Teaming up to Learn: TBL, an Effective Strategy for Collaborative Learning

Photograph of a classroom with two tables surrounded by chairs and two whiteboards on a brick wall.

Team-based Learning (TBL) is a specific, evidence-based teaching strategy that engages students in active learning. TBL solves many of the common problems that most instructors face while teaching: attendance, engagement, student learning, and performance.

The TBL Format

The basic format of TBL is ingenious in its simplicity. TBL assures student accountability to content and peers and enables students to apply course concepts on a level deeper than traditional lecturing. At the beginning of the semester, the instructor assigns students to teams. These teams will work together to solve problems over the course of the semester. During a single class period in a TBL class, the following occurs:

  1. Students are assigned specific reading(s) or other preparatory material(s) to complete prior to the class.
  2. Students arrive to class and complete a short individual quiz (Readiness Assurance Test, or RAT) over the assigned materials. The RAT assesses overall understanding of concepts, not simply memorization of facts and concepts.
  3. Next, students take a Team RAT using scratch-off cards that provide students with immediate feedback about whether their answer is correct. If it is not correct, they must persevere and deliberate with their team until they uncover the correct answer.
  4. While students take the Team RAT, the instructor grades the individual RAT answer sheets. This reduces the grading overhead for the instructor and helps to identify questions students may be struggling with the most.
  5. After students complete the RAT as a team, they turn in the scratch-off and write their team’s score on a board. (This ensures that the instructor can keep track of when the teams are done and how well they have done.) Students can also indicate on the board which questions they would like clarification on.
  6. Usually, the instructor will ask the class to provide clarification to the questions on the board and facilitate a discussion before directly answering the question. In some cases, a mini-lecture from the instructor may be needed to provide clarity if students cannot adequately address the question.
  7. Once the overall understanding by the class is assessed and assured, students continue their work with their teams to discuss more complex questions or solve complicated tasks, according to the 4-S format. The four S’s are:
    • Significant Problem: A Significant Problem may come from a case study or real-life scenario. It typically consists of many details that are not easily or intuitively answered by a single person and requires team effort to solve. Sometimes the answer choices are not clearly right or wrong, and students must explain why or how they came to their decision.
    • Same Problem: Everyone in the room is grappling with the same scenario and Specific Choices that they have to choose from to resolve the problem.
    • Specific Choices: Teams must make a specific choice from three to five specific answers, and they must commit to a single answer as a team and be able to justify their answer. This requires students to negotiate with each other and provide reasoning for their choices.
    • Simultaneous Report: Teams report their results simultaneously. The ideal is to have at least two, if not three answers chosen by the class, so that the class discussion is rich, and students are invested in their “rightness.” When there is emotional investment, students are more likely to remember the information because of the feelings associated with it.

There are often several rounds of 4-S discussions, which are facilitated by the instructor.

  1. Some TBL sessions end with definitive team tasks, such as the creation of a team product that is completed during class. This allows students to show evidence of growth in their understanding. A good example of this kind of task is a poster gallery walk where each team creates a poster that responds to a prompt, resolves a problem, or describes a task or process. Teams hang these posters and once again must make a decision to determine which poster or example is most successful at representing the problem or describing the task (and they cannot select their own). Often, the complexity of TBL tasks increases in relation to the amount of time spent on a subject or topic.

TBL & Peer Evaluation

An essential element of TBL is peer evaluations. Team members must provide both qualitative and quantitative feedback to each other at least twice during a semester. Along with the value of receiving formative feedback from peers, providing written feedback to colleagues is an important life-skill that many students do not usually practice. By making peer evaluations part of the end-grade of a course, students are more likely to take the collaborative process more seriously.

The rhythm and structure of TBL is designed so that even the least-experienced TBL facilitator can readily support student learning effectively because students are fundamentally engaged via the TBL format. As students work together, they feel responsible to one another and the team’s overall success. This compulsion helps students form a sense of camaraderie that often accompanies them into other classes.

The biggest challenge for the TBL facilitator is asking the right questions and designing activities that illicit student curiosity and critical thought. It is well-worth the effort! Once an instructor uses TBL in a single class, the urge to use it in every following course becomes almost overwhelming, as TBL is invigorating and promotes high energy in the classroom.

TBL Resources

To get started with TBL, check out the following resources:

  • See the Team Based Learning Collaborative website to get a good overview of TBL, read about its history, and review the research that supports TBL.
  • Consider joining the TBL listserv on the TBL website by Jim Sibley, a faculty developer in Vancouver, Canada.
  • Listen to the Teaching Commons Podcast inaugural episode featuring TBL Consultant and UNT Faculty, Professor Judi Bradetich and recent TBL convert, Dr. Jessica Craig, talk about how they have utilized TBL in their classes.
  • See the CLEAR TBL Library guide page for a list of online resources and articles to get started with TBL. See the TBL Handouts for more about the TBL format and process.
  • If you are interested in how to teach TBL in online classes, see the TBL Collaborative webpage: TBL Online.

To keep going with TBL, contact other UNT professors who are using it in their classes. Many are willing to have observers come to class. A group of interested faculty has started to meet informally to check in, problem-solve, share experiences, and brainstorm. The meetings are casual and do not require special invitation. To get involved, email TBL Consultant and UNT Faculty, Judi Bradetich at