Frequently Asked Questions

Will TBL work for my subject matter?

YES – This is one of the most common early questions. It starts with “I can see how this works in other disciplines, but not mine.” Doesn’t matter who I talk to….the Scientist can imagine it working in the Humanities…someone from the Humanities can imagine it working in Science. Let me assure you, it works in any discipline where you want the students to learn how to use the course content to solve problems. I think our addiction to content clouds our judgement and the incorrect belief that we won’t cover all that content versus the idea that we need to create conditions for students to learn the content is unsettling. I seen it work in subjects from glass blowing to computer aided surgery to auto mechanics. It works!

Can I still cover all the content?

YES – This is often a concern about any classroom activities that they will take time away from “covering the content.” Studies that have compared a TBL section to a didactic section have found the the TBL section can cover more material and the students perform better on examinations. Ironically, when surveyed the students still preferred the didactic section (by a small margin).

Haidet P., Richards B., Morgan R.O., Wristers K., Moran B.J. (2004) “A controlled trial of active versus passive learning strategies in a large group setting.” Adv Health Sci Ed, Volume 9 No. 1: 15-27

Is TBL right for everyone?

NOT FOR EVERYONETBL requires careful up front preparation. If you are a last minute person you probably will not do well in the TBL classroom. Students are sometime uncomfortable in their new active role and will happily blame your disorganization as the source of their pain. TBL requires you to give up your central role as expert and conveyer of knowledge, instead you create the correct conditions for learning by getting your students prepared and asking the right question the right way. Often the difference is described as “Sage on the Stage” versus “Guide on the Side”, but TBL is more like “Sage on the Side”. Your expertise and short clarifications at teachable moments is extremely important to deepen student learning.

What are common student complaints about RATs?

Students will say “testing before teaching makes no sense” – you will hear it, if you don’t properly sell the idea of TBL and explicitly highlight the purpose of the Readiness Assurance Process. Which is low stakes tests that get students ready for the main course – learning how to apply the course content in the Application Activities.

Good student sometimes worry about lower grades on iRATs and voice these concerns. Our iRAT average is typically 65-70% and tRAT averages of 95-100%. Good students sometimes need to be reassured that the RAT’s don’t count for much, there focus is on learning, and the high team scores will pull up their RAT grades.

How often should I give RATs?

A common early mistake is to give too many RAP’s. Giving RAP’s tests every week is usually too often unless classes are long and only meet weekly. Typically we do a RAP every 2-3 weeks in a regular 13 week course. Remember the Readiness Assurance Process is just about getting students the minimum they need to begin problem solving. The students will learn plenty more during the Application Activities. In certain course configuration with long class meetings once a week, short readings and weekly RAP’s can make sense. Better to have too few, then too many – remember these aren’t about testing, there about getting your students ready for problem solving.

How much should the RATs count?

Not too much – If you assign a large grade to each RAP, you can turn it into high stakes testing. Assign just enough to make it worthwhile for students to do the readings and prepare. The typically range for a RAT is 2-5% for iRAT and 2-5% for tRAT. We have always used 1.5-2% for each RAT.

What kinds of questions are good questions for the RATs?

RAP questions are typically constructed at Bloom’s levels Remember, Understand and light Application. The RAP test highlight concepts more at a table of content level than index level. Remember these questions are  just to get students ready for the activities that follow. These are not final summative tests of all that has been learned.

What makes a good application question?

Often questions that ask – pick the best course of action from a list of reasonable courses of action. You want the team to use large complex and incomplete data sets, be forced to use inference, make assumptions explicit and use measured judgements to arrive at that “simple” decision. These kinds of analysis can lead to powerful reporting conversations. Remember that the 4 S are not optional. People who are new to TBL, but not new to teamwork often create activities that don’t include some of the S’s. Don’t. The 4S structure lets you consistently generate great activities and reporting discussions. In the interview for my book, people with more TBL experience most often had greater fidelity to the 4S structure. The 4S framework gives you some structure to relax into. When a teachable moment comes by, you are often in a better position to capitalize on the opportunity.

What kinds of questions don’t work for application activities?

The most common problem is questions that are too simple. If a student can sit back and watch the brightest student in the groups solve the problem, many students will do exactly that. This unleashes all sorts of group dysfunction.

Should I grade application activities?

Depends. There is a diversity of opinion on this issue. We have never graded application activities, but we do collect a worksheet from each team after each one. We tell students that the only time we may look at these worksheet is when students are close and want the bump to the next higher letter grade. We have had no issues with students willingness to engage in ungraded application activities.

If you do grade the activities, you need clear deliverables and grading rubrics to accurately assess each teams submission. Many people have started with graded application because they worried that students would not engage with activities unless they were worth marks. This turn out to not be true and ungraded applications let you turn up the difficulty of the application without the backlash from students when they “get the answer wrong” on graded difficult applications. Remember, the goal here is a great reporting conversation, not getting the right answer.

What are common student concerns about grades?

In any kind of group work, students often have concerns that their grade depends on their less capable peers. That is one reason to keep the TBL portion of course grade modest. In most of our TBL courses, the TBL portion is only 25% and the other 75% is traditional things like individual assignments, midterms, and finals. In that 25% portion it is often 10% iRAT, 10% tRAT and 5% peer evaluation. If you have 5 modules with 5 Readiness Assurance Processes than individual iRATs are only worth 2% a time and tRATs are only worth 2% a time.

How do I handle student that don’t participate or “free ride”?

It is not a problem. This problem actually disappears when we get the task right. When an instructor comes to me with this problem, the first place we look for the source of the problem is the assignment itself. Team-Based Learning could easily be called decision based learning…teams are naturally pretty good at decisions (think of courtroom juries). Large product based assignments often spawn group dysfunction. If I am a C student and want a C at the end of the course and you are an A student…you are likely going to be unhappy with the quality I do….does the A student step in and redo the C students grade. This will likely make everyone in the group unhappy. Get the question right and everything seems to fall into place.

Is peer evaluation really necessary?

Absolutely – the peer evaluation process needs to have enough teeth that good students are rewarded for their work and students who don’t prepare as well or don’t contribute don’t benefit by the higher team grades.