What's the buzz about team-based learning?


A student team discusses tradeoffs associated with sustainability in setting local planning priorities during a Theory of the Planning Process class taught TBL-style by Jane Rongerude, assistant professor of community and regional planning. The topic for the week was sustainability. Photo by Amy Vinchattle.

Some college classes are not what they used to be. And that may be a good thing.

A relatively new teaching method, called team-based learning (TBL), is getting the attention of faculty members at Iowa State. Why? Students are reading the assigned materials, they are engaged in classroom discussions and, quite simply, they are actively learning.

What is TBL?

TBL is a type of small-group learning that can be adapted for small or large classes. It provides students with a small-class feel even in a room with 60-plus individuals. The emphasis of TBL is team collaboration, which gives students problem-solving experience, something they likely will encounter in their future careers. A more detailed explanation of TBL is available on the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) website.

How does a TBL classroom work?

Faculty members may tweak TBL classes to meet their specific needs, but most include these four components into their curriculum:

  • Permanent teams
  • Readiness assurance
  • Application activities
  • Anonymous peer evaluation

Monica Lamm, associate professor of chemical and biological engineering, began using TBL during spring semester 2012. Her classes follow the classic TBL structure. Here's how it works.

At the beginning of the semester, Lamm divides students into balanced teams of five to seven, making sure each group comprises individuals with diverse skills. The students remain in their assigned teams the entire semester.

Lamm assigns readings and a problem that students must solve by themselves prior to class. Once in class, Lamm gives the students a readiness-assurance test to assess their knowledge of the assignment. Students then have a chance to ask questions before joining their teams.

During class, Lamm gives the teams one or more challenging problems to solve. The students must work together, using their assigned texts, to come up with solutions. All the while, Lamm is mingling among the teams, listening to their discussions and providing assistance as needed. Once a team comes up with the correct answer, the remaining teams have two minutes to complete the problem. She then conducts a mini lecture to cover the concept in greater detail.

Lamm grades students based on team answers and group participation; students also grade their team members. Students still must take individual tests to ensure they understand the coursework.

TBL impacts student learning

Lamm has witnessed a marked change in her students since implementing TBL.

"There is more engagement from the students. My section sizes have grown from 40 to 80 students recently, and this large group is nearly 100 percent engaged," Lamm said. "I couldn't get that in a lecture format."

Jane Rongerude, assistant professor of community and regional planning, also teaches TBL classes and said her students have become more active learners.

"The students have become more engaged," Rongerude said. "They have the ability to communicate their ideas. They articulate, take risks, engage the material and texts, and use those texts to back up their arguments. The texts and books have more relevance. That's very exciting to me as a teacher."

The difference isn't lost on students.

"TBL makes you much more involved in the class, hands down," said senior Alexander Eppel, a student of Rongerude's. "If you didn't do your readings or homework, your teammates knew that you were slacking. This pushed me to always come prepared to class. This made me a much better student because I wanted to thrive and show my team that I was well prepared for the challenges we would face in class."

Eppel added that hearing different perspectives from his teammates, as well as Rongerude, provided more viewpoints about a topic, deepening his understanding.

How to get started with TBL

CELT is a valuable resource for faculty interested in learning more about TBL. Each semester, CELT offers a weekly team-based learning circle where faculty members and graduate students can learn how to create a TBL class. The learning circles are taught as a TBL, giving instructors the opportunity to participate in a TBL class while they design their own classes. The spring 2014 learning circle schedule begins Thursday, Jan. 30, and continues each Thursday through Feb. 20 (1:10-2:30 p.m., 2030 Morrill). Registration is available online.

After mastering the basics in the learning circles, faculty are invited to join the team-based learning community to hone their skills.  The schedule for the learning community is in the works, but typically meets every other week of the semester. Contact CELT, 4- 5357, for more information.