Dan Richert

Team-Based Learning For Practice and Motivation

Spotlight, June 2016

Dan Richert uses Team-Based Learning (TBL) in his Informatics I-308 Database Design and Data Retrieval class. The TBL method and variations of it have been used in every imaginable discipline, not just computing. Students take quizzes in class to ensure they come prepared and collaborate during class in problem-solving exercises.

Team-Based Learning (TBL) is a motivational framework through which students hold each other accountable for preparation and contribution. It structures courses so that students come to class prepared, participate in team problem solving, and compete with other teams to create good projects—all the time practicing new mental processes. Developing new mental moves and leaving old ones behind is one of the challenges that all learners face. TBL helps learners meet this challenge by setting incentives so students are less likely to slip back into old, comfortable, and possibly incorrect ways of operating that don’t match the critical thinking of the discipline.

Students in Richert’s database course encounter three bottlenecks to learning. The first bottleneck is the concept of entity-relationship diagrams—placing the everyday words of a customer into categories for a database. Designating the categories and matching items to the categories is a new kind of thinking for most students. The second bottleneck is reasoning in SQL, a relational database, which differs from the programming languages they previously learned. The third bottleneck is dualism—the students want to find a “right” answer (Perry, 1999), but there are many ways to design a database and multiple correct answers. The fact that making mistakes is common in programming is part of this bottleneck.  With these bottlenecks in mind, Richert designed the course so students would be sure to know what the expert does to get through them.

Richert selected the TBL method, which uses authentic problems, so students would create the database categories and try out various designs for the database, practicing the new concepts while explaining ideas in their teams. For effective practice students need repeated practice and they need the sub-skills to be built up over time. Richert is able to add one new skill onto another as the teams gain confidence with each one.

TBL also addresses motivation issues. Students hold each other accountable for coming to class prepared and contributing to the team projects—they can tell if a teammate is not keeping up. Richert has heard his students tell teammates, “I’m sorry, I didn't get a chance to read it before class. I’ll make sure not to do that again.” TBL classes are “flipped” so that first exposure to content takes place outside of class (Walvoord & Anderson, 2011) and much of the in-class time is used for teamwork.  On some days students must come to class prepared for an individual quiz and then immediately re-take it as a team.

How do students react to the TBL method? Overall they like it and say that it helps their learning. Two students explained why:  “If you make a mistake and someone else makes a different mistake, you learn off of each other.” “It’s intimidating to ask questions in a quiet room with just the teacher speaking,… I don’t know how I could [learn databases] without asking my peers around me for help and going over things.” Richert’s students feel more comfortable asking questions and taking feedback in the team format.

Richert’s use of the official TBL method includes three accountability structures: 1) for preparation (individual and team quizzes); 2) team scoring; and 3) challenging problems. But variations on team learning exist—along with alternative accountability structures, such as Just-in-Time teaching warmups or entry ticket assignments.

Instructors wishing to use team learning effectively will want to change their grading scheme. In traditional courses much of the grade may be based on the intellectual product, whether exams, papers, or projects. With team learning the grade needs to be distributed across all the accountability structures—for the intellectual products, preparation, and team effort. To incentivize preparation and discourage free-riding in teams the grading scheme might consist of:

  • Course projects (the intellectual product) 40–45% of the course grade
  • Preparation for class (~40%)
  • Team contribution (10–20%)

All of these accountability structures improve student perseverance as they learn new mental habits.

Watch for answers to these questions in the video:
0:04  How did you teach prior to using TBL?
0:17  What was the bottleneck to student learning?
1:03  How does team work motivate?
1:42  How does TBL work?
3:11  What do you like about the TBL method?
3:45  How do you form teams?
4:35  How do you come up with good in-class problems?
5:28  When did you get the TBL method working well?
6:41  What suggestions do you have for those who want to try TBL?
7:45  How do you check student understanding (CATs)?
8:34  How do the students react to TBL?
9:16  Do you have evidence that TBL improves learning?
10:12 What do students say about TBL?


Michaelsen, L. K., Knight, A. B., & Fink, L. D. (Eds.). (2002). Team-based learning: A transformative use of small groups. Greenwood publishing group.

Middendorf, J. & Shopkow, L. (forthcoming).  Decoding: Teaching Students Critical Thinking.

Perry, W. G. (1999). Forms of ethical and intellectual development in the college years: A scheme.

Walvoord, B. E., & Anderson, V. J. (2011). Effective grading: A tool for learning and assessment in college. John Wiley & Sons.