Our goal is to foster energetic student-to-student discussion within teams and create lively give-and-take discussions among all teams. To these ends, the wording of the task prompt matters greatly and can be the difference between a fruitful or unsuccessful activity.

Prompts constructed using superlatives ensure that even free-ranging, exploratory conversations will ultimately arrive at a singular, thoroughly debated conclusion. Superlative adjectives and adverbs (best, worst, first, last, most, least, biggest, smallest) require students to discriminate qualitatively among competing ideas. For example, "What are some recommendations you could make to the manager to improve the tofu display?" will elicit discussion, but it is much less likely to provoke the same level of intensity as "What's the strongest recommendation you could make to the manager to most improve the display?"

Here are some examples of superlative prompts:

  • Which of the products presented is the best/worst?
  • What would you do first/last in this situation in order to…?
  • Which of these items will be most/least effective to use for purpose X)?
  • What will be the most likely outcome/consequence of this action?

When presented simultaneously, the various team conclusions allow students to use peers' differing responses to inform their thinking. The easily reportable format also allows the instructor to facilitate purposeful discussion.

The TBL Method: Versatile Academic Applications

The TBL method's design strategies continue to demonstrate their reliability across disciplines, cultures, and instructional situations. We now have a greater understanding of the subtle dynamic that causes some team tasks to work exceedingly well and others to fall flat. We hope that these observations on TBL task design help instructors frame student analysis and subsequent discussions more intentionally. By incorporating these design strategies, effective learning engagement can be created across many disciplines, which creates more time to focus on salient concepts instead of reining in poorly constrained student discussions that invite opinion without evidence and substantive reasoning.


  1. Larry K. Michaelsen, Arletta Bauman Knight, and L. Dee Fink, eds. Team-Based Learning: A Transformative Use of Small Teams in College Teaching. (Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2004).
  2. Michael Sweet and Larry K. Michaelsen, eds. Team-Based Learning in the Social Sciences and Humanities. (Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2012).
  3. Bill Roberson and Billie Franchini, "Effective Task Design for the TBL Classroom," Journal on Excellence in College Teaching 25 (2014): 275-302.

Bill Roberson is a Teaching and Learning Specialist in the Centre for Innovation and Excellence in Learning at Vancouver Island University.

Jim Sibley is Director of the Centre for Instructional Support at the University of British Columbia.

© 2019 Bill Roberson and Jim Sibley.