Team-Based Learning - Making it your own!

By Dr. Michele Larson


When I was first introduced to Team-based Learning (TBL) four years ago, I was skeptical. Not because I loved lecturing (which I see as less than effective), but because of the rigid structure imposed by using the official TBL method. Over the past year, I have adapted the idea of TBL to work in my biology classrooms by using some aspects of the framework and incorporating other strategies. So, what is TBL, why would you want to use it, and how have I changed the traditional framework to better suit my teaching?

According to the Team-based Learning Collaborative (2020), TBL is a method of instruction that uses collaborative teaching strategies in the form of small group learning to engage students in active learning using a flipped classroom.  Jim Sibley’s “Introduction to Team-based Learning” (2014) explains the steps and requirements for implementing TBL. The process begins with students preparing for class by reading an article, watching a video, or another form of preparation to learn the basics of the topic before coming to class. Next, students take an individual test (the iRAT (individual Readiness Assessment Test)) followed by a group test (tRAT (team Readiness Assurance Test)) using the same questions, but with collaborative answers. If students disagree with a question on the tests, they can appeal in writing to regain points (Appeals Process).  Based on the results of the iRAT (which can be done online just before the start of class or at the beginning of class and graded while students take the tRAT), a short lecture by the instructor is conducted to cover the concepts that were missed on the iRAT.  Once the basics are covered, the students work in their heterogenous groups (5-7 students/group is recommended) to solve a problem using the 4S Framework. The 4S framework includes: 1) a significant problem that is relevant to students; 2) the same problem for the entire class; 3) specific choices to resolve the problem for teams to select; and 4) simultaneously reporting their decision followed by a class discussion on the solution to the problem with each group sharing their reasoning for selecting their specific solution. Finally, students fill-out peer evaluations to rate their group member’s contributions and to suggest constructive feedback. TBL has been researched and found to be more engaging for students (Dana 2007, Clark et al. 2008, Chad 2012, Mennenga 2013, Johnson et al. 2014, Alvarez-Bell et al. 2017, Jeno et a. 2017) and improved student learning (Zingon et al. 2010, Branson et al. 2016).

After attending multiple workshops on Team-based Learning, I loved the idea of a method for flipping the class but had some major reservations. My first issue was how applicable TBL could be for introductory courses (most of the research and examples given during the workshops focused on using TBL in upper division courses or applied (nursing, pharmacy, human resource management, etc.) programs). I also had issues with the creation of heterogenous groups of 5-7 students. My reservation came from the problems with accountability that larger groups encounter. I also found two of the four S’s to be less than ideal: specific choices and simultaneous reporting. But with my background in curriculum design, I decided to take the ideas that resonated with me and modify or ignore the aspects that did not.

The first course I applied TBL to was Animal Biology in the Fall of 2019. I knew that this type of teaching and learning would take a lot of time and effort to implement correctly and as this was the first time I had taught the course, I wanted to ensure I made a strong effort with TBL but did not feel ready to covert the entire course to this strategy (and I still don’t use it in this fashion – I strongly believe in using multiple approaches to teaching instead of a single framework or active learning strategy). Thus, I decided to have each unit of the course have a single team-based project. I searched case studies and other sources for significant problems related to the topics in a unit and then built a TBL lesson around these significant scenarios (thus starting with one of the four S’s). Next, I searched for videos, short articles, or other resource for the Readiness Assurance portion of the class (at that time I did not know how to make my own videos, so I relied on other sources). I was usually able to find two or more short (< 10 minute) foundational videos and one or two short articles (from online magazines, newsletters, and other sources). And because I like to give my students as much information as possible, I usually made half the sources required (would be on the quizzes) and the other half optional, supplemental sources (which could be used to finish the project). With the Readiness Assurance sources located, I could then make the quiz questions for the iRAT and tRAT. I also made a few PowerPoint Slides to aid in the short lecture after the quizzes (with the idea to skip any slides that were not needed based on the results of the quizzes).

While designing these TBL projects, I quickly realized that for it to work in my classes I needed to implement the Application Activities in a different way then had been explained in many of the workshops on TBL. Although I was happy with the idea of each group having the same significant problem, I did not see the benefits of the other two S’s: specific choices and simultaneous reporting. Thus, instead of providing students with a short list of possible choices or solutions for the significant problem, I made my open-ended questions just that: open to any and all possible answers (as long as students could justify their answers). I also found the idea of simultaneous reporting difficult as I wanted each group to explain their solution, but necessarily debate their views (I’ve never had a positive experience with debate as a student or instructor). Instead, I wanted students to reflect on the entire process and explain their group’s solution. Thus, I decided to have students work in table groups (four students/table) on the significant problem and then share with the class their solutions and finally write a short essay (1-2 pages) on the project’s problem and the solution.

Overall, this method of TBL met my goals for the projects, but as with any teaching strategy, I learned that some aspects could be improved. First, the table groups with four students each were too small if any student was absent from class during the TBL project. Thus, in the Spring, I had TBL projects consist of two table groups (up to eight students) in my non-major’s course. I also realized that my quiz (iRAT and tRAT) questions were seen by students as too specific and difficult. My solution to this was to allow students to take notes from the sources to use on the quizzes. This reduced the stress the students were experiencing, but ensured they still read or watch the materials prior to the TBL project. I also decided that writing a full essay was asking more than I wanted of my non-major students. So, in the Spring 2020, I changed the individual essay into a one-page in-class reflection assignment. Students hand wrote a reflection that addressed the following questions:


  • State your answer to the question: Should viruses be classified as living organisms?
  • Explain how you came to this conclusion (evidence and justification).
  • Do you agree/disagree with the team’s claim about whether viruses are alive or not alive?
  • What new information did you learn during this project?
  • What is still confusing about the information covered in this project?


And finally, because I found the TBL projects to be highly effective (in one Animal Biology project, students had to calculate multiple complex conversions, something they usually don’t do well or with any level of enthusiasm, without complaint for having to do so much math to solve the problem), I increase the number of projects from one in each unit to two/unit in the next course I used this approach (Spring 2020), however, I had to adapt the last three projects to online formats (with individual assignments instead of group discussions) in response to COVID-19 and required online learning.

Using TBL projects in my classes has been a fun and engaging method to have students learn about topics in my biology classes. Although my modifications change the implementation of these projects, I still believe that these learning opportunities embodied the spirit if not all aspects of the structure of team-based learning.



Alvarez-Bell, R. M., Wirtz, D., and Bian, H. (2017). Identifying keys to success in innovative teaching: Student engagement and instructional practices as predictors of student learning in a course using a team-based learning approach. Teaching and Learning Inquiry 5: 128-146.

Branson, S., Boss, L., and Fowler, D. L. (2016). Team-based learning: application in undergraduate baccalaureate nursing education. Journal of Nursing Education and Practice 6: 59-64.

Clark, M. C., Nguyen, H. T., Bray, C., and Levine, R. E. (2008). Team-based Learning in an Undergraduate Nursing Course. Journal of Nursing Education 47: 111-117.

Dana, S. W. (2007). Implementing team-based learning in an introduction to law course. Journal of Legal Studies Education 24:59-108.

Jeno, L. M., Raaheim, A., Kristensen, S. M., Kristensen, K. D., Hole, T. N., Haugland, M. J., and Maeland, S. (2017). The relative effect of team-based learning on motivation and learning: a self-determination theory perspective.  CBE- Life Science Education 16:1-12.

Johnson, D. W. , Johnson, R., and Smith, K. A. (2014). Cooperative Learning: improving university instruction by basing practice on validated theory. Journal of Excellence in College Teaching 25: 47-62.

Mennenga, H. A. (2013). Student engagement and examination performance in a team-based learning course. Journal of Nursing Education 52:475-479.

Sibley, J. (2014) Introduction to Team-based Learning. Team-based Learning Collaborative (  Accessed on July 2, 2020.

Team-based Learning Collaborative. 2020. Accessed on July 2, 2020.

Zingon, M. M., Franks, A. S., Guirguis, A. B., George, C. M., and Howard-Thompson, A. (2010). Comparing Team-based and Mixed Active-Learning Methods in an Ambulatory Care Elective Course. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education 74: 160.