• Resources
  • News
  • GSTA Blog
  • A tale of two teachers: Using team-based learning as a graduate student TA and early career faculty

A tale of two teachers: Using team-based learning as a graduate student TA and early career faculty

27 Jan 2020 12:00 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

By Yuliana Zaikman1, Jamie S. Hughes2, and Laura Madson3

1 Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi

2 The University of Texas of the Permian Basin

3 New Mexico State University

As a graduate student TA, should you seek training in a specific teaching strategy, like team-based learning (TBL), inter-teaching, or cooperative learning? What are the risks and benefits on the job market and as an early career faculty member of having adopted a specific teaching strategy? Two of us (YZ and JH) tried team-based learning as graduate students while being mentored by LM. YZ and JH continue to use it as early- and mid-career faculty members. Our experiences with TBL have featured unexpected benefits and challenges. We will start by shortly explaining what TBL is and then discuss some of the benefits and challenges we experienced with it.

A typical TBL module takes 2-4 weeks of class time. In TBL, the majority of class time involves students working in permanent teams (5-7 students) on disciplinary tasks that require and reward creative, critical, and collaborative thought (Michaelsen, Knight, & Fink, 2004; Sibley & Ostafichuk, 2014; Sweet & Michaelsen, 2012). For example, the instructor might ask teams to choose a mental illness that disrupts the most of one’s daily routine and have the teams justify their choices. Teams work on the same, significant problem, make a specific choice, and report their choice simultaneously. After within-team discussion, all teams report their choices and the instructor leads the full class in a discussion of different teams’ reasoning for their choices. Because there is no “right” answer, this discussion and students’ understanding of the material is enriched when teams disagree.

TBL is a complete teaching strategy that guides all aspects of course design and assessment and leads to improved learning and student engagement (Madson, Zaikman, & Hughes, in press). In TBL, the instructor’s job is not to lecture about the material, but rather to create learning opportunities for the students to get hands-on experience with the material while working with their team members. Team activities can be graded or ungraded and students can complete typical individual examinations as well.

TBL can be fun and engaging for instructors and students. Instructors can get to know their students better, and students (along with instructors) feel a greater sense of accomplishment after having fully explored and applied subject matter following activities and tests. Within- and between-team discussions expose students to different perspectives and allow students to practice oral communication and critical thinking skills. Further, student attendance, conversations, and course evaluations suggest they are engaged and enjoy the work.

In addition to providing a more engaging and fun way of teaching, YZ believes that TBL may provide a leg up on the job market. It gave her something additional to discuss in her teaching philosophy statement and during interviews. Search committees almost always asked her something about TBL, and it felt amazing to be knowledgeable about such a progressive and fun method of teaching.

There are some challenges with TBL, especially for a beginning graduate student or early career faculty member. One challenge was the necessary mental shift about the role of the instructor. For example, YZ’s original reaction to TBL was, “What do you mean I am not the center of attention, the fountain of knowledge the students ‘have’ to listen to?” YZ resisted at first. Even recently, YZ noticed that she lectured much longer than is normal for a TBL classroom. However, over time one becomes more comfortable with the flow of the TBL classroom and we feel “off” if we lecture for more than 15 or 20 minutes. 

Another challenge with TBL is that creating interesting and productive activities is not easy. It is sometimes very difficult. For example, it is important to create activities that interest and engage students and that require students to make a specific choice. Open-ended questions can be challenging because they can be less conducive to teamwork. It can be incredibly time consuming to develop all course materials before the beginning of the semester. This means that during your first three to six years as an assistant professor, you will spend much of your time developing new courses or revising courses you had taught before. However, the amount of time spent developing courses early on is similar to the amount of time others spend to create engaging courses or lively lectures. We also find that creating activities can sometimes be even more rewarding than writing lectures.

Starting out we created some very interesting, challenging, and engaging activities, as well as many activities that were not stimulating or challenging and were just plain bad. Over time we began to understand, more intuitively, the types of questions and response options that work best for team activities. For example, overtime we discovered the types of answers that might be attractive given a question, but that are nonetheless not correct. Creating questions with really good distractors takes practice. For example, the best activities are those in which teams must debate options that may seem equally attractive. There are workshops available through STP or the TBL collaborative that can help one improve in a number of areas, such as activity or multiple-choice question development.

Another potential challenge of TBL is the amount of support you have surrounding you. It is highly dependent on your institution whether or not you will have teaching assistants or graders. If you have activities for every single class, someone needs to grade those! This is where having a grader can be VERY helpful, particularly if you teach large sections. However, it is not impossible to teach TBL without graders (JH has never used a grader but has had small class sizes (n < 30)). You can have students complete the activities for completion grades, or grade random questions, or you can grade only one or two components of an activity (e.g., tell teams that you’ll collect answers to questions 1 and 3).

The lack of support can also manifest itself in lack of understanding from (or among) faculty members in your department. JH’s first department did not understand why she was using TBL. Her approach to teaching was very different from the normative method and several believed that her non-conformity was troublesome. Fortunately, JH was able to make a move to another university and her new work team encouraged her independence in the classroom.

What can you do even if you don’t have a mentor like LM in your life?

There are a lot(!) of resources about TBL online. We recently published an article about the applicability of TBL in psychology, but there are whole websites (http://www.teambasedlearning.org/; http://www.learntbl.ca) that have very useful tools for TBL. There is also a Facebook group that is primarily dedicated to TBL in psychology (https://www.facebook.com/groups/337832243746295). You can join it and reach out for ideas or tips. Through these domains you can try and find a mentor – someone who already practices TBL and can provide you with support while you embark on this wonderful journey of TBL[sf1] . We have found that students in TBL classrooms are more engaged, have more opportunities to practice applying and evaluating course concepts, and have more opportunities to form bonds with their classmates compared to lecture-based classrooms. As instructors, we have more opportunities to get to know our students, we find teaching TBL more challenging, and in short, we have more fun than we did using lecture methods. We hope you will give TBL a try and experience its benefits.



Madson, L. J., Zaikman, Y., & Hughes, J. (in press). Psychology teachers should try Team-Based Learning: Evidence, concerns, and recommendations. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology.

Michaelsen, L. K., Knight, A. B., & Fink, L. D. (Eds.). (2004). Team-based learning: A transformative use of small groups in college teaching (1. Stylus paperback ed.). Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Sibley, J., & Ostafichuk, P. (2014). Getting started with team-based learning (1st ed.). Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Sweet, M., & Michaelsen, L. K. (Eds.). (2012). Team-based learning in the social sciences and humanities: Group work that works to generate critical thinking and engagement. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing


Yuliana Zaikman, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor at Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi. She teaches social psychology, human sexuality, experimental psychology and media psychology. Her research interests involve gender inequality such as the sexual double standard.

Jamie Hughes, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor at the University of Texas Permian Basin. She teaches courses on social psychology, psychology and law, research methods, and statistics.  She conducts research related to teaching pedagogy, moral psychology, and social justice.

Laura Madson, Ph.D. is a Professor in the Psychology Department at New Mexico State University. She teaches 300-400 Introduction to Psychology students every academic year using team-based learning, has written a textbook specifically for use in her team-based learning Intro Psych classes, and offers regular workshops on team-based learning for the Teaching Academy. She also teaches a graduate course in the Teaching of Psychology. Her scholarship focuses on helping instructors adopt team-based learning.

Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software