Technology and Team-Based Learning

Courses for preservice teachers

Problems of size and time

Education majors in their first year of study are exposed to a variety of courses designed to introduce key concepts in K-12 teaching, including the history and current state of the education system, methods of teaching, and the potential of educational technology.  These courses contain large amounts of important, foundational content to be digested, often in limited time, and – due to their early placement in programs of study and the fact that they are required of all students, regardless of intended specialty – are frequently are marked by large enrollments.  As a result, they are often taught in lecture format.  Cooper (1995) notes that such large-scale lecture courses are “not the most effective method, particularly from the viewpoint of the student;” in these courses, students are placed in passive roles that are not conducive to learning, a point particularly underscored by the foundational nature of the content being covered in these classes.

Cooperative strategies

One practical solution to the problems of course size and limited time is to employ strategies that make “large classes seem small” (Cooper & Robinson, 2000).  One such strategy, cooperative learning, had its origins in K-12 education, but evidence supports the notion that it can be effective as an instructional strategy at the college level as well (Johnson et al., 1987, in Cooper, 1995).  Cooperative learning allows students to work in pairs or small groups to learn academic material.  Studies have shown that students working in properly-facilitated cooperative situations outperform their peers who are not partnered (Leung & Chung, 1997; Slavin, 1983, 1996; Tsay & Brady 2010).  Cooperative learning has also been shown to assist in the development of classroom community (Cooper & Robinson, 2000), which itself can increase “the flow of information among all learners, the availability of support, commitment,” and attitudes toward subject matter (Cooper, 1995; Rovai, 2001).  Despite these advantages, in many instances of cooperative learning, the instructor is still responsible for the entirety of the subject matter, and may still find time a limiting factor.

Team-based learning

Team-based learning (TBL) is a specific cooperative learning strategy designed to remove these burdens from instructors and shift responsibility to learners.  TBL relies upon an “intense use of small groups … to develop and take advantage of the special capabilities of high-performance learning teams” (Fink, 2004).


In TBL environments, students become responsible for assimilating most of the course content outside of class time by interacting with instructional materials such as textbooks and other resources.  Students are typically willing to take on this responsibility so long as they are given reasons to understand why the concepts for which they are primarily responsible are important; to this end, individual work consists not only of reading and other exposure to materials, but also to increasingly complex problems of application of the materials.  This hallmark of TBL also helps elevate student outcomes to higher-level learning objectives, moving from recall to application and synthesis.  This individual work is only the foundation, though, for what occurs in class.

As students show up for each new class meeting, they interact “with their teammates during the Readiness Assurance Process” (Michaelsen, 2004).  The Readiness Assurance Process, or “RAT,” is a two-part assessment that occurs at the beginning of each unit of instruction (course meeting).  Part one of the RAT is geared towards individual accountability, and typically consists of a small number (around 20) of multiple choice questions designed to allow students to demonstrate mastery of basic content.  Once students have turned in their individual answers, each group – established at the beginning of the course based on specific criteria related to learning objectives and unchanging in membership – then collectively answers the same set of questions.  As they do so, they must discuss their reasoning and resolve any difference of opinion by allowing each member to “voice and defend their choice on every question” (Michaelson, 2004).  Both assessments – the individual responses and the overall group response – count towards students’ grades in the course, and should take a relatively small amount of time.

It is after these Readiness Assurance Tests are over that the real work of Team-Based Learning begins.  The instructor typically gives immediate feedback on the results of the RATs, and then shifts student activity towards application-oriented activities.  Just as individual learners have been practicing, outside of class, application of course content to real-world problems, teams are given in-class problems of increased sophistication to work through.  In a given course session, each team may work through several practice problems that require members of each group to take and defend positions based on experience and exposure to course content, and ultimately to synthesis distinct voices into a unified group position and solution.  After several rounds of practice, there is a whole-group review process and debriefing, and then teams may then be given a final problem the solution to which will be graded.

Technology in support of TBL

The benefits of TBL include a more effective use of course time, active learner engagement with content; higher-level student outcomes, and more positive student opinions about courses and course content.(Michaelsen , 2004; Yost, 2007; Tsay & Brady, 2010).  But these benefits also come at a price: instructors wishing to implement TBL must dramatically redesign courses and shift their own roles so that they act as facilitators.  There is no workaround for these commitments.  Still, TBL provides some challenges that may be ameliorated, and among these are the isolated nature of student work outside of class; the class time required to assess RAT responses and provide feedback; and the nature of how groups are expected to share their responses.

The appropriate integration of instructional technology can address these issues.  Students working independently outside of class, for instance, can still be connected to their peers and the instructor through careful employment of communications tools – including email, of course, but also encompassing social media platforms such as Twitter and videoconferencing software such as iChat, Facetime, or Skype.  These tools may, in fact, further enhance the sense of classroom community that TBL fosters.

Technology may also allow instructors to claim back even more classroom time for TBL activities.  Through the use of audience response systems, for instance, the Readiness Assurance Tests can be completed, scored, and given feedback much more quickly than with traditional methods that involve using and collecting paper-based forms.  Descriptive data about responses can also be immediately shared with the entire group, allowing instructors to provide better feedback to dispel misconceptions or correct errors.

Group communication can also be enhanced using technology.  Group sharing in TBL is done orally in class, and as a result, there is little record of group “products” as teams work to solve complex problems.  Using digital video and audio capture, instructors can create online repositories of archived TBL sessions, which can be useful as study aids for students, as the basis for instructor work on improving the TBL process, and as demonstrations of effective TBL techniques.


Cooper, J. L., & Robinson, P. (2000). The argument for making large classes seem small. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2000(81), 5-16.

Cooper, M. M. (1995). Cooperative learning: An approach for large enrollment courses. Journal of Chemical Education, 72(2), 162.

Fink, L. D. (2004). Beyond small groups: Harnessing the extraordinary powers of learning teams. In L. K. Michaelsen, A. B. Knight, & L. D. Fink (Eds.), Team-Based learning: A transformative use of small groups in college teaching. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, Inc.

Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T., Smith, K.A. Learning together and alone: cooperative, competitive, and individualistic learning.  Holt, Rinehard, and Winston: New York, 1987

Leung, C. D., & Chung, C. (1997). Student achievement in an educational technology course as enhanced by cooperative learning. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 6(4), 337-343.

Michaelsen, L. K. (2004). Getting started with team-based learning. In L. K. Michaelsen, A. B. Knight, & L. D. Fink (Eds.), Team-Based learning: A transformative use of small groups in college teaching. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, Inc.

Rovai, A. P. (2001). Building classroom community at a distance: A case study. Educational Technology Research and Development, 49(4), 33-48.

Slavin, R. E. (1983). When does cooperative learning increase student achievement? Psychological Bulletin, 94(3), 429-445.

Slavin, R. E. (1996). Research on cooperative learning and achievement: What we know, what we need to know. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 21, 43-69.

Tsay, M., & Brady, M. (2010). A case study of cooperative learning and communication pedagogy: Does working in teams make a difference? Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 10(2), 12.

Yost, S. A., & Lane, D. R. (2007). Implementing a problem-based multi-disciplinary civil engineering design capstone: Evolution, assessment, and lessons learned with industry partners. In American society for engineering education southeastern section annual conference, Louisville, KY.

(note: this post is an adaption of a presentation I gave at the SITE Conference in 2011).