Getting Medieval with Team-Based Learning

Last fall, I began teaching a section of my department’s Medieval World course, a prospect which made me equal parts nervous and excited, as I discussed here. I’m pleased to report two related developments. First, the class wasn’t a dumpster fire (Huzzah!). The student evaluations was overwhelmingly positive, the quality of work and discussion was significantly higher (and I’ve got rubrics to prove it!), and my D/F/W rate was a fraction of the average for 100-level courses. So the early returns look promising. Second, I’m now teaching the course every fall, at least for the foreseeable future. So I’m one week in to the second iteration of Gannon’s Medieval World History Extravaganza (come for the global focus, stay for the bad jokes!), and feel like I’m at a point where I can meaningfully reflect on the pedagogy I’ve used to make the course (at least thus far) a successful one.

Two summers ago, as a result of a wonderful 3-day workshop on our campus, I decided to use Team-Based Learning (TBL) as the pedagogical framework for this new prep of mine. TBL is an intensive, team-oriented, semester-long structure where students work as teams to apply course content to a variety of problems and activities. The model is predicated on a flipped classroom; in-class time contains very little, if any, lecture or rehash of basic content. That alone appealed to me; I’ve been moving away from the coverage-obsessed, lecture-driven model for the survey course over the last decade, and TBL seemed like a logical next step with which I could experiment.

The basic structure of TBL is this: I divided the course into modules, and for each module, we followed the same routine. Before the first day of the module, students read text material or source documents, often supplementing this with brief multimedia clips I loaded on our LMS. In class on the module’s first day, students complete what the TBL lingo calls the RAT (Readiness Assurance Test). There’s an individual, objective quiz over the content they take individually (the iRAT) and then, when everyone’s finished that, they take the same quiz as a team (the tRAT). For the tRAT, they use a special scratch-off answer sheet with a star under the correct answer (the “IF-AT” sheets–more on those here). If the team guesses incorrectly on a question, they can still select their 2nd or even 3rd choice, and earn partial credit. The RAT sequence is to measure preparation and basic content literacy; it’s a low-level Bloom’s Taxonomy exercise, meant to reinforce the need for preparation and ensure that students have the content down enough to do the good stuff. And that good stuff is what we do for the rest of a particular module: Application Exercises. Teams receive a prompt, or a problem, or a set of documents, or whatever else they need to complete the application. Then they get after it–at the end of the time window (usually the last 10 minutes or so of class), each team reports out their conclusions or shows everyone the product of their labors. I might use 5-6 minutes every so often for a mini-lecture that sets up the application exercise more clearly, or provides deeper historical context for the problem, but usually we dive right into the work. For each module, we repeat: RAT process on the first day, Applications for the rest.

So what does this look like in practice? The short answer: Amazing. I vividly remember the first iRAT and tRAT day last Fall: I was unsure how it would go, but when the tRAT started, and the teams were buzzing back and forth about which answer to select, and why, I was almost giddy with the degree of engagement I saw. Imagine a table of five or six students, all of them leaning in to look at the quiz, and instructing one another about the material. “No, man, Islam is an Abrahamic faith–remember how the text talked about the ‘People of the Book’ thing?” “So wait–how important was the Orthodox Church for early Byzantium? More important than the emperor?” And on it went–in an 8:00 AM class, no less! That first day, I was hooked. I haven’t had that level of engagement that early in a semester since, well, ever. It was awesome. And when we do the Application Exercises, the same process plays out. To cite one example, my students work with their teams to use the examples of the collapse of both the western Roman Empire and Han Dynasty and create a theory of why empires fall; they have to use their readings in both the textbook and primary sources to assess what factors they think played the most significant role in this process, and why. And then they present their theory to the rest of the class and defend their arguments against the others teams’ counterarguments. That’s high-level, thinking-like-a-historian stuff. And I didn’t have to do any lecture or regurgitation of the content to get them there. We don’t have class, we have History Lab. And it rules.

At this point, there may be some eye-rolling going on. Sure, dude, it’s great; after everyone’s done working harmoniously in teams you all gather around the whiteboard and sing kum-ba-yah, right? DIRTY HIPPIES. Don’t you even teach? Or are just a bystander who makes them do all the work? Fair questions, I guess. This is a radically different pedagogy, especially for my field. We historians live in mortal fear that somehow, some way, students will miss a shred of content, and thus NEVER learn it. OMFG I DIDN’T LECTURE ON BACON’S REBELLION I HAVE FAILED YOU ALL. TBL requires letting go of the lecture, abandoning the idea of being the exclusive purveyor of content. And, frankly, for some faculty within and outside of my field, that’s too much to ask. I got some significant pushback from colleagues when I told them how I was going to teach this course. Would students learn content like they would in “regular” classes? Would they write? Analyze sources? Or was I just indulging in a teaching fad, OK for “those folks” in the sciences and health professions, but unsuited to such noble endeavors as historical study?

Well, I replied, can y’all demonstrate to me that our students are learning content well in our “regular” classes? Can y’all prove to me that the “regular” way is the preferred methodology for some reason other than disciplinary inertia? Instead of asking me to prove to you that an alternate pedagogy is superior to the “regular” way, how about proving to me that the “regular” way is worth keeping?

I didn’t get asked many questions after that.

Now, to be fair, there are some legitimate questions about TBL as a pedagogy that I needed to answer satisfactorily for myself and my students before I could proceed. Think of the following as a TBL FAQ:

How is TBL different from regular group work?

Here’s what I put in my syllabus (you can access the full document at my page):

TBL is not the same as “group work”, such as you might have experienced in the past. So if you’ve done group work before, and it’s been frustrating/lame/a waste of time, be assured that this is different! Here are some of the most important advantages that Team-Based Learning has compared to typically-assigned, regular group work :

It doesn’t suck.

Teams are structured, and work is assessed, so that individual members can’t “freeload” off of the others. Everyone is accountable, and assessment fairly reflects your efforts.


We’ll use the team-based system throughout the entire semester; teams will remain the same, giving you them the chance to gain cohesion and become consistently successful.


Team activities will occur in class; you will not have to meet as a group outside of class (unless you want to!), so don’t worry about having to juggle schedules and find common times: our class time is the common time.


This system will enable us to do really cool things during our time together, interact with the material in more interesting ways, and you’ll get a lot more out of this class than you would if I just lectured at you.


Worth repeating: It doesn’t suck.

Also important: the teams stay the same all semester. This consistency is vital; there’s social bonding, to be sure, but the level of comfort teammates reach with one another really pays dividends as the semester goes on; teams become a safe space to take intellectual risks and flaunt one’s creativity. That makes for some great results in the Application Exercises.

Pretty sweet gig–they do all the stuff out of class AND in class, and you just hang out, right?

Well, I don’t “run” the class, nor am I the center of focus for a majority of the time. To those who’d argue that I’m not “teaching,” I’d counter that I am not merely dispensing information, I’m not lulling my students into complacency by spoon-feeding them what’s “important,” nor am I satiating my own ego by waxing profound at a captive audience. But I am most assuredly teaching. I create a structure and an environment where students take ownership of their learning, and of their application of knowledge. I design opportunities for students to hone their problem-solving, analysis, and higher-order thinking skills in a vibrant and challenging setting. I coach, I encourage, I consult, I affirm, I redirect, I monitor, I challenge, and I guide. I stay busy.

What about the one slack-ass who sponges off the rest of the group? How do you deal with the wannabe “free riders?”

Great question! I’m glad I asked it. This person–the dreaded free rider–is the bane of collaborative work. He (and in my own experience, it’s always been a “he,” for whatever reason) is the reason that most of us soured quickly on group projects in college. Dude; sorry I missed the meeting in the Library–we had a morning happy hour with the pledges and I got totally wrecked. Jaeger-bombs, man!  DIE IN FIRE, SLACK BOY.

It's always this guy.
It’s always this guy.

In TBL, there are regular opportunities (biweekly in my class) for self- and peer-assessment. There are a number of ways to do this. My process is fairly simple: I tell everyone they have up to ten fictitious dollars to “pay” every individual on the team–including themselves. On a piece of paper, they write down how much–zero to ten fake dollars–they would pay each team member, and how much they would pay themselves. And they have to write a couple of sentences for each person explaining why the rate of “pay” is what it is. I take each team’s scores, and average them out for each student. The resulting number of points is entered in the gradebook; the total for all of these assessments works out to almost 20% of their grade. That’s a big swing; a “free rider” cannot really get above a C+ in the course–and that’s assuming they’ve done everything else for full credit. With this exercise being done anonymously, the students are pretty honest. If someone on the team is slacking, they aren’t afraid to tell me in this assessment–and then I can enter a comment in the online gradebook alerting this particular student to the need to get their act together and be more of an engaged participant. One other notable feature of the assessment: a majority of the students rate themselves lower than their teammates, even some of those who’ve emerged as leaders. I’m not sure if it’s modesty, or perfectionism, or what–but it’s interesting. And the one or two slackers? They’re pretty honest, too, in these assessments. The TBL structure, enforced consistently, offers students a fair way to make sure the contributions of team members–good and less-than-stellar–receive fair consideration.

So what’s the verdict?

For my larger survey classes (25+), TBL has been a transformative pedagogy. It’s particularly appropriate for these settings, I think; the number of teams works in favor of robust discussions, as an element of collaboration within and competition among teams can be leveraged. Last spring, I tried the structure with a smaller group, and it didn’t work as well; I’m not sure if that was the function of fewer teams, or the specific class dynamic. But I’ve concluded that I’m going to keep TBL for my larger survey sections. The beginning of this semester’s Medieval World class has already demonstrated enough to affirm that decision; the students have jelled nicely into their teams, and we’re off and running into our first module this week.

If you’re looking for a way to rejuvenate the survey course, and to get away from lecture-driven, passive pedagogy, TBL is worth checking out. It will likely challenge your assumptions and received wisdom about pedagogy, but it will also help you build an engaged and empowered class environment where genuine learning (as opposed to mere reception of content) can and does occur.


Note on Resources:

There are a number of resources available via the TBL Cooperative website. The foundational text for TBL is Michaelsen, et al., Team-Based Learning: A Transformative Use of Small Groups in College TeachingSee also Jim Sibley, Getting Started with Team-Based Learning, which was a crucial part of my own preparation.  More field-specific collections of case studies and TBL research include Michaelsen and Sweet, eds., Team-Based Learning in the Social Sciences and Humanities: Group Work that Works to Generate Critical Thinking and Engagement and Michaelsen, et al., eds.,Team-Based Learning for Health Professions Education: A Guide to Using Small Groups for Improving Learning