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On the first day of class, when I'm introducing Team-Based Learning to my students, I often hear a few groans. I ask the students how many have been involved in team work or group work before. I ask the ones who have for some pros and cons. One of the most common “cons” is the problem of freeloaders in the team--students who will sit back and let the others do the work and who will receive the same grade as the rest, regardless of the effort that they have put forth.

Many students complain about the difficulty of finding time to get together with their team. That truly is a problem these days, when many of our students are working and/or have families. Unfortunately, the students who don’t have those kind of demands on their time often tend to blame the ones who do for being unable to make it to the meetings.

My students have also observed that cliques tend to form in the classroom and frequently within their team. They may have found that some students on the team are overly assertive and forceful in their opinions, while many are much less assertive and opinionated but just as likely to have correct answers.

The students do have some “pros” associated with teamwork. They recognize that everyone has different knowledge that they bring to the team or to the group, and that that is an opportunity to learn from one another. Other people bring experience that individual students might not have. The students learn to rely on others in the team when challenges arise, when they're unable to complete a project or meet a commitment. Finally, they’ve seen friendships and alliances form within the class that can extend well beyond the class.

But it's the “cons” that will be detrimental to Team-Based Learning if not addressed. Most concerns can be addressed through one of the two essential elements of TBL. The first essential element is proper team formation. It is up to the instructor to form the teams and make sure that team formation is transparent and criterion based.

The second element that address these concerns is student accountability. In team-based learning the students are accountable not only to themselves, but to their teammates, as well as to the teacher. In explaining these ideas to the students, they become more comfortable with the idea of using TBL in the classroom.

Forming teams

Depending on the size of the class, I try to form teams of 5-7 students each.

Diversity is important. We find that instructor-divided teams can be more diverse. Each student brings different knowledge to the teams.

And the teams are permanent. That’s important.

It takes a while for a group of students to actually become a team, where they are accountable to each other, they work well together, and they can solve problems together. So in team-based learning, the teams that are formed in my classes on the first day of class remain in place until the end of the semester. All teamwork is completed with the same individuals.

One simple way to form teams is to have students line up and count off. This will work for a class size up to about 100 students.

There are different ways of having the students line up.

It doesn't matter how you sort your teams. What you need to do is make sure that you have criteria that allows for a diversity within the teams and that allows for equitable distribution of the important resources around the classroom.

After you have sorted your students, they will count off by the number of teams that you want to have in your class.

Remember, you want to have teams that are fairly large, five to seven students each. If you have a class of 70 students, you'll have ten teams of seven. Have the students count off one through ten and then start over again. Each of the numbers will form a corresponding team.

If you have fewer students, say 25, you can have three teams of six and one team of seven, for a total of four teams.

The only reason that you would rearrange teams after this transparent formation would be to ensure diversity.

For instance, research has shown that mixed-gender teams do much better than single-gender teams. Where I teach, it's primarily nursing and health-related students. Male students are few and far between. If it happens that I have five men in a class, and they end up being distributed among only two out of, say, six or seven teams, then I want to rearrange the teams so there is only one man on each of them.

If a team happens to be formed of students who are mostly from a single major, you will want to redistribute those, so that again you have a more even distribution of resources.

If you rearrange teams like this, be sure you explain to the students what you’re doing and why. Transparency is really important—it enables the students to trust in the process as well as in the instructor.

Once the teams have been sorted, I have the students convene in teams to introduce themselves and to exchange contact information, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and maybe a little bit of background information about each other. I also have them choose a team name. I find a team name gives them a sense of identity and belonging.

Now that teams are formed, how do we first introduce accountability into team-based learning? I schedule a practice team-based learning module early. On the second day of class, the students will take an Individual Readiness Assessment Test (IRAT).

Then they will reconvene and take a Team Readiness Assessment Test (TRAT). Students tend to like that because it's the first time that they can discuss the answers.

Then they do an application exercise. The students learn how to contribute to problem solving.

This readiness assurance test, on the second day, is sometimes based on the syllabus. But if you really want to get right into the meat of the content, you can base the test on the introduction or the first chapter of the textbook. (Using the syllabus has the advantage of ensuring that the students have read it.)

Finally, after we have completed the application exercise, or after we have completed discussion of the application, I allow the students to do an initial peer evaluation. They can see how they will be evaluating the other people on their team throughout this semester and at the end of the semester, when the peer evaluation will be taken into account for grading purposes.

I also have them do a formative peer evaluation midway through the semester. This is largely to give the students who think they are doing okay, but who their teammates don't perceive as contributing much, time to change how they are working and contributing.

Then finally, there is a summative peer evaluation at the end of the course. That is the point at which the peers really have to consider what the individual contributions have been, how each team member contributed, what their strength and weaknesses were as team members. You can find peer evaluation forms in Appendix B of this report.

The following books also have good peer-evaluation models in them:

You can also design your own peer evaluation form. What is it you think your students need to be addressing when they're looking at their peers? How do we give and receive positive feedback?

You can also refer to the team-based learning collaborative website for some examples of peer evaluation.

Excerpted from A Simple Introduction to Team-Based Learning.

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