The distinction between Team-Based Learning and other group-based teaching methods can be easy to miss. One common perception is that TBL is similar to the case-study method used by many business schools. But I can safely say, having done many cases during my MBA at Duke University and even as an undergrad at Columbia, that there is a big difference. Here are four things that stood out to me:
In the TBL process, there is a stage called the Individual Readiness Assurance Test (IRAT), that quizzes students on their conceptual grasp of topics taught as part of the pre-work—in the form of a lecture recording and/or other multimodal course materials. The onus is on the student to come to class prepared. If they fail to do so, they risk losing out on the discussions in class (in addition to test marks) and not learning much from the lesson.
In addition, the split scoring system between the IRAT and its team-based equivalent, the Team Readiness Assurance Test (TRAT), provides a very real and tangible measure of the impact of working as a team. Typically, a student’s mean score for the IRAT is around 70% , significantly lower than that of a team’s TRAT score of around 90%. The value of teamwork is evident here, and its power in enabling peer-to-peer learning should not be overlooked.
The TRAT has an live feedback function, which means that right after team members debate among themselves and submit their collective answer, they will know if they answered the question correctly. If they didn’t, they must repeat the discussion process and re-submit their answers.
This has two very powerful effects. First, it helps realign a student’s confusion of a concept, and corrects it on the spot. Unfortunately, the contrary is true in most typical class formats: Teammates may debate about the topic outside of class on Sunday afternoon and reach an individual and collective conclusion. However, they will only find out in class on Tuesday, if they are right or not. This is the equivalent of hitting a golf ball on Sunday and finding out where it landed 48 hours later. Not very good for learning!
Second, immediate feedback also helps with team dynamics and encourages people to work in teams. Let’s say there is a more vocal student (who is frequently incorrect) and a quieter student (who is often correct). Team members are encouraged to work with each other and share their opinions, so they should consider the views of all the team members, and not just the most vocal ones. Going through the TRAT process is like practising for a meeting with associated stakes (in the TBL case, points) and time pressures.
The process of asking students in class to explain concepts is not new. However, a structured process of what to ask and whom to ask reaps quite different results. The IRAT and TRAT give teachers a sense of what the issues in the pedagogy and explanation of topics are, so that there is no need to waste time in class “cold calling” on someone to explain the obvious.
After submitting their collective answers, the team that arrived at the right answer will be tasked to explain how they derived their answer to the team that got the question wrong. This works two (perhaps three) ways:
- Students who did not get the right answer can get help understanding the topic of confusion from peers.
- Students who did get the right answer can reinforce their knowledge of the topic by explaining it in an easy-to-understand manner to the other teams.
- Teachers can evaluate the level of understanding of the topic among their students and play the role of the facilitator in the classroom discussion. Teachers would also be able to alter the scope and difficulty of their teaching materials.
The most valuable part of the process is, to me, the real world application exercises. This last stage of the TBL process is the closest proxy for real workplace problems and it can allow students to apply the thinking (and people) skills and knowledge they’ve learnt in class. Doing this in class with a time limit and the prospect of having to make a forced choice to answer application problem questions in 20 minutes drives a level of realism to the exercise, which is further enhanced by having to defend your team’s view against other teams.