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Phil Ruder: Team-Based Learning

Introduction: Team-Based Learning

Phil Ruder has taught economics at Pacific University for more than two decades. It’s fair to say he has spent a lot of time thinking about ways to energize the classroom and engage students as active participants in their own learning. There are many active learning strategies out there, and Phil has tried quite a few of them, but the methodology that seems to match his teaching style the best is Team-Based Learning (TBL).

If you visited Phil’s classroom at the start of a module, you might see students taking Individual Readiness Assurance Tests (IRATs in the TBL literature) or with their teams huddled over IF-AT scratch cards (they look a little like lottery tickets!) as they complete the Team Readiness Assurance Test (TRAT). If you check back later in the module, you would see student teams working together to complete application exercises and then debating other teams about why their solution to the application problem is the best one.

Regardless of when you visit Phil’s classroom, you will undoubtedly see a lot of activity. Phil’s course is designed to require every student to actively engage–before class with preparatory materials and in-class with each other. Active learning strategies like TBL don’t always match students’ expectations of what happens in a college classroom, but Phil’s experiences and the research show that when students are actively engaged, outcomes improve for students and teachers.

Watch the video below to learn more about how Team-Based Learning has transformed Phil’s courses:

What is Team-Based Learning and How Does It Work?

Team-based learning is a framework for designing a course around specific kinds of small-group work. There is a prescribed rhythm of preparation and application activities that take place inside and outside the classroom. It’s important to understand the key components of TBL and how those components provide structure and support this specific way of learning.

Teams – At the start of the course, students are sorted into permanent “teams” of 5-7 members. The make-up of teams should be as diverse as possible to ensure that each team has a range of strengths, experiences, and perspectives.

Modules – In the TBL framework, course content and student learning objectives are chunked into small units or “modules”. Though the length of each module varies with each course, a typical module might span 4-6 class meetings. The module is designed around a three-step cycle:

Preparation (before class) – To be able to fully and meaningfully participate in the challenging and complex application exercises in a TBL module, students must come to class on the first day of the module cycle prepared. In most cases, this requires them to complete reading outside of class.

Readiness Assurance (~ one class meeting) – Before proceeding with application exercises, the instructor must be sure that students have sufficient understanding of the necessary concepts, frameworks, formulas, etc. TBL uses a specific procedure (Readiness Assurance Process) and specific tools (Readiness Assurance Tests) to make sure that students are ready to proceed to application. At the start of each module, after they have prepared outside of class, students take a Readiness Assurance Test (RAT) – a short test consisting of 5-20 multiple choice questions. Students first take the test independently (IRAT). Then they take the same test again in their teams (TRAT). The scores from both tests count toward the student’s course grade. Based on the results of the RATs, the instructor reviews concepts and helps students clarify their understanding.

Application (~ several class meetings) – After students’ baseline understanding is assured, they are ready to move on to applying that understanding. In TBL, the Application Exercises (AES) take place in the classroom and require student teams to work together to solve “relevant, significant problems”. These problems are often challenging, complex, and don’t have a clear “right” answer. It is important to note that all teams work on the same problem simultaneously and report out their answers at the same time. This provides a valuable opportunity for students to consider how other teams thought about and solved a problem, and to discuss/debate various solutions.

Team-Based Learning draws on the benefits of active learning, peer teaching, flipped-classroom, and other learner-centered strategies. Using the TBL framework can help instructors create an energized learning environment where students not only learn how to take responsibility for their own learning but also how to be accountable to their team. To learn more about TBL and to engage with the wider TBL community, explore the resources below.


Further Reading

Online Resources


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