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Team-Based Learning: A Transformative Use of Small Groups in College Teaching

Edited by Larry K. Michaelsen, Arletta Bauman Knight, and L. Dee Fink
Stylus Publishing, LLC
304 pages
ISBN: 1-57922-086 X
$24.95 (paper)

Reviewed by

Joe Grimes

Center for Teaching and Learning
California Polytechnic State University,
San Luis Obispo


Any person interested in learning more about how to plan, assess, and use team-based learning as a teaching method will find Team-Based Learning of great value. The editors, who have authored chapters in the book, have been engaged in small-group learning for many years, in Michaelsen’s case more than 20. The book is pedagogically sound, first addressing the elements of the approach of teaching and learning and then whether or not the team-based learning teaching strategy will enhance desired learning outcomes. All of the authors exhibit excitement about their experiences, and the support material on the Web indicated that Michaelsen’s primary objective is to promote the use of the team-based learning. The bibliography contains an extensive list of references that may be used to explore specific areas in greater depth. My personal interaction with the editors causes me to conclude that their motivation for this book is to assist faculty in their goal to enhance teaching and learning through a team-based learning strategy.

In fact, “strategy” is a key concept to the authors, as opposed to “technique,” and is different from other uses of small groups in casual groups and cooperative learning. The chapters, written by fourteen authors, cover foundation elements of team-based learning in Part I; individual experiences of ten faculty members who have used team-based learning in courses in their disciplines, in Part II; and why faculty have chosen to use team-based learning and how they move their classes to provide an excellent learning experience in Part III. The five appendices contain frequently asked questions as well as strategies, tools and materials that might be used.

I recommend reading the first chapter and the frequently asked questions in Appendix A before going on to the rest of the book because Appendix A addresses four groups of faculty who should not try to use team-based learning, instructors who

  • are not sure what they want students to do beyond the goals of “learn and remember”;
  • feel threatened by frequent student challenges, especially when they come from students united in groups;
  • really enjoy the “performing” aspect of teaching; or
  • are unable to invest the time needed to redesign their approach to teaching.

Chapter 1 distinguishes among types of small-group learning (casual, cooperative, and team-based) with special attention given to the commonality and difference between problem-based learning and team-based learning. The chapter asserts that team-based learning is transformational, and the rest of the book is intended to demonstrate that assertion. It also identifies key characteristics of good teams and explains how they may be achieved.

Chapters 2 and 3 deal with best practices for taking initial steps toward team-based learning. Based on my personal experience, the first steps taken are most critical to success in the classroom using this strategy. Because the assignment is so important, almost the entire focus of the third chapter is on that topic.

Chapter 4 summarizes research on groups in the learning process, focusing on creating teams that bring adequate knowledge and talent to the assignment. Assessment is based on the work and its environment, with techniques for motivating team members to perform the task at an appropriate level. Table 4.4 summarizes key ingredients for highly effective groups. An important conclusion is that research data doesn’t provide a recipe for success but does provide excellent guidance.

Part II is encouraging for all those who are considering using the team-based strategy. It illustrates that there is no one fixed formula that must be used, that difficulties encountered during the first attempt can be overcome and be used as an excellent basis for discovering best practices, and that team-based learning may be used in any discipline and with any class size.

Based on the experiences of the ten authors of Part II, the strategy to be used in team-based learning would appear to differ from discipline to discipline, and would be influenced by the characteristics of the students. Although not specifically stated, Part II indicates that the traits of the faculty member must be considered in developing the specific model for team-based learning. It would be helpful to have summary guidance regarding this process. All of the authors are so enthusiastic about this strategy that the reader may be lulled into believing that it will provide a silver-bullet method of enhancing teaching and learning. Based on personal experience, team-based learning is excellent but in every course there will be frustration and the greatest risk will be using new unsolved problems each time, although using unsolved problems will provide excellent experiences. Even if the author’s discipline is not closely related to one’s own, there are valuable insights that may be extended to other fields.

Significant material is provided to help college teachers to develop the learning outcomes to be achieved, to determine the assessment methods, and to employ team-based teaching strategy to achieve outcomes. One key to success in this team-based learning is a well designed assignment combined with measures to reduce or eliminate barriers, such as inclusive balanced intellectual involvement for all team members, balanced workload for all team members, and integrating individual team results in the whole-class discussion. A checklist of elements that should be considered is included. However, those elements alone do not assure success and other areas of difficulty are presented in examples in Part II. The authors claim that elements of success with team-based learning are

  • exposure of students to more material,
  • improved retention,
  • focus on student learning, and
  • greater excitement for the faculty member.

The five appendices, which contain a wealth of information, provide excellent materials to assist in making decisions and to support team-based learning efforts. Frequently asked questions appear as Appendix A. Appendix B addresses the scoring of a peer evaluations and the importance of including them in the experience. Appendix C explains how to include the students in the grading weight process and the exercise in helping students determine if the class is appropriate for them. Appendix D provides excellent resources that may be used or adapted as support for the instructor in the team-based learning class.

This book is an excellent guide for someone interested in the team-based learning strategy and would help to determine if this approach is right for the reader’s use. If determined that it is, then it would be an excellent guide toward implementing the transformation of a course. Also, it provides guidance to overcome obstacles that are encountered during the planning and execution of a course. Although I was already familiar with team-based learning, I found significant new information as a result of reviewing this book and related support materials.

My personal experience with team-based learning has been with courses in computer science/computer engineering. Changing the software engineering class from a traditional mode to team-based learning resulted in greater student involvement, better retention, enhanced achievement of outcomes (based on the use of analogous assessment methodologies), and the achievement of extended outcomes. Probably a contributor to these outcomes was my improved ability to observe students as individuals and get to know them better. I began without prior experience of working in a team or much awareness of what should be done based on published material or the experience of colleagues. If this book had been available, my initial endeavors would have been simplified by following its recommendations on team formation, better understanding of learning outcomes, enhanced feedback to students through better and more frequent peer and instructor feedback, better team working space in the classroom, alternative paths that may be taken when a difficulty is encountered; as well as the tools that are provided and the general experience that the authors bring to the subject.

A limitation of my experience has been unknown project results because the teams were developing brand new software, but the teams were nevertheless able to develop it successfully. The team-based learning approach has been an excellent one for me, but it will be even better in the future when approached as a strategy with the additional knowledge gained from this book.

For readers not yet persuaded to acquire the book, the next step might be to visit the Web site associated with the authors,, which supplements and is complementary to the book content. A set of video clips that illustrate how teams should function is especially useful.

Posted February 10, 2006.

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board. ©2006 by Joe Grimes.

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