This article is an excerpt
from the book "Team-Based
Learning: A Transformative use of Small Groups", edited
by Larry K. Michaelsen, Arletta B. Knight, and L. Dee Fink. Westport,
CT: Praeger Publishers
the last two decades, there has been a rapid growth in the use of
small groups in college-level teaching. When I talk to professors
these days, the majority say that they use small groups in one way
or another in at least one of their classes. And the majority of
students say that they have had a small group learning experience
in at least one of their classes. What has
led to this rise of interest in teaching with small groups?
Several factors had prompted teachers to explore
this form of teaching. In part teachers are feeling pressure from
both the younger TV generation of students who are not very tolerant
of lectures and from older students who want a learning experience
that consists of more than "information dumping." In addition,
colleges are getting feedback from employers that they want college-educated
employees who have valuable skills as well as content knowledge.
All of this is encouraging teachers to search
for ways to make their classes more interesting and valuable, and
that means making their classes more active. Of those teachers who
reach this level of awareness, many discover
that using small groups is not only a relatively easy way to achieve
active learning but also one that can make a significant difference
in the quality of student learning.
In a frequently cited essay some years ago,
Finkel and Monk wrote about the value of learning groups for solving
a common problem that teachers face. (1983, pp. 83-97) They called
this problem the "Atlas Complex" because the traditional
way of teaching requires the teacher to shoulder the entire responsibility
for the learning process. They then noted that small groups provide
a way of solving this problem by "dissolving the Atlas Complex."
Later Jean MacGregor and others have noted the value of "shared
inquiry" as a way changing both the teacher's role and the
students' role in positive ways. (MacGregor, 1990)
Some Students are Having Negative Experiences
teaching with small groups obviously has great potential, some survey
research (Feichtner and Davis, 1985) and my own conversations with
students indicate that this potential is not always realized.
While many students find small group learning to be very powerful,
a significant percentage of students report negative experiences
with small group learning. What is the problem?
As teachers experiment with different ways of
using small groups and scholars study the reactions of both teachers
and students, everyone is gradually realizing that there
are good ways and bad ways of using small groups for educational
purposes. As a result, teachers need to learn what the prescriptive
norms are for the effective use of small groups in college level
The view that will be presented in this chapter
is that there are currently three general
ways of using small groups in higher education and that one of these,
Team-Based Learning, is significantly different from the other two.
The relationships among
these three ways of using small groups are much like the relationships
among ice, liquid water and steam. All three substances are
water, but they have radically different properties. Under the right
conditions, water can be transformed into steam. And once that happens,
steam has a very different structure and significantly different
properties than water. Hence it can do things that are simply not
possible with liquid water.
For people who teach with small groups, the
"casual use" is somewhat
like "ice." Judiciously and
selectively used, it can be very effective in "waking"
like liquid water, has considerable
power to do important work, like the grain mills did in yesteryear
and hydroelectric generating plants do today.
is like the steam power used to drive
the turbines in locomotives, ships, nuclear generating plants, etc.
Like steam turbines, team-based learning can be used in a variety
of locations, provide a high level of energy, and can be channeled
to accomplish tasks that are challenging and complex.
In this chapter I will briefly describe three
general approaches to using small groups that are frequently
found in higher education. Then I will compare
the two more significant approaches, cooperative learning and team-based
learning, in terms of how they recommend using small groups
and the potential value of both approaches. The argument will be
- there are significant
differences between "groups" and "teams" and
- good teams have special
capabilities that allow them to outperform good groups.
Hence, a teacher who learns
how to use team-based learning to transform "groups" into
"teams" (like water into steam) will be able to create
a learning experience for students that is extraordinarily powerful.
The teachers who have written the essays in Part Two of this volume
give strong testimony to this claim.
Three Different Ways of Using Small Groups
Different authors have used different
terms when writing about small groups: learning
groups (Bouton and Garth, 1983), collaborative
learning (Hamilton, 1997; Bruffee, 1999), cooperative
learning (Slavin, 1986; Johnson, Johnson and Smith, 1991;
Millis and Cottell, 1998), and team-based
learning (Michaelsen and Black, 1994). Despite the varying
terminology, these several authors are all referring to the same
general idea: putting individual students in a class into small
groups for the purpose of promoting more active and more effective
The concept of "small
group learning" then provides the "overall umbrella"
that unites these various approaches, much like the concept of "water"
unites the specific forms it can take.
Then when one looks at the different ways teachers use small groups
and the different ways described in the literature on small groups,
three general patterns emerge: casual use, the use of carefully
structured individual small group activities, and team-based learning.
One can conceive of the relationship among these approaches as shown
in Figure 1.
Use is flexible and easy to use because it does
not have a lot of structure.
Learning greatly enhances the capabilities of small
group learning with its emphasis on carefully
learning in turn creates and uses a different
course structure that enables a whole new level of educational
Some authors (for example, Millis
and Cottell, 1998) clearly have a different mental map of small
group learning; in their mind "cooperative learning" is
the big, umbrella concept with team-based learning being but one
of several variations under that concept. In my view, this conceptualization
ignores the fact that, as will be discussed later in this chapter,
many of the procedures recommended by the proponents of cooperative
learning are counter-productive with respect to the transformation
of groups into learning teams.
Hence, as shown in Table
1 and the remaining comments in this chapter, I suggest that
cooperative learning and team-based learning
be seen as complementary but distinct approaches under the general
concept of "small group learning."
easiest and therefore often the initial use by a teacher is to employ
small groups in a "casual" way. A typical situation would
be for the teacher to lecture for 15-20 minutes
and then have students pair up with a student seated next to them,
to either discuss a question or solve a problem. After giving
the student pairs a few minutes to work together, the teacher then
calls on a number of them to share their answers with the whole
class, comment on their responses, and then proceed to introducing
some new ideas or whatever.
This level of use offers the benefit of breaking
up the potential tedium of non-stop lecturing, adds variety, and
gets students into an active cognitive mode. It
requires little or no advance planning and can be used in classes
of any size. The problem with this level of use is that it generally
does not generate a particularly powerful form of learning.
It can provide a few minutes of practice in a narrowly defined exercise,
but nothing much more significant than that.
Frequent Use of Structured Activities
the 1980's and '90's, several writers began advocating the use of
more structured small group activities under the name of collaborative
or cooperative learning. This approach represents a significant
step up from the casual use of small groups in terms of the potential
for significant learning.
Although the particular recommendations vary
depending on the perspective of the author, the general pattern
of cooperative learning has several common features. Writers recommend
using small groups activities frequently.
They recommend advance planning in
order to think through the issues associated with individual and
group accountability, how to form groups, how long to leave the
groups together, whether to assign roles, et cetera.
In general, though, this approach does
not involve a substantial change in the overall structure of the
course. Rather, it focuses on a series of group activities
associated with particular lessons to be taught. If the course was
basically a lecture or discussion course before, it can basically
stay a lecture or discussion course afterwards. The
planning is focused on a series of small group activities associated
with a particular lesson. The small group activities "fit
into" the rest of the course; the other parts of the course
are generally not changed to support the small group activity.
Transformative Use of Small Groups
learning represents an even more intense use of small groups in
that it changes the structure of the course
in order to develop and then take advantage of the special capabilities
of high performance learning teams.
Such teams have two features that offer major
advantages in an educational situation:
- As members of a team,
individual students become willing to commit to a very high level
of effort in their learning, and
- learning teams are capable
of solving problems that are beyond the capability of even their
most talented members.
As is well-known in the world of sports, for
example, a team that plays well as a "team" is far better
than a team that has one "star" but does not know how
to play together well as a team. The same is true with effective
learning teams. They do not need an "academic superstar"
to do super work. Such teams help individual members of the team
better understand the material, and the team
becomes capable of solving very challenging and complex problems
that are well beyond the capability of the best student in the class
Can team-based learning be used in a wide variety
of courses? The answer is clearly yes. In
order to use team-based learning, a course only needs to satisfy
- the course must contain
a significant body of information and ideas that the teacher wants
students to understand, and
- one of the primary
goals for the course is for students to learn how to apply or
use the content by solving problems, answering questions, resolving
Although some college courses are focused on
the development of special skills (e.g., learning a foreign language,
how to use particular kinds of technology), most courses easily
meet these two conditions for being able to use team-based learning.
Team-based learning is referred to here as being
a "transformative" use of small groups because it drives
three kinds of transformations:
- It transforms the structure
of the course.
- It transforms "small
groups" into "teams.”
- It transforms the quality
of student learning.
What is Distinctive about Team-Based Learning?
Although Michaelsen will provide a more
detailed description of team-based learning in the next chapter,
a brief description will be provided here. By my definition,
"team-based learning" is a particular course structure
that is designed to support the development of high performance
learning teams and to provide opportunities for these teams to engage
in significant learning tasks.
There are two key ideas
in this definition:
- The first is
that team-based learning is a course
structure, not a series of independent small group activities.
Although teachers can and have borrowed "pieces" of
team-based learning (usually the Readiness Assurance Process),
team-based learning itself consists of a
particular course structure, that is, a particular set and sequence
of learning activities.
- The second
key idea is that team-based learning revolves
around the development of "teams," a kind of
social unit that is quite distinct from a "group." At
this time I will comment on each of these two key ideas.
Course Structure for Team-Based Learning
Although the particular structure can be and
has been modified to fit particular teaching circumstances, the
following description is what happens in a typical 15-week semester
The whole course is divided
into five to seven units focused on
the major topics of the subject. This results in several
units that are two to three weeks long.
Within each of these topical
units, the teacher then sets up the following three-phase sequence.
(See Figure 2)
In the preparation phase, students
do the reading assignments for the whole unit. The goal in
this initial phase is not for the students to gain an in-depth mastery
or full comprehension of all the readings but to
get a good introduction to the information and ideas on this topic;
in-depth understanding will come later.
The Readiness Assurance Process is a four-step
- First, students take
a test on the readings individually, preferably a relatively
short test (often multiple choice in form) that can be graded
- When finished, students turn in their individual
answer sheets and then immediately take
the same test as a group. Both tests are graded in class
and both count as part of the course grade.
- The third step, which is optional, is an appeal
process. If any of the groups think one or more of their
answers should have been counted as correct, they can submit a
written appeal, making reference to material in the reading assignment
that supports their answer. The teacher later decides whether
to grant credit for the appeal or not. If so, only the group(s)
that made the appeal get(s) the credit.
- The fourth and final step is for the teacher
to offer "corrective instruction."
That is, after the students have shown what they can learn individually
and in groups, the teacher can offer any additional comments that
he/she feels are necessary for a correct understanding of the
key concepts. The benefit of waiting until now is that the teacher
can focus his/her comments only on those ideas that students were
not able to understand on their own. And the students, having
just struggled to "get a handle on this material," are
more ready to listen closely to a set of brief, focused statements.
By the end of the preparation phase, students typically
have a moderate level of understanding of the material and are thereby
ready to start the application phase. In this phase they use the
content to answer questions, solve problems, create explanations,
make predictions, or doing whatever it is that constitutes "using"
the content for this particular subject. The
next several class sessions are devoted to a series of small group
application exercises in which increasingly difficult questions
and problems are given to the groups. The groups each formulate
their own responses to the problems, the teacher leads a comparison
of the different responses by the groups and offers feedback on
the quality of their responses. Chapter three of this volume has
specific recommendations on how to generate questions and problems
that simultaneously accomplish two goals: helping the groups learn
how to use the material and helping them become more cohesive, that
is, more committed to the success of the team.
Finally, after the teams have practiced applying the material
for some time, they are ready for the assessment phase. Here the
teacher in essence says: "You have been
solving these problems several times. Now do it one more time and
I will grade your responses as part of the course grade."
Following this, the groups are ready to go on to the next unit and
repeat the cycle. Only this time, they can start to integrate previous
material with the new course material.
Characteristics of "Teams"
The second distinguishing characteristic
of team-based learning is the reliance on
the special characteristics of "teams" to accomplish a
special kind of learning. People who have not had the good
fortune of having had a personal experience that allowed them to
be a member of something that was a "team" rather than
just a "group," may need an explanation of what the differences
between the two entities are.
Groups and teams both consist of
two or more people who interact in some common activity.
What distinguishes teams from groups
is that teams are characterized by:
- A high level of individual
commitment to the welfare of the group, and
- A high level of trust
among the members of the group.
The process of having a
"group" of people become a "team" requires:
- Time interacting
- Resources (especially
- A challenging task
that becomes a common goal
- Frequent feedback on
individual and group performance
When this happens, a "team" becomes capable
- Inspiring a very high
level of individual effort,
- Challenging each other
with a high tolerance for the "give and take" of honest
communication without taking offense,
- Working together very
- Successfully accomplishing
very complex and challenging tasks.
Different Recommendations on How to Use Small
The diagram presented earlier
in this essay (Figure 1) put cooperative
learning and team-based learning as two sub-categories under the
larger umbrella concept of "small group learning." Proponents
of cooperative learning often see that concept as the large umbrella
concept with team-based learning being simply one version of cooperative
I believe it is important to see these two approaches
as equivalent sub-categories because many
of the prescriptive recommendations put forth for cooperative learning
do not apply to team-based learning and in fact are often counter-productive
to the process of building high performance learning teams. Why
The fundamental difference
between the two approaches lies in the relative time frame they
are using and in the degree of integration they are striving for.
by and large views small groups as a teaching
technique that is applied in a series of independent learning activities,
each of which is aimed at accomplishing a specific set of learning
In contrast, team-based
learning views small groups as the basis of a semester-long instructional
strategy in which a sequence of small group activities is
designed and linked in such a way that they accomplish two purposes
simultaneously: deepening student learning and enhancing team development.
These two different perspectives lead to one
clear similarity but several differences in terms of their recommendations
for managing small groups.
Table 2 summarizes a list
of common questions that faculty members have about using small
groups, and shows the typical answers offered by the two perspectives.
For each of these, I will try to explain the thinking behind the
different answers offered by the two approaches.
Should Groups work "In-Class"
This is one area where both perspectives
agree: Groups should be given time in class
to do their work.
all members to be present and this becomes difficult when students
try to meet outside of class. When groups search for a time
and place to meet, most but often not all of the members can be
present. This automatically creates an disadvantage for those students
that are absent and for those groups with only some of their members
present. Thus the teacher who asks groups to meet outside of class
has created a problem that students cannot easily solve on their
related reason is that, when groups are asked to meet outside of
class, this increases their tendency to look for ways to divide
up the work and do it separately, so they don't have to meet
outside of class. Dividing up the work eliminates the group character
of the assignment and changes it back to a collection of individual
Should the Groups Spend Time Discussing
the Quality of Group Work?
This is one
area where cooperative learning and team-based learning have slightly
different views, but the differences are not critical.
In general, advocates of cooperative
learning recommend that groups periodically
spend some time examining the question of how well they are working
together as a group. The idea is to help the groups identify
any problems they are having so corrective action can be taken.
For advocates of team-based
learning, this is not seen as a bad
activity at all, simply one that is usually not necessary.
If the groups are given good assignments (for recommendations on
this, see Chapter Four of this book) and prompt feedback, teams
can figure out for themselves quite quickly whether they are working
together well or not, and if not, why not. Hence it simply isn't
necessary to spend additional class time on this topic.
How Long Should the Groups Stay Together?
of cooperative learning offer several reasons why groups should
be changed periodically. Changing the composition of the
groups allows each student to get to know and work with more of
the other students in the class. In classes with a diversity of
students, working with other people who are significantly different
from oneself can be an important learning achievement in itself.
Changing students also moves any "free-loading" students
around from group to group during the course of the semester, so
that any one set of students doesn't have to "carry" them
the whole semester. Finally, students sometimes fall into predictable
patterns in their relationships with one another. Changing students
breaks up these patterns and allows the groups the be more dynamic
who use team-based learning, though, periodically changing the composition
of the teams is absolutely the wrong thing to do. The reason
is that it takes time for a group of students to get to know each
other well enough to start functioning effectively as a team. Thus
whenever you change the composition of a group, you move the group
back to "square one" in terms of its becoming an effectively
functioning team. In essence, you have made it virtually impossible
for most groups to ever become a "team" and have significantly
reduced the "payoff" time when they can work on challenging
educational tasks effectively.
helping students get to know more of the other students in the class?
This does have educational value and this happens with team-based
learning somewhat during the whole class discussions. But the other
view is that it is more important educationally to learn how to
work together as a team, than it is to get acquainted with other
students in the class. Students who keep changing groups never learn
the difference between a newly formed group and a well-developed
team, and hence never discover what a "real" team can
do. That is a serious educational cost.
the problem of "free-loading" students? When team-based
learning is used effectively, this problem seldom occurs. When groups
start functioning as a team, individuals who might be inclined to
be "free-loaders" become very uncomfortable in that role
and tend to become contributing members. But even when there are
individuals who persist in not contributing, the groups are large
enough that they can work around the problem students. Then, at
the end of the semester, each group assesses the contribution of
all members through the process of peer assessment. This reduces
the credit that non-productive students receive for work done by
the group. (See more on peer assessment below.) Hence "free-loading"
students simply don't get to "free-load” in a team-based
How Big Should the Groups Be?
learning proponents tend to recommend relatively small groups, meaning
four or fewer people per group, while team-based learning recommends
larger groups, generally 5-7 students per group. Both agree
that groups of 8 or more tend to be inefficient and ineffective.
Since small groups in cooperative
learning are together for a shorter period of time, they need help
in becoming semi-cohesive and organized as quickly as possible.
To help the groups get started quickly, teachers
using cooperative learning often assign roles, and this is easier
to do with smaller groups than with larger groups. There
are four roles that are usually assigned—reporter,
recorder, spokesperson, folder monitor. Hence groups of 4
are ideal. More than this leaves some members without an assigned
trying to use team-based learning, this "quick fix" for
group formation can generate problems over time. The smaller
size and the assigning of roles limit the ability of the groups
to evolve into effective teams. When groups are small (meaning four
or fewer), they have fewer intellectual resources and perspectives
at their disposal. Hence groups should be as large as possible until
they become too large for all members to participate. This seems
to happen when the groups have 8 or more members. Hence, a group
of 5-7 people seems to be an optimum size. The problems created
by assigned roles are discussed next.
Should Students Be Given Assigned
As noted above, cooperative
learning proponents often use assigned roles. Generally the
teacher assigns these roles and then periodically changes the role
for each person. Rotating the roles enables all group members to
learn different skills and to contribute equitably.
learning, on the other hand, finds assigned roles to be unnecessary
at best and counterproductive at worst. A lot of time ends
up being spent on determining who has what role, what that role
entails, what that person therefore needs to do, et cetera. And
when the roles are rotated periodically, this just multiplies the
time spent on "role issues."
in team-based learning is that, as groups learn how to function
effectively as teams, they naturally and automatically begin to
manage the various functions themselves. Everyone makes sure
that everyone gets heard, watches how much time is left, decides
who will report out, et cetera. They do this quickly and easily,
in a fraction of the time taken when roles are assigned. But more
importantly, it is the students themselves who learn how to handle
roles and functions. When the teacher takes over responsibility
of assigning and distributing roles, this in fact prevents students
from learning on their own what needs to be done and how to get
that accomplished effectively and efficiently.
Should I Grade the Work of the Group?
of cooperative learning seem to have mixed feelings on this topic.
Some, like Kagan (1995), argue strongly against grading group
work on the basis that grades should reflect individual work and
nothing else. Others, like Millis and Cottell (1998), at times argue
both ways. In one part of their book, they write that “Individual
accountability precludes this practice [of group grades].”
(p. 12) Yet in other parts of their book, they offer advice on how
to grade group work. Eventually they qualify their opposition as
being against “undifferentiated group grades,” meaning
they believe that all members of a group should not automatically
receive the same grade for work performed by the group. That seems
to be a more valid stance.
for this ambivalence seems to a concern that grading group work
will result in unfairly raising or lowering the grades of some individuals
within the group. The fear is that hardworking students in
a poor group may end up with a lower course grade because of poor
group work, and poor students may be carried along by hard-working
learning perspective is that it is critically important for graded
group work to constitute a significant percentage of the course
grade, say 30-50%. Groups need an incentive for becoming
an effective team and they need feedback on how well they are performing
as a team. Graded group work meets both these needs. If a major
part of the course grade depends on high quality team performance,
the individual and the team have the necessary incentive to work
hard, to do well. In addition, the feedback on team performance,
both graded and ungraded, gives teams the information they need
to monitor and improve their performance as a team. Hence, grading
group work is critically important.
the unfairness issue? That is an important issue. Giving
the same grade to all members in the group would result in grades
that are unduly high or unduly low for many students in a class.
But this potential problem is ameliorated by a number of different
processes in team-based learning.
First, when individual students
come under-prepared, the other members know it quickly and typically
make their concern known to that individual, directly or subtlely.
This creates significant pressure from the team for each individual
to be more prepared in the future. Hence there are fewer "under-contributing"
Second, the teams are also in a
good position to recognize multiple and different kinds of contributions
from individual members. One member may be able to contribute a
wealth of creative ideas to consider, while others are stronger
in analyzing and assessing those ideas. Hence teams have a rich
and strong concept of what constitutes a valuable contribution to
Finally, in those rare cases where
some individuals persist in not contributing, the other members
will know that and will indicate that on their peer assessment at
the end of the course. This ensures that those who do not contribute
will not receive the same credit as everyone else for the quality
of the group work.
Should I Have the Group Members Assess
of having students assess how well each member of the group has
contributed to the work of the group, is known as "peer assessment."
of cooperative learning seem to have mixed feelings about this practice.
IF a teacher decides to grade the group work, then peer assessment
is appropriate. But even then, the process is recommended only if
students are given proper training and the teacher monitors the
process sufficiently (see, for example, Millis and Cottell, 1998,
learning, peer assessment is considered to be an essential component
of the grading process. Team-based learning proponents would
agree with most cooperative learning proponents, that "undifferentiated
group grades" are potentially problematic. If the team is effective
and everyone contributes evenly (which is often the case), then
everyone in the group deserves the same credit for whatever grade
the group receives for its work. But, in those teams where there
is variation in the quantity and/or quality of individual contribution,
then this needs to be recognized in the credit that is eventually
awarded to individuals for the work done by the group. This is best
accomplished by peer assessment. The students, not the teacher,
have the best knowledge of who and how much each member contributed
to the work of the group.
the process of peer assessment works as follows. The group
does its work and receives a grade for that work. Near the end of
the semester the group engages in peer assessment where each member
assesses the work of the other members of the group in terms of
how much each person contributed to the learning and the success
of the group. This assessment is then used, either (a) as a component
to be added to the group grade, or (b) as a component that is used
as a percentage multiplier of all graded group work. When there
is variation of individual contribution, this procedure results
in variation in individual credit received for group work: individuals
who contribute more receive more credit than individuals who contribute
less. Doing this resolves the "fairness" issue in grading
How Important is it to provide "prompt"
feedback on individual and group work?
There is little
or no discussion of this issue in the general literature on cooperative
learning proponents, however, this is a critically important issue.
Teams need frequent, prompt feedback in order to know:
- how well they
are performing as a team and
they need to modify how they are operating.
When there is a substantial delay,
say a week or so, between when the groups do their work and when
the assessment comes back, the typical reaction by groups is to
see "what they got" and move on. However, when the teams
receive immediate feedback, they instinctively engage in an analysis
of the reasons for anything they got wrong. It is this latter response
that teachers want to promote, if they want to help the teams improve
the quality of their learning and performance.
Potential Impact on Student Learning
What are the possible
educational benefits that teachers might expect to see if they move
from using cooperative learning to using team-based learning?
Since both ways of teaching are variations of
teaching with small groups, this question will be addressed by looking
at the four kinds of learning that are likely
to be encouraged by any substantial use of small groups:
the course content
- Applying the course
content to problem solving, decision-making, et cetera.
- Developing the skills
for working effectively on a team
- Valuing the team approach
to solving complex intellectual tasks
Understanding the Course Content
All courses have a certain amount of content
learning (for example, factual information, conceptual ideas, et
cetera) that students need to "understand and remember."
Team-based learning and cooperative learning
are both capable of maintaining a high level of content learning
while also promoting other kinds of learning. However the
two approaches rely on different activities to accomplish this.
Cooperative learning activities
are generally aimed at learning how to apply the course content
rather than helping students acquire their initial understanding
of the content itself. Hence it relies on the usual procedures
for accomplishing content learning: in-class lectures, out-of-class
readings, homework exercises, et cetera. Advocates of cooperative
learning sometimes note the need for teachers to create “motivating”
homework assignments and for students to do the homework responsibly.
But the small group activities themselves are generally aimed at
application learning, not the initial content learning.
Team-based learning, on
the other hand, uses small group activities to directly support
students' initial understanding of the content as well as their
subsequent efforts to learn the content by applying it.
The structure of the team-based learning sequence
(see Figure 2) gives students three
"passes" at increasing their understanding of the content,
the first two occurring in the Readiness Assurance Process.
- The first
pass is when the students study the material
on their own before class, a task for which they are held
individually accountable on the first test.
after taking an individual test, students
interact with other students on the group test with questions
designed to explore the meaning of the material.
following the Readiness Assurance Process, students
get repeated opportunities to enhance their understanding of the
content by working on problems where they apply it to a
variety of problems, questions, etc.
As a result of students' going through these
three stages, teachers generally report that students
maintain a very high level of content learning (see the "Level
of understanding of the content" in Figure
2). (Note: The authors of several of the chapters in Part Two
of this book comment on the high level of content learning when
they use team-based learning.)
Ability to Apply the Course Content
Application learning is
where one can expect to see a major difference when using team-based
learning. Cooperative learning and team-based learning both
offer significant opportunities for students to learn how to apply
course material. But, for a number of different reasons, team-based
learning has the potential for both a quantitative and qualitative
increase in application learning.
The quantitative increase
happens because students spend a higher percentage of class time
in application activities. Most cooperative learning exercises are
application exercises, but the time spent on these exercises seldom
exceeds 25-40% of total class time. With team-based learning, that
percentage increases to 75-80%. The Readiness Assessment Procedure
is so effective and efficient in providing students with a basic
mastery of the course content, that students are left with substantially
more time to spend on application exercises.
The qualitative increase
results from students being able to take on more complex and more
challenging problems. Several factors make this possible. First,
having larger groups means each group has more intellectual resources
at its disposal for addressing the application problems. Second,
by spending more time together, the groups become more capable of
working together effectively, i.e., they can operate as a "high
performance team" rather than simply as a "group."
Third, the fact that the group work is graded provides a direct
incentive for the teams to invest substantial time and effort into
high quality group work.
Developing Team Skills
Society at large as well
as most professional organizations are increasingly recognizing
the value of people who know how to work effectively in teams on
intellectual tasks, and are calling on colleges and universities
to incorporate this kind of learning into the higher education curriculum.
Any small group activity is potentially capable of supporting the
development of team-working skills. But cooperative learning and
team-based learning use very different strategies for accomplishing
Cooperative learning in
general relies on (a) the use of assigned
roles within groups, (b) having the teacher
monitor the groups to see how they are handling the content
and how well the groups are working, and (c) spending time after
the small group exercise to "process"
(i.e., review and analyze) the small
by contrast, relies on the teams themselves
to monitor individual and group performance and to improve performance
as necessary. To do that, the teams only need prompt discriminating
feedback on individual and team performance. This feedback is provided
immediately in the Readiness Assessment Procedures and in the team
application exercises. This feedback makes each team aware of both
the absolute and relative quality of its performance, and thereby
allows them to assess how well they are working together as a team.
If they are not functioning well as a team, the
problems are not difficult for them to diagnose:
- Is everyone coming
- Is everyone speaking
up when he/she needs to?
- Is everyone listening
carefully to everyone else?
Is there reason to believe
that college students, working in teams, are capable of improving
their teamworking skills without input from the instructor? Although
we do not have data comparing cooperative learning and team-based
learning, there is data clearly documenting that, when groups that
are given the right conditions, they dramatically improve their
ability to work together as a team and to solve complex problems.
What are the "right
conditions"? They need:
- time to work together,
- freedom to learn how
to "manage their own affairs," and
- feedback that tells
them how well they are doing.
Why is team-based learning
especially effective in helping individual students learn how to
improve their team skills? In team-based learning, groups:
- have more time together,
because they are left together for the whole semester,
- are allowed to manage
their own interactions, and
- are given lots of prompt
feedback that tells them how well they are doing and gives them
incentives to do well.
Valuing the Team Approach to Intellectual Tasks
In addition to wanting
people who know how to work in teams, society needs and is calling
for people who understand the value of this approach to the challenging
intellectual tasks of our time.
Team-based learning seems
especially well equipped to help students see the value of the team
approach to complex problems. Students repeatedly see the
data from the RAT's and this data essentially always shows that
the teams outperform even the highest individual scores over time.
(Michaelsen, Watson, and Black, 1989)
Then, in the application phase of team-based
learning, teachers need to provide complex, challenging tasks for
the teams to work on, and give them clear feedback on the relative
quality of their performance. When this happens, it is crystal clear
to everyone that an effective team approach is vastly superior to
what could be accomplished by even a very bright individual, working
The Value of Team-Based Learning in Particularly
Challenging Teaching Situations
teachers have found that team-based learning can be especially helpful
in dealing with a number of situations that can be and often are
particularly challenging for teachers.
Four situations where this is true are when teachers
are faced with:
- large classes,
with a high level of student diversity,
with extended meeting times, and
that emphasize "thinking" skills.
When teachers are faced with the responsibility
of teaching large classes of 100 or more students and seek advice
on how best to do this, they frequently get technical suggestions:
get more organized, try to make your lectures lively, use more audio-visual
materials, et cetera. But technical changes
like these do not have the ability to make
a significant impact on the two biggest problems with large classes
from a learning perspective: student anonymity and passivity.
I would urge teachers
with large classes to consider using team-based learning as a strategic
response. By changing the structure of the course (that is,
changing the primary type and sequence of learning activities),
the teacher can make a large class operate like a small class and
thereby directly impact these two key problems.
Students no longer feel
anonymous because they participate regularly in a group where
everyone knows them and they know everyone else. Student
passivity is obviously no longer a problem because essentially
every class session consists of active learning. In the application
phase of team-based learning, which constitutes the majority of
class sessions, students are working on problems and getting feedback
on how successful they are. Students in a team-based learning course
may complain about being overworked, but they never complain about
being passive or bored.
There are some adjustments that need to be made
when using team-based learning in classes of 100 students or more.
Michaelsen identifies these in Chapter __ in this volume. But overall,
these are relatively easy to make.
Back in the mid-1980's,
Michaelsen and I made a "mistake" that allowed us to realize
just how effective team-based learning is in making a large class
to operate like a small class. Michaelsen was using the IDEA
course evaluation system to obtain student evaluations in a large
class with over 100 students in it. Since the IDEA system compares
students' responses in a given course with other courses of similar
size, we had to note the size of the class on the information sheet.
Somehow the class size got recorded as "11" instead of
"111" students. We were surprised when the results came
back. His course was rated in the 90-95th percentile; in the past
they had always been well above the 95th percentile. (Note: In the
IDEA system, the overall evaluation is made on a scale of 1 (low)
to 100 (high), with 50 being average.) When we finally figured out
that the reason for the "drop" was that his course was
being compared to other courses with 15 or fewer students, we realized
the significance of our discovery. Most teachers of large classes
would feel exceedingly successful if student ratings came even close
to the average ratings in small class. But Michaelsen's
class, with 100+ students in it, had been rated as two standards
deviations ABOVE the average when compared to SMALL classes!
Classes with a High Level of Student Diversity
Teachers frequently have
classes in which students are diverse, in terms of key factors
such as prior preparation, age, related background experiences,
ethnicity, attitudes toward the subject, etc.
Team-based learning creates the conditions in
which people who are very different from one another learn that
they need to work together and that they can work together. They
find ways to make their differences an asset rather than a liability.
But again, the conditions necessary to make
this happen are the same conditions that make groups evolve into
teams: time together, freedom to find ways to work out their differences,
feedback on their individual and group performance, and incentives,
i.e., a reason to want to work together effectively.
Courses with Extended Meeting Times
I frequently get frantic calls for help from
teachers who are facing the prospect of teaching weekend courses,
intersession courses, or condensed courses, where students meet
for half-days or several whole days at a time. "What
should I do? I can't lecture for three hours at a time!"
I frequently suggest that they consider using
team-based learning. This allows the teacher to move some or most
of students' initial exposure to the content to "out-of-class"
reading time. And that leaves the teacher and students free to use
some or most of the class sessions for learning how to use and apply
the content. Once they have created a team-based learning structure
for the course, they generally have little difficulty figuring out
how to use extended class meeting time to engage students in learning
how to apply and use the course material. This prospect is seen
as attractive, not problematic.
Courses That Emphasize "Thinking" Skills
Team-based learning can
be especially helpful to anyone who wants to emphasize the development
of students' thinking skills in their courses. In contrast
to memorization, thinking is an intellectual activity where the
interaction between people--if properly structured--can be particularly
valuable. Whether the thinking involves critical thinking (judging
the value of something), practical thinking (problem solving and
decision making), or creative thinking (imagining and creating new
ideas, objects), learning how to incorporate the ideas and perspectives
of several people and learning how to work through differences can
greatly enhance each student's own ability to think effectively.
The extended application phase of team-based
learning supports this kind of learning very well. Students
have multiple opportunities to exchange ideas with others, practice
thinking, and get feedback on the quality of their thinking.
Team-Based Learning and Problem-Based Learning
Before finishing this chapter, we should
take time to examine the relationship between
team-based learning and a similar teaching strategy: problem-based
learning (PBL). Team-based learning and problem-based learning
are quite similar in two important respects. They
both involve a great deal of in-class small group work and both
give the groups challenging, decision-based assignments.
(Wilkerson & Gijselaers, 1996; PBL websites at the University
of Delaware, Samford University, and San Diego State University)
There are, however, two
One relates to the focus
of the decision-based problems that form the basis of the group
assignments. The problems in team-based learning generally
aim at having students learn how to apply information and ideas
that have been previously studied while PBL problems are designed
to have students learn how to learn new material. That is, PBL aims
at having students "learn how to learn" by having them
complete assignments based on complex, unstructured problems that
can only be solved by acquiring and using knowledge not yet studied.
In practice, though, the distinction between given the problems
given in team-based learning and PBL is not that great. Many PBL
teachers in fact do have students study some content information
first and then give the groups a problem to solve that requires
this previously studied content plus more content that has not yet
been studied. (University of Delaware, 1995-96)
The second difference
between team-based learning and PBL is that, while PBL has its own
specific ideas about the kinds of tasks given to learning group,
it does not have distinct ideas on how to use small groups.
Rather, it seems to be a "borrower of ideas" from the
general literature and practice on this topic. Most PBL teachers
seem to use small groups in a way that is more akin to cooperative
learning than to team-based learning. As a result, instead of employing
strategies that help newly-formed groups evolve quickly into high
performance learning teams, they tend to rely on tutors to keep
the groups functioning effectively and focused on completing their
assigned tasks. As a result, there is sometimes a high cost in the
form of the faculty or staff tutors needed to coach each group of
students, especially in the model used by most medical schools.
Thus, it would seem that
most PBL teachers could benefit from the prescriptions of team-based
learning in two important ways.
One is that, by developing
high performance learning teams, they could eliminate the need for
(and the cost of) providing tutors.
The other is that they
could increase the effectiveness and capabilities of the learning
teams. For example, in a team-based learning version of PBL,
instructors might 1) use the Readiness Assurance Process over assigned
readings to ensure that students master a set of foundational concepts
and to enhance the promotion of team development, 2) have students
practice using this content, in teams, with one or more application
problems, and then 3) assign additional problems that require the
teams to identify, learn, and learn how to apply relevant new content
on their own. The incorporation of team-based learning procedures
in such a way would allow PBL teachers to strengthen the power of
the student groups, reduce the tutoring costs, and still keep what
is distinctive and exciting about PBL.
This chapter has presented team-based learning
as an advanced form of teaching with small groups. Even as
carefully structured group activities represent a major improvement
beyond the "casual use" of small groups, team-based learning
offers major educational benefits that go beyond the capability
of the periodic use of individual small group activities.
By creating a course structure that involves
small groups in the initial acquisition of course content, in learning
how to apply that content, and in the assessment of student learning,
the procedures of team-based learning offer teachers an extremely
powerful tool for creating several kinds of higher level learning--just
like steam turbines are able to drive powerful machines in modern
society. The key to using this tool successfully lies in understanding
a few key principles of team dynamics and then learning how to apply
those principles with specific subject matter and in a variety of
The remaining chapters in this book explain
those principles and illustrate how several teachers have used team-based
learning with different kinds of subject matter and in different
kinds of teaching situations.
People who have used team-based learning effectively,
such as the authors of the chapters in Part II of this volume, testify
to the transformational character of this approach to teaching:
- It transforms the structure
of the course.
- It transforms small
groups into teams.
- It transforms the quality
of student learning (and the joy of teaching for many!).
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